Poor and Desperate, Pakistani Hindus Accept Islam to Get By

Of note:

The Hindus performed the prayer rituals awkwardly in supplication to their new, single god, as they prepared to leave their many deities behind them. Their lips stumbled over Arabic phrases that, once recited, would seal their conversion to Islam. The last words uttered, the men and boys were then circumcised.

Dozens of Hindu families converted in June in the Badin district of Sindh Province in southern Pakistan. Video clips of the ceremony went viral across the country, delighting hard-line Muslims and weighing on Pakistan’s dwindling Hindu minority.

The mass ceremony was the latest in what is a growing number of such conversions to Pakistan’s majority Muslim faith in recent years — although precise data is scarce. Some of these conversions are voluntary, some not.

News outlets in India, Pakistan’s majority-Hindu neighbor and archrival, were quick to denounce the conversions as forced. But what is happening is more subtle. Desperation, religious and political leaders on both sides of the debate say, has often been the driving force behind their change of religion.

Treated as second-class citizens, the Hindus of Pakistan are often systemically discriminated against in every walk of life — housing, jobs, access to government welfare. While minorities have long been drawn to convert in order to join the majority and escape discrimination and sectarian violence, Hindu community leaders say that the recent uptick in conversions has also been motivated by newfound economic pressures.

“What we are seeking is social status, nothing else,” said Muhammad Aslam Sheikh, whose name was Sawan Bheel until June, when he converted in Badin with his family. The ceremony in Badin was notable for its size, involving just over 100 people.

“These conversions,” he added, “are becoming very common in poor Hindu communities.”

Proselytizing Muslim clerics and charity groups add to the faith’s allure, offering incentives of jobs or land to impoverished minority members only if they convert.

With Pakistan’s economy on the brink of collapse in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, the pressures on the country’s minorities, often its poorest people, have increased. The economy will contract by 1.3 percent in the 2020 fiscal year because of the pandemic, the World Bank predicts. And up to 18 million of Pakistan’s 74 million jobs may be lost.

Mr. Sheikh and his family hope to find financial support from wealthy Muslims or from Islamic charities that have cropped up in recent years, which focus on drawing more people to Islam.

In Jerusalem’s Old City, The Devout Adjust To Worship In The Coronavirus Era

Of interest and in sharp contrast to some congregations elsewhere who have ignored or defied public health measures:

“The air over Jerusalem is saturated with prayers and dreams like the air over industrial cities,” wrote Yehuda Amichai, one of the city’s beloved poets, in 1980. “It’s hard to breathe.”

Now it’s hard to pray.

In the historic walled Old City, the beating heart of a place sacred to millions around the world, a second wave of the coronavirus has challenged devout communities to rethink how to pray safely. This spring, Jerusalem’s revered religious sites closed partially or fully as prayer gatherings were blamed for some infections. Now Israel permits houses of prayer to operate under restrictions.

New customs accompany old worship rituals: a grid of prayer quadrants at the Western Wall. Only clergy permitted at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. “Place your carpet here” stickers on the floor of the Al-Aqsa Mosque grounds to keep worshipers distanced.

Here are some of the newest rituals surrounding Muslim, Christian and Jewish prayer in Jerusalem’s Old City.

Bring your own carpet

The Al-Aqsa Mosque, where tradition says the Prophet Muhammad journeyed to heaven, reopened in late May after Muslim authorities closed it to the public for more than two months — its first lengthy closure since the Crusaders captured it in 1099.

Worshipers are now asked to perform the wudu, the ritual washing of parts of the body, at home. Volunteers at the mosque provide hand sanitizer and masks. Participants are also asked to bring prayer carpets from home, to avoid touching the carpeted floor inside the mosque building.

“I have never used as many small carpets as nowadays,” said Mustafa Abu Sway, a member of the mosque advisory council, sitting next to his yellow carpet outside the mosque. “It just goes to the washing machine, because you don’t know what it has been contaminated with.”

Israel restricts prayer gatherings in Jerusalem — initially capped at 50 worshipers, then 19, and now 10 — but Al-Aqsa is hosting several thousand every Friday for the main prayers.

That’s partly to maintain a Palestinian presence at a compound also revered by Jews as the site where the Biblical temple once stood. Orthodox and right-wing Israeli Jewish activists are increasingly paying politically sensitive visits to the mosque grounds and lobbying to allow Jewish prayer there, which Palestinians see as hostile efforts to seize control at the site.

Muslim officials also believe they can hold prayers safely by spilling over into the mosque’s vast outdoor complex. Stickers on the floor show worshipers how to keep spaced at a healthy distance, with partial success.

“It would be a pity if everything is shut down. I mean, you need a place, a source of hope, a source of light, to invigorate people and give them a break,” said Abu Sway.

A recent sermon implored worshipers not to spread false rumors about the pandemic and to take it seriously. After prayers on a scorching Friday, thousands poured out of the Old City holding prayer carpets on their heads and refreshing frozen pops in their hands.

Celebrating Mass on Facebook Live

Nearby, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the traditional site of Jesus’ crucifixion, is closed due to the pandemic — except to the clergy who continue their daily rituals inside, behind its wooden doors.

A short walk away, St. Saviour’s Monastery hosts Jerusalem’s main Roman Catholic Mass, with a small women’s choir and no congregation onsite.

For months, Father Amjad Sabbara held a series of mini-Masses, with 19 participants each, so everyone in his Palestinian parish could attend a socially distanced Mass at least once a month. Now, with a second wave of infections afflicting Jerusalem’s Palestinian neighborhoods, congregants watch from home on Facebook Live.

“It’s better, you know, for the protection of the people and the families,” Sabbara says. “It’s better to stay in their homes. And in this way, we can pray together.”

It’s in their homes where his congregants need him most. Sabbara has set up a special counseling hotline and says he’s getting a lot of calls about family tensions from being cooped up at home during the pandemic.

On a recent Sunday, he offered his homily in Arabic and raised a golden goblet and round communion wafer, all in front of a web camera.

Somehow, two devoted churchgoers managed to slip into the closed, cavernous church. They were allowed to stay.

No kissing the Torah scroll

Jewish prayers continue at the Western Wall, a remnant of the ancient Biblical temple compound. But the outdoor prayer plaza is now divided into quadrants designed to keep worship groups small.

Nearby, at the Ramban Synagogue in the Old City’s Jewish quarter, longtime elementary school teacher Yehezkel Cahn, 71, oversees the morning prayers — for several dozen worshipers sitting six feet apart in designated seats — as if the synagogue were his classroom. He’s drawn cartoons with handwritten instructions: No wearing masks on your chin. No turning on the ceiling fan.

“Because the corona goes from his nose to my mouth,” Cahn says.

Another sign reads: “Don’t try to be a wise guy! You have no permission to use the prayer books of the synagogue.”

Cahn wears blue surgical gloves as he cradles the Torah scroll, turning his back as he passes a veteran white-haired worshiper. He says the man often forgets the synagogue’s new health rule against kissing the scroll, a traditional sign of respect performed by touching the scroll and then kissing one’s own hand as it is paraded around the congregation.

“I don’t want him to kiss,” Cahn says.

Cahn repeatedly looks at his watch, to usher in three shifts of morning worshipers in 45-minute slots. He’s keeping the prayer groups small. Inside the synagogue, he allows no more than 10 men. That’s the minimum quorum required by Orthodox Judaism for Torah readings and certain prayers — and the government’s latest restriction on indoor gatherings is 10 people. Whoever doesn’t get a seat indoors prays in the courtyard.

As with efforts by Jerusalem’s other major faiths, it’s an attempt to protect worshipers’ safety during the pandemic while permitting the uninterrupted rhythm of religious life.

Source: In Jerusalem’s Old City, The Devout Adjust To Worship In The Coronavirus Era

Pakistan: Ancient statue of Buddha destroyed as un-Islamic


Last Friday, an ancient statue of Buddha was vandalised in Takht Bahi, Mardan district (Khyber Pakhtunkhwa).

The statue was destroyed as “un-Islamic” by the workers who found it (pictured) whilst digging to lay the foundations of a house.

The ancient artefact belongs to the historic Gandhara civilisation which encompassed the region of modern-day north-western Pakistan, more or less Peshawar valley and the lower valleys of the Kabul and Swat rivers.

Gandhara is the old name for the Pakistani province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. It is highly revered by Buddhists and is deemed an important regional site of Buddhist civilisation.

On Saturday, videos of the destruction went viral on social media. They show a man breaking the statue with a big hammer, with other men expressing their approval and some taping the whole thing.

Pakistani media have reported that four people involved in the incident were arrested.

In 2017, two rare and ancient Buddha statues were found in Bhamala, an archaeological site in Hariput district. The largest statue ever found on the site depicts Buddha’s death whilst the second statue was a Buddha with a double halo.

According to Abdus Samad Khan, head of the province’s archaeology department, the vandalised Buddha statue was 1,700 years old; the broken pieces were recovered to assess their archaeological value.

Following the incident, various news channels and social media discussed the protection of others’ beliefs in the country.

Whilst the Pakistani constitution respects all religions and all faiths are sacred for their followers, many activists and leaders have come out against the destruction of the statue of Buddha. For Samad Khan, it was a “crime” and showed “disrespect for religion”.

Later, police arrested a local contractor and five other people suspected of breaking antiquity regulations.

Two rare and ancient Buddha statues were unearthed in Hariput district in 2017, noted Mansha Noor, executive secretary of Caritas Pakistan in Karachi,

“Breaking this ancient statue of lord Buddha shows ignorance of history and a lack of education,” Mansha said. “Our country is filled with minerals and hidden history. We need to educate our nation about other owners of this land.”

In ancient times, Gandhara was a trading and cultural crossroads linking India, Central Asia and the Middle East.

Source: PAKISTAN Ancient statue of Buddha destroyed as un-Islamic

Multiracial Congregations May Not Bridge Racial Divide

Interesting study and findings:

Twenty years ago, a sociologist at Rice University, Michael Emerson, directed a study of efforts by white evangelical Christians to address racial inequality. His provocative conclusion, summarized in his book Divided By Faith, co-authored with Christian Smith, was that evangelicals “likely do more to perpetuate the racial divide than to tear it down,” largely because they tended to worship in racially segregated congregations and viewed racial prejudice as an individual, not a societal, problem.

The book, published in 2000, captured wide attention in evangelical circles and was featured on the cover of the magazine Christianity Today.

Emerson then proposed an answer to the problem he had highlighted: If Christians of different racial backgrounds began worshipping together, he suggested, racial reconciliation could follow. In a 2004 book, United By Faith, a sequel to his earlier book, Emerson and a team of collaborators called for a new church movement.

“The 21st century,” they argued, “must be the century of multiracial congregations.”

Emerson, who is white, became personally committed to the cause, moving his own family into a mostly African-American congregation. He soon became a godfather of sorts for the multiracial church movement, consulting with congregations around the country on how to promote diversity in worship. The key, Emerson argued, was to do it with deliberate purpose.

“You put it into your mission statement,” he said in a 2019 interview with NPR. “You think about who is up on the platform during worship and who is put into leadership and the ministry. You think about the artwork and the books you’re using and the music you’re playing. Does it reflect all people or only one culture?”

For many, the multiracial church movement appeared to be a good idea, attracting both whites and people of color.

In Columbus, Ohio, Korie Little Edwards, who was attending a Black church, was one of those intrigued by the promise of more diversity in her worship experience.

“I bumped into someone who said, ‘Hey, I go to this multiracial church, and it’s down here in the city. Why don’t you check it out?'” Little Edwards told NPR. “And I thought, ‘Yeah, well, why not?'”

Little Edwards teaches sociology at the Ohio State University, but at the time her interest in the church was personal.

“I had this idea that, ‘Yeah, this would be really great,'” she said. “I thought, ‘This will be a place governed by Christian ideals, a place where people can come and connect with one another and support one another.’ I was thinking that multiracial churches could be an answer to racial inequality.”

In the years that followed, Little Edward’s interest in the multiracial church movement became professional. As a sociologist of religion, she wanted to see whether diverse churches could help break down racism, and she began visiting congregations and interviewing members and church leaders with a team of research assistants, identifying the strategies they followed and the problems they encountered.

A church transformed

In Fort Worth, Texas, a white Southern Baptist pastor named Randal Lyle heard about Michael Emerson and his multiracial church movement and resolved to diversify his own nearly all white church, Meadowridge Baptist. The obstacles were quickly apparent.

Lyle’s youth minister organized a basketball league for African American youth from the neighborhood. When he learned some were devout Christians, he invited them to visit Meadowridge, Lyle says, only to be rebuffed.

“A young man told him, ‘I’m not going there. That’s a white church,'” Lyle says. He and his staff took the comment to heart.

“Our church was probably like most,” he told NPR. “We’d say we would welcome anybody who wants to come here, but what we meant was, as long as they do things exactly how we do them.”

After reviewing Michael Emerson’s books and videos on the subject, Lyle realized big changes at his church would be needed. He changed the sign out front to say, “All Races United In Christ.” The staff bought new toys for the children’s room, making sure they reflected racial diversity. They changed the artwork in the church, and Lyle organized a choir.

“When I first came here, I said, ‘We’re not going to do choir,'” Lyle said. “But then we began to think, ‘This community is primarily African American and Anglo. Choirs are huge in an African American church.’ So we realized we need to have a choir.”

The effort proved largely successful. The membership at Meadowridge Baptist is now about one-third African American, and the number of Latino members is growing.

“I needed a different experience,” says Myrtle Lee, 73, who left the Black church she had been attending and joined Meadowridge with her two sisters. “I wanted to worship with everybody that I worked with. I work with not just Black people. I wanted to go to church with those same people.”

One of her sisters, Cecilia Rhodes, says it took a while to get accustomed to worshiping in a predominantly white church.

“Sometimes, there was stares,” she says. “People looking at you kind of strangely. And then I just made it my mission to hug. So I started hugging people.”

Curtis Hudson, who is African American, joined Meadowridge with his wife Andrea, who is white, shortly after they moved to the Fort Worth area.

“We were looking for a church, and what we found were either all white or all Black,” Hudson says. “And then Andrea did a Google search for ‘mullticultural churches,’ and this church came up. So we said, ‘Let’s check it out.'”

Meadowridge remains today one of the few intentionally multicultural churches in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

“I’d love to say it’s not rare,” says Myrtle Lee. “I’d love to say that. But I think it is.”

A one-way movement

The number of multiracial churches has actually been growing in the United States. A recently completed survey of congregations by Michael Emerson, now at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and Kevin Dougherty of Baylor University found that the share of churches defined as “multiracial,” with at least one out of five members from a minority background, grew from six percent in 1998 to 16 percent in 2019.

During that time, however, those multiracial churches did not themselves become significantly more diverse. The African American membership share in these churches grew only slightly, from 16 to 21 percent and actually declined between 2012 and 2019. The white membership share in multiracial churches from 1998 to 2019 remained nearly unchanged at about 50 percent.

“Integrated churches are tough things,” says Keith Moore, a Black pastor in Montgomery, Ala., who works closely with local white pastors. “When you see both African Americans and Caucasian Americans [in a church], it’s more than likely to have a Caucasian pastor,” he says. “I think it’s sometimes more difficult for whites to look at a black pastor and see him as their authority. That’s a tough call for many.”

As a result, Moore says, African Americans ready to worship in a multiracial church are often forced to accept white leadership and a different worship style.

“You have to abandon some of your ethnic culture and become more palatable to the majority white culture,” Moore says, “give up some of the old traditional African American experience to fit in. So there is a sacrifice.”

Moore’s impressions, in fact, are supported by the research of Emerson and Dougherty.

“All the growth [in multiracial churches] has been people of color moving into white churches,” Emerson says. “We have seen zero change in the percentage of whites moving into churches of color.” Once a multi-racial church becomes less than 50 percent white, Emerson says, the whites leave. Such findings have left Emerson discouraged.

“For the leaders of color who were trying to create the multiracial church movement,” Emerson says, “they’re basically saying, ‘It doesn’t work. The white brothers and sisters just won’t give up their privilege. And so we’ve been defeated, in a sense.'”

The continuing power of race

In Columbus, Ohio, Korie Little Edwards found a similar pattern in her own research. After her personal interest led her to join a multiracial church, her subsequent study left her skeptical that such churches were making the difference in promoting equality that she had hoped to see.

“I came to a point where I realized that, you know, these multiracial churches, just because they’re multiracial, doesn’t mean they have somehow escaped white supremacy,” she says. “Being diverse doesn’t mean that white people are not going to still be in charge and run things.”

In her book The Elusive Dream: The Power of Race in Interracial Churches, Little Edwards argued that people of color often lose out.

“The pain people experience is not feeling like they’re accepted for who they are,” she told NPR, “not being able to be themselves, not being able to worship how they want to worship, feeling like you have to fall in line with what white people expect you to do.”

In their own churches, Little Edwards says, African Americans often dress formally and expect worship services to last about two hours on average. When they join diverse churches, they generally find the white members insisting on shorter services and favoring more casual dress.

Beyond style differences, Little Edwards says, Black people in a multiracial congregation may be reluctant to push for a leadership role and feel pressure instead to settle for a visible or symbolic position, as a greeter or usher or musician.

“What’s at work here is the power of whiteness,” she says. “And what whiteness says is that people who are white are understood to be dominant and understood to be in charge.”

Little Edwards herself continues to attend a multiracial church, but that feature is not what binds her to the congregation, and her view of the value of integrated churches has shifted somewhat.

“I would argue that the goal shouldn’t be diversity,” she says. “Rather, all churches are called to be places of justice, uplifting the oppressed. That is what the Christian faith is. All churches, regardless of their racial and ethnic composition, should be like that. And then you can move toward integration.”

Source: Multiracial Congregations May Not Bridge Racial Divide

Coren: The Hagia Sophia is now a mosque – and a victim of Turkey’s profane politics

Good column by Coren:

In 537 AD – as the story goes – Byzantine Roman Emperor Justinian first laid eyes on Hagia Sophia, The Church of the Holy Wisdom and the largest building in the world at the time, and declared edificial triumph over a biblical king: “Solomon, I have surpassed thee.” It was fair comment: The fourth church to be built on the spot in this city that was once called Byzantium and then Constantinople, the building he saw then was magnificent. Using stone from as far away as Egypt, more than 10,000 craftsmen spent six years constructing it.

We’re not entirely sure what Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is saying right now, but it’s likely he doesn’t particularly care what Justinian, King Solomon or anybody else might think. In a decision that has attracted international disapproval, the hardline nationalist announced last week that Istanbul’s 1,500-year-old Hagia Sophia, which has since become a museum, would become a mosque.

History is central to understanding the conflict. As the cathedral of the Patriarch of Constantinople before and after the Great Schism that divided Western and Eastern Christianity into Catholic and Orthodox, the Hagia Sophia became one of the most important Christian sites in the world. But in 1453, the Ottoman Turks took the city, and Sultan Mehmet II announced that the church would be known as the Great Mosque of Aya Sofya. The mihrab, indicating the direction of Mecca, replaced the altar; Mehmet’s successors made further alterations. Still, the Hagia Sophia remained sacred for Orthodox Christians the world over.

The Ottoman Empire declined in prestige over the centuries, and when the “sick man of Europe” finally passed on, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk – the founder of modern Turkey – initiated a relentless campaign of modernization and secularization. Part of his battle with the country’s conservative faithful was resolved in 1934, when the mosque became a museum; the Hagia Sophia has since become Turkey’s most popular tourist destination, with almost four million visitors a year. It seemed a glorious compromise.

On Friday, however, Turkey’s top administrative court annulled the Hagia Sophia’s museum status. Within hours, the Islamic call to prayer was recited, and the museum’s social-media pages were shuttered. Lina Mendoni, Greece’s culture minister and a world-renowned archeologist, responded to the announcement angrily: “The nationalism displayed by President Erdogan takes his country back six centuries,” she said, adding that the ruling “absolutely confirms that there is no independent justice” in Turkey.

The Russian Orthodox Church claims that its concerns were never given proper hearing when the transition was being considered, while other Eastern Orthodox leaders have condemned the decision. UNESCO, under which the building was protected as a World Heritage Site, urged Turkey to delay any change until further discussion had taken place.

None of that seems to concern Mr. Erdogan, since the Islamic traditionalists who have long called for this will guarantee him power in once-secular Turkey. That tension – between the temporal and the spiritual – is at the heart of this provocative and potentially dangerous move.

Turkey is home to a modern, non-religious, educated class that looks to Europe and liberal democracies. But for those outside that class – and they are now perhaps the majority – Mr. Erdogan and his systematic and sometimes brutal policy of Islamization represents the fulfillment of a long-awaited ambition. The President sees himself as leading the Muslim world, just as did the Sultans before him – even if it sows profound division – and this irresponsible if unsurprising action is central to that.

Turkey also does not have an impressive record of tolerance for Christians. Only about 300,000 now live there, comprising a meagre 0.3 per cent of the population. The Armenian Genocide between 1914 and 1923 in Turkey saw the murder and expulsion of 1.5 million ethnic Armenians, almost all of them Christian; despite the overwhelming evidence, the Turkish government refuses to acknowledge or take responsibility for that mass atrocity.

As a museum, the Hagia Sophia did not satisfy everybody, and there were Christians as well as Muslims who imagined a once and future religiosity. But for most, it had become a vibrant symbol of moderation and understanding, and a meeting place for all people from all faiths and backgrounds. That vision has evaporated.

It remains to be seen if this will further isolate Turkey, and exactly how Vladimir Putin – the leader of Eastern Orthodoxy’s super power – will choose to react. What we do know is that the world is a slightly darker and less gentle place than it was a week ago – one in which there is less of the spirit of Solomon’s famed sagacity, and more regression because of craven political nationalism.

Source: https://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/article-the-hagia-sophia-is-now-a-mosque-and-a-victim-of-turkeys-profane/

Prevent doesn’t stop students being radicalised. It just reinforces Islamophobia

Interesting survey. Whether the issues are with Prevent itself or more generalized attitudes towards Muslims and media coverage is unclear:

The UK government has long maintained that radicalisation is a problem in universities and that Prevent, the national counter-terror programme, is an essential means of tackling it. Yet recently the Office for Students reported very little such activity: in 2017-18, only 15 referrals were made by universities to Channel in England (the Prevent rehabilitation programme), and it is unlikely that all 15 were found to be terrorism-related.

Despite a clear lack of evidence of radicalisation in universities, Prevent training continues for staff. Indeed, a major new report of a three-year study of Islam on campus shows that almost 10% of all students believe there may be some risk on their campus. Our research reveals that Prevent reinforces negative stereotypes of Islam and Muslims: 20% of students believe that Islam is not compatible with British values; among those supportive of Prevent, the figure rises to 35%.

This project, led at Soas University of London by myself and Dr Aisha Phoenix, with Professor Mathew Guest (Durham), Dr Shuruq Naguib (Lancaster) and Assistant Professor Dr. Sariya Cheruvallil-Contractor (Coventry), is the largest data set yet collected about Islam on campus. In total, 2,022 students attending 132 universities answered a detailed online survey. We also collected and analysed 140 hours of interviews from six campuses.

Our research finds that Prevent discourages discussion about culture, identity and religion – especially, but not exclusively, about Islam. Students and staff are discouraged from raising concerns about Prevent. They self-censor their discussions in order to avoid becoming the object of suspicion and are sometimes discouraged from exploring, researching or teaching about Islam. They see this as a counterproductive policy in the light of the perceived need for securitisation to fight terrorism, which trumps all other human rights.

On the other hand, 59% of students said they’d never heard of Prevent, yet many of those then expressed opinions about it, from an apparently non-existent knowledge base. When students are kept ignorant, this creates a democratic deficit: the student population should be fully informed about Prevent, about perceived and actual risk, about the facts and figures, and encouraged to debate these issues. Honesty and clarity are urgently required.

There’s so much more that the campus offers. The university population is religiously and culturally diverse, and despite the secular tone of the modern campus, most of our student sample believe that religion is an important source of moral values. Almost 70% of Muslim students and 56% of Christian students believe that university provides a valuable opportunity to develop their faith in new ways. And 79% of Muslim students believe that the university experience should encourage critical thinking about matters of faith.

Source: Prevent doesn’t stop students being radicalised. It just reinforces Islamophobia

The Somali atheist activists who get death threats

Of interest:

Somali atheists in the diaspora are running a Facebook group to challenge their community’s Islamic beliefs, but they often receive death threats, writes journalist Layla Mahmood.

“I am going to kill you. I am going to find you. I am going to cut your head off,” was one of the threats that Ayaanle, a Canada-based Somali atheist, received.

“[But] that’s kind of normal,” the founder of the True Somali Freedom Page (TSFP) says sardonically as he talks about the death threats that clog his inbox.

The popular Facebook group, which has more than 80,000 members, is predominantly led by atheists, or “ex-Muslims”, as they refer to themselves.

It was initially inspired to create a safe space for religious discussion and now promotes all forms of freedom for Somalis who feel marginalised by mainstream Somali culture.

Ayaanle did not want to give his full name. He told me how the movement began.

Ejected from group

Around 2016, he stumbled across a Somali Facebook group that purported to be a space for free speech and debate.

“I got into a discussion about religion and everybody just erupted. They went ballistic. They made me feel like I killed someone.”

He was swiftly removed from the group, a common experience for those who express contrary views in this kind of Somali forum.

‘A space to be free’

Ayaanle then felt the only way forward was to create a new platform, with new rules.

“I wanted [the TSFP] to be a place where… people could be free to say whatever they liked.”

A driving force for Ayaanle stemmed from his belief that contemporary Somali discussions about religion had become increasingly restrictive in the aftermath of Somalia’s decades-long civil war.

“Islam is untouchable. You cannot criticise or say anything about Islam.

“Right now the young people are changing, they are a little more tolerant to debates and criticism.

“[But] many of those who grew up in Somalia and came to the West during and after the civil war accept the idea that if someone criticises Islam they should be killed. They really think it’s something valid.”

Hence the death threats that he has received.

“That’s one of the things I want to put out there and what I have the page for – to show that Islam is not untouchable. It can be criticised, it can be debated and it can be talked about openly.”

In Somalia and the breakaway state of Somaliland, blasphemy is a jailable offence, and the TSFP has set out to challenge this.

It campaigned and raised money for the academic Mahmoud Jama Ahmed-Hamdi. He was a university lecturer who was arrested for writing a Facebook post that questioned the validity of praying to God as a means of relieving the drought in 2019.

He served 10 months in prison before receiving a presidential pardon, but is still at risk from vigilante attacks. One prominent imam called for his execution.

The case demonstrates the complexity of how power operates in Somalia and Somaliland, with the line between religious leaders and government being significantly blurred.

Fear of exposure

Somalis have not only been using the group as a platform to debate, but, in some cases, as a means of survival.

Some of the most at-risk groups in Somalia who have put messages on the TSFP are Christians, atheists and LGBT individuals.

These are people who grapple with the constant fear of being exposed and are subjected to attacks and imprisonment.

One way that the TSFP helps is through raising money and the cash has bought plane tickets and helped with living expenses.

This was the case when a Somali Christian woman in Kenya used her publicly accessible identity to leave a comment on the TSFP.

Her identity was quickly discovered and a video of her being dragged out of a taxi in Kenya was widely shared on Somali internet channels. The attackers threatened to expose her because of her criticisms of the Prophet Muhammad on the page.

The TSFP arranged for her to be moved to a different country, where she has now found safety in a Christian community.

Careful investigation

But it is not just non-Muslims, ex-Muslims or LGBT individuals who reach out to the group.

A Somali man living in Sudan contacted the TSFP after being physically attacked on the street by a group of men who he believed ascribed to Wahhabism – a form of Islam that is often associated with a more rigorous and extreme interpretation of the Koran and teachings of the Prophet Muhammad.

He was discovered, following criticisms on Facebook that he made about some Hadith, statements attributed to the Prophet Muhammad. The TSFP arranged for him to be relocated from Sudan to a safer place.

The volume of requests that the group’s administrators get means that those who want help have to be carefully vetted.

“We research and investigate,” Kahaa Dhinn, a Norway-based women’s advocate who has become a leading figure on the page, says.

“We ask their tribe name and their family names. We then look at their Facebook profile and talk to people in the group to see if anyone knows them. If they don’t tell us who their tribe is, we know they’re lying.”

Kahaa collaborates with the TSFP but has a separate Facebook and YouTube account, which she uses as a platform to talk about issues affecting the Somali community.

‘I know where you live’

Her main focus is to empower Somali women, but like Ayaanle, she is also an outspoken atheist, which has made her a target.

“They threatened to kill me with knives and said ‘the Muslims will kill you and you will die in their hands’.

But the threats appear not to dampen her conviction: “I’m not afraid of them. They want to silence me through fear.”

Norwegian arrest

Her fearlessness is emboldened by the knowledge that she lives in a country where threats have consequences.

In Somalia, killings and attacks rarely get investigated but in Norway she has got the police involved.

“Two of the guys who threatened me were using their real profiles and the police were able to arrest them,” she says.

Ayaanle echoes this sentiment but knows that there are some who are not so lucky.

“A lot of Somalis who are on the page don’t show their faces – the ones who say they are non-believers – because they’re scared for their lives,” he says.

‘I feel relieved’

The fact that Ayaanle and Kahaa have distanced themselves from Islam has not meant that they have distanced themselves from being Somali, despite the two being intertwined.

“I actually feel more Somali, like I have my real identity back,” says Kahaa.

But Ayaanle stresses that the group’s intended aim is not to convert Somali Muslims into atheists, or into any other non-conformist identity, but to create an environment that promotes freedom of expression and speech. Something he believes Somalis need now more than ever.

“So, it’s small steps. But we are winning some hearts. We really believe that people should believe what they want to believe and be who they want to be.”

Source: The Somali atheist activists who get death threats

Removal of Islamic Motifs Leaves Xinjiang’s Id Kah Mosque ‘a Shell For Unsuspecting Visitors’

Of note:

Since 2016, the Chinese authorities have been systematically destroying mosques, cemeteries, and other religious structures and sites across the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR). Last year, the Washington-based Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP) published a report detailing this campaign, titled “Demolishing Faith: The Destruction and Desecration of Uyghurs Mosques and Shrines”; the report was referenced in the 2020 annual report of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). The report uses geolocation and other techniques to show that anywhere between 10,000 and 15,000 mosques, shrines, and other religious sites in the XUAR were destroyed between 2016 and 2019. In some cases, only the domes and towers were destroyed from certain structures, while in others, characteristically Islamic elements such as stars and crescents, domes, and scripture plaques were removed. In some cases, entire mosques have also been felled.

China has made no official response to the report or to claims about the large-scale and widespread destruction it has undertaken. However, the Chinese authorities have continued to bring international visitors to mosques such as Id Kah in Kashgar, as well as to other religious sites around the region, and to publish articles depicting the mosque in state-run media, all in support of the official line that Uyghurs enjoy religious freedom in the region.

Id Kah is the largest and oldest mosque in the XUAR and the largest mosque in all of China. Uyghurs have long regarded Id Kah as a symbol of Islamic culture and a representative of Islamic architecture in the region. While the mosque is still standing mostly intact today, there are some very alarming signs that it is merely a shell of what it used to be. In 2018, authorities removed the star-and-crescent structures from the tops of the mosque’s dome and minarets, along with the colorful scriptural plaque that long hung above its front entrance. As of 2020, those features appear not to have been restored to the mosque. The plaque, which dates to hijra 1325 (1908 C.E.) contains Quranic scriptures along with information about the construction of the mosque and the identity of the artist who made the sign.

Ahead of Eid al-Fitr, which on May 23 will mark the end of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, RFA’s Uyghur Service spoke with Turghunjan Alawudun, director of the Religious Affairs Committee for the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress (WUC) exile group, and Henry Szadziewski, a senior researcher with the UHRP, about the significance of the missing plaque.

A close up view of the plaque adorning the front entrance of Id Kah mosque, taken before its removal.
A close up view of the plaque adorning the front entrance of Id Kah mosque, taken before its removal. RFA

Alawudun: The disappearance of the scriptural plaque from the entrance to Id Kah is one aspect of the Chinese regime’s evil policies meant to eliminate the Islamic faith among Uyghurs, to eliminate Uyghur faith, literary works, and language—and Uyghurs themselves. This scriptural plaque above the door into Id Kah, like the [mosque’s] minarets, has an Islamic character and is a symbol that has been there from the founding of the mosque until today. The Chinese regime can’t bear this, it can’t stand it, and the inner hatred they feel toward Uyghurs has boiled over such that they had the plaque removed.

They’ve left Id Kah [itself] there for the international community, as part of a bid to fool the world. By taking visitors from Islamic countries there every once in a while to see it, showing it to international visitors who come to investigate [the situation in the region], and sharing it in the media every now and then, they’re pursuing policies that deceive the world. Even so, we can still see that the cruel things that China is doing—the destruction by the Chinese regime of things connected to Uyghurs, Uyghur culture, symbols of the Uyghur people, expressions of Uyghur culture—are signs of the Chinese regime’s horrible plan to eliminate the Uyghurs.

Szadziewski: Religious freedom is not a reality for Uyghurs. Across their homeland, mosques, shrines, and other sacred spaces have been bulldozed into history. In the camps, Uyghurs are indoctrinated into the supposed evils of religion. Id Kah in Kashgar has remained standing. Its disappearance would cause outrage given its importance. The significance of its existence to the Chinese authorities is to demonstrate to the world observance of Uyghurs’ religious freedoms. However, the removal of Islamic motifs from the building tells a different story. It tells us Id Kah is being stripped of religious meaning to become a shell for unsuspecting visitors. There is no reason to remove Islamic motifs from the building other than to demonstrate to Uyghurs that belief in Islam belongs to the past. As such, the despoiling of Id Kah signals a move toward an effective ban on the Islamic faith.

Source: Removal of Islamic Motifs Leaves Xinjiang’s Id Kah Mosque ‘a Shell For Unsuspecting Visitors’

After Arab countries, now Canada punishes Indian origin man for Islamophobia; terminated from job and removed from school body as probe continues

Of note:

Days after several Indian expats were removed from their jobs in the Arab countries for displaying Islamophobia using their social media pages, Canada has cracked the whip on an Islamophobe by removing him from a school body and terminating his contract with one of the leading real estate companies in the North American country. Ravi Hooda has now made his Twitter account private after politicians and civil society members in Canada reacted with outrage on his brazen Islamophobia.

This all started with several Toronto-area municipalities granting local mosques permission to broadcast the Azaan or call to prayer using loudspeakers during Iftaar (breaking of fast) every day during Ramadan. The move was widely hailed since Muslims could not gather in mosques due to the global coronavirus pandemic.

Brampton too followed suit and decided to allow Muslims in its region to use loudspeakers for the sunset Azaan. This did not go down well with a local Islamophobe, identified as Ravi Hooda, who launched a tirade mocking Muslims and their faith. He wrote, “What’s next? Separate lanes for camel & goat riders, allowing slaughter of animals at home in the name of sacrifice, bylaw requiring all women to cover themselves from head to toe in tents to appease the piece fools for votes.”

Hooda’s tweet sent shockwaves across Canada, which is globally renowned for its liberal values. Peel District School Board in Brampton announced that it had removed Hooda as ‘School Council Chair’ and investigation was underway against him. Its tweet read, “The Principal has begun an investigation. The individual is being removed from their role as School Council Chair and won’t be able to participate on council in any other capacity. Islamophobia is not acceptable and a clear violation of our Safe and Accepting Schools Policy.”

ReMax Canada, which is one of Canada’s top real estate marketing websites, too informed that it had terminated Hooda’s contract. It tweeted, “We do not share nor support the views of Mr. Hooda. We can confirm he has been terminated and is no longer affiliated with RE/MAX. Multiculturalism & diversity are some of the best qualities in our communities, and we are committed to upholding these values in all that we do.”

Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown too said that Islamophobia will not be tolerated in Canada. He wrote, “Our noise by law originally passed in 1984 only included an exemption for Church bells. It will now include all faiths within the permitted hours & decibel levels. The Muslim community can proceed with the sunset azan because it’s 2020 & we treat all faiths equally. #Ramadan.”

Curiously, Hooda is also a registered certified immigration consultant. It remains to be soon if the government will consider revoking his licence in light of his Islamophobic views.

Source: After Arab countries, now Canada punishes Indian origin man for Islamophobia; terminated from job and removed from school body as probe continues

Turkish students increasingly resisting religion, study suggests

Perhaps as a reaction against Erdogan’s efforts?

Twenty-two-year old Esra, from Mersin, is even more bored than usual this Ramadan. Universities are shut and Turkey has taken the unusual step of placing under-20s, as well as over-65s, under a curfew, because many Turkish families live in intergenerational households.

As a result, Esra can’t see any of her friends. And a few days into the Muslim month of fasting, like many young people, she is now feeling even more suffocated by the religious restrictions imposed by her pious parents.

“They normally don’t know how I dress when I’m not there but even in the house now wearing tight jeans bothers them and they’re commenting on it,” she said. “They think I am fasting but I’m not. I have water in my room.”

Despite more than a decade of efforts by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development party (AKP) to mould a generation of pious Turks, the country’s youth appears to be turning away from religion.

Source: Turkish students increasingly resisting religion, study suggests