What happened when I wrote about Islam in Britain: Andy Ngo

The nuance and overall context comes later in the article. And some elements described have parallels among other traditional or fundamentalist religions. But the issues are real:

‘I was segregated from non-Muslims from the beginning, not just physically, but also in terms of the core beliefs I had instilled in me,’ Sohail Ahmed tells me. He’s a soft-spoken 26-year-old student from East London who grew up in a fundamentalist Muslim community. In 2014, Sohail’s parents sent him to an Islamic exorcist in Newham because they believed his homosexuality was caused by a jinn, or spirit. The exorcisms didn’t work and his parents eventually kicked him out of the home. Sohail contemplated a suicide attack in Canary Wharf to redeem himself.

I met Sohail while researching an article about Islam in Britain. This was eventually published in the Wall Street Journal on August 29. It was called ‘A Visit to Islamic England.’ The article briefly became a Twitter sensation, for the wrong reasons. I made a mistake, which was widely picked on. I described the existence of ‘alcohol restricted’ signs in Whitechapel, East London, and implied it was because of the heavy Muslim presence in the area. Such signs actually exist in various areas across the UK and have nothing to do with religious sensibilities.

Perhaps I was a little tone deaf to the realities of modern Britain. Perhaps I allowed my surprise at how fundamentally Islamified parts of the country have become to color my writing. Certainly, I failed to appreciate just what a sensitive subject I was writing about.

I began receiving hundreds (and then thousands) of messages and comments calling me a racist and ‘Islamophobe.’ ‘Someone airdrop @MrAndyNgo into a KKK rally,’ tweeted Rabia Chaudry, a New York Times bestselling Muslim-American writer. Mike Stuchbery, a British leftist social media commentator encouraged his 52,000 Twitter followers to ‘direct [their] ire’ at me. They obliged.

I had touched a nerve. Britain’s organized Islamist lobby also responded fiercely. This included the Muslim Council of Britain, an organization with links to the Jamaat-e-Islami, a radical Islamist party in Pakistan committed to the implementation of Shari’a. Members of the party recently protested across Pakistan over the acquittal of Asia Bibi, who was on death row for eight years over an accusation of blasphemy. CAGE, a British Muslim advocacy group that called Islamic State terrorist Mohammed Emwazi (aka ‘Jihadi John’) a ‘beautiful man’, dug through my social media history to pile on the outrage. American Muslim reformer, Asra Nomani calls this loose network of writers, politicians and activists, the ‘honor brigade.’ Motivated by a shame-based religious outlook, they cast vicious aspersions on anyone who criticizes Islamism.

Next came columns in a variety of publications. Alex Lockie, a news editor at Business Insider UK, denounced my writing as ‘cowardly’ and ‘race-baiting.’ The New Arab, a Qatari-owned media outlet published three op-eds mocking and condemning my writing.

These vitriolic attacks all seized on my mistake over the sign as evidence of my prejudice against Muslims. In fact, I was just trying and perhaps sometimes failing to describe what I saw. I admit to having been surprised by quite how segregated some parts of Britain have become. I try not to make judgments about that, but what I believe to be true is that Britain’s multicultural policies have produced what the Nobel-prize winning economist Amartya Sen calls, ‘plural monoculturalism.’ That is, different communities, or monocultures, existing side-by-side with little to no interaction with one another.

This is the reality I witnessed and described in parts of Tower Hamlets, Waltham Forest, and Luton. Media commentators can refute it all they like, but I’ve spoken with many Britons and British Muslims from those areas who agree with my portrayals.

Plus, the data suggests it is a larger phenomenon across the UK. According to a 2016 survey by ICM Research for Channel 4, more than 50 percent of British Muslims live in areas that are at least 20 percent Muslim. Of that, around a fifth had not even entered the home of a non-Muslim in the past year.

I don’t fault the residents of these areas, many of whom are immigrants like my parents, for choosing to live in communities that are culturally familiar to them. I do fault the British state’s multicultural policies for unintentionally creating barriers to integration, and for leaving the most vulnerable (e.g. women, sexual, and religious minorities) trapped in structures of oppression. People like Sohail, for example.

‘My old Muslim friends said they fully supported my parents disowning me and cutting off familial ties,’ he says. Sohail has since become an atheist but still lives with the consequences of his former extremism. In 2016, he was denied entry into the US based on security concerns.

Sohail believes the segregated nature of the area his Pakistani family settled in the mid-Nineties made them vulnerable to indoctrination. One memory he has ingrained from childhood is community members rejoicing when 9/11 happened. And although dress is not a reliable measurement of extremism, Sohail recalls his mother going through a gradual sartorial transformation. She first adopted a hijab, then a jilbab (a full-length garment), and finally a niqab (face veil) and gloves. ‘If I didn’t live in a closed community,’ he says, ‘I would have felt more comfortable mentioning [the abuse] to mental health professionals, counselors, teachers, and social workers.’

Halima echoes some of Sohail’s experiences. She is an art student who hails from an Indian Muslim community in Blackburn, a heavily segregated town north of Manchester. ‘I had a good childhood until my period started,’ she says bluntly.

From birth, Halima lived in the shadow of her father, a deeply religious man who was esteemed in the community for being a hafiz, someone who memorized the Qur’an by heart. She was expected to maintain the family’s honor and reputation through wearing a headscarf, remaining chaste, and being pious. After she reached puberty, her family’s grasp tightened on her with the help of a watchful community. During high school, Halima says her mother used one of the school’s mentors as a secret informant. Her father began to regularly beat her.

At 14, state authorities finally intervened after Halima’s boyfriend called the police. According to the 2014 court hearing, her father beat her with a tennis racket and said he would kill her ‘before the community finds out [about her non-Muslim boyfriend].’ Her father was later convicted of child cruelty and given a suspended sentence. Halima alleges that the police officer who fingerprinted her belonged to the same ethno-religious community and actually worked with her uncle in taking her to her grandfather’s home, where she was further punished.

Today, Halima is estranged from her family and is in the process of legally changing her name. ‘It is a signifier of being my father’s possession.’ She says Britain’s fear of offending the religious is causing it to turn a blind eye to abuses happening from within. ‘I feel let down by mainstream British society, especially the authorities,’ she says. ‘If I was white my dad would’ve gotten prison time. [Society is] quite oblivious to what happens in spheres other than white middle class circles.’

Of course not all British Muslims come from such extreme communities. Many, like London’s own mayor Sadiq Khan, are testament to successful integration. This success is partly reflected in the data. ICM’s survey showed that a strong majority, 86 percent, of British Muslims feel a strong belonging to the UK. However, those facts cannot obscure the evidence that certain social chasms have simultaneously developed. The few surveys conducted on British Muslims show shockingly regressive attitudes on homosexuality, gender norms, and sex. A 2009 Gallup pollfound zero percent of British Muslims believed homosexuality was ‘morally acceptable.’ ICM’s 2016 poll found that 52 percent believe homosexuality should be illegal in the country.

These beliefs have implications for other groups in a society. According to a 2018 survey by NatCen, Britain’s largest independent social research agency, Londoners are actually less tolerant of homosexuality and premarital sex than the rest of the country. How could this be so in one of the most modern, cosmopolitan and diverse cities on earth? The survey’s researchers attribute this to ‘religious differences’ — and surely London’s 12.4 percent Muslim community contributes to those, along with black Evangelicals and Eastern European Catholics.

Curiously, one of the religious tracts I received from a mosque during my visits faulted gay men for the excess of unmarried women. ‘New York alone has one million more females as compared to the number of males, and of the male population of New York one-third are gays i.e. sodomites,’ writes Zakir Naik, an Indian fundamentalist preacher. ‘The USA as a whole has more than 25 million gays.’ Naik was banned from entering the UK in 2010 but his tracts are readily available in mosques across the country.

I show Sohail the barrage of messages calling me a liar for my Wall Street Journalpiece. He is surprised. ‘I walked with you through some of those areas you mentioned. What you said conforms with my own experiences in these areas. That’s all I can say.’

Source: What happened when I wrote about Islam in Britain

German schools teach Islam to students to give them a sense of belonging

Interesting article on a newer German approach to integration:

It was the second week of Islam class, and the teacher, Mansur Seddiqzai, stood in front of a roomful of Muslim teens and pointed to the sentence on the chalkboard behind him: “Islam does not belong to Germany.”

He scanned the room and asked: “Who said this?”

Hands shot up. “The AfD?” one student with a navy blue headscarf said, referring to Germany’s far-right anti-refugee party. “No,” Mr Seddiqzai shook his head. “Seehofer,” tried another. “Yes, and who is that?” “A minister,” said a third.

Finally, someone put it all together, identifying Horst Seehofer, the head of Bavaria’s conservative Christian Social Union and chancellor Angela Merkel‘s interior minister and coalition partner, who has on multiple occasions threatened to torpedo her government over the issue of immigration.

“Yes, that’s right,” Mr Seddiqzai said, turning to the others. “And what do you think? Is he correct?”

In a country where the debate over “who belongs?” has deeply divided Ms Merkel’s government, fuelled massive demonstrations and propelled the rise of anti-immigrant populism, these 16 and 17-year-olds confront versions of that question every day, in the headlines and in their personal lives: Do I belong, too? Can I be German and a Muslim?

Public schools in some of Germany’s most populous cities are helping such students come up with answers in a counterintuitive setting: Islam class.

The classes, taught by Muslims and intended for Muslim students, were first launched in the early 2000s and now are offered as electives in nine of Germany’s 16 states, by more than 800 public primary and secondary schools, according to the research network Mediendienst Integration. They include lessons on the Quran, the history of Islam, comparative religion and ethics. Often, discussions shift to the students’ identity struggles or feelings of alienation.

“When a German asks me which country I’m from, I tell them Turkey,” said Gulendam Velibasoglu, 17, who is taking Mr Seddiqzai’s 10th-grade Islam class this year. She was born and raised in this western German city. Still, she says, “If I said ‘German’, they wouldn’t accept the answer. They will see me as a foreigner, even though I’m a German citizen.”

Germany has the European Union’s second-largest Muslim population after France, according to estimates by Pew Research. In 2016, 4.95 million people, or 6.1 per cent of the German population, were Muslim. But less than half of those pray regularly, and even fewer regularly attend a mosque, according to the latest government surveys.

The country’s leaders have expressed an ambivalent view of Islam, at best. Mr Seehofer’s statement that “Islam does not belong to Germany” came just months after the Islam-bashing AfD, or Alternative for Germany, entered parliament. Ms Merkel denounced the statement and ruled out sharing power with the AfD. Nevertheless, the AfD has steadily gained support over the past two years: on 14 October, it scored the biggest electoral gains of any party in Bavaria, Germany’s most populous state.

Last year, the AfD hung campaign posters in Dortmund featuring women in burqas and the slogan “Stop Islamisation”. This year’s poster bore the words “Islam-free schools!” under an image of five beaming, light-skinned children.

Mr Seddiqzai, who was born to Afghan parents in the German city of Bochum and who wears a full beard and Nikes to school, said he worries about the effect on his students. “These posters tell them, ‘We don’t want you here’,” he said.

“They are not accepted in Germany, they are not accepted in the countries of their parents, and that produces this craving for a group to belong to,” he continued. “And then an Islamist comes to you and says, ‘Yeah, you don’t belong to anyone. Therefore just be Muslim.’ They offer them a third way.”

Mr Seddiqzai sees it as part of his job to make his students more informed in their consumption of such appeals.

Earlier this year, when local politicians were discussing a ban on headscarves, a group calling itself Reality Islam launched a social media campaign to protest the proposal and recruit students. Mr Seddiqzai showed his students how to trace Reality’s Islam’s links to Hizb ut-Tahrir, an extremist group banned in Germany since 2003. He also encouraged them to question the group’s stance on the headscarf, which it claimed the Quran mandates for women.

“I show them the Quranic verses about the headscarf, and we discuss it and we see there is no clear rule that a woman or girl has to wear a headscarf,” he said. “Most of them think the Quran itself has no contradictions, and even that is wrong. There are many contradictions in the Quran.”

Some German politicians are pushing for an expansion of Islam classes in public schools as a way to encourage the cultural integration of Muslim students and to promote an interpretation of Islam that highlights German values.

“We need more religious education,” Kerstin Griese, a lawmaker from the governing centre-left Social Democratic Party, wrote in an op-ed, “because it’s the only way to start a dialogue about our own traditions and values and to understand those of others”.

Such advocates generally don’t envision non-Muslim students taking these classes to gain a better appreciation of Islam. While a few German school systems offer religion classes that include multiple faiths or ethics classes that touch on religion, religion as taught in public high schools and supported by Germany’s Basic Law is generally targeted at specific denominations.

A further rationale for Islam classes is to “immunise” Muslim students from fundamentalism, as Protestant leader Heinrich Bedford-Strohm put it.

Of particular concern is radicalisation that might lead to violence. Since 2013, more than 1,000 people have left Germany to fight with or support the Islamic State and other terrorist organisations, most of them under 30.

But some educators and politicians resist the notion that Islam has a place in German public schools.

“Besides the fact that we have much more important problems in schools, it can’t be true that a German bishop is promoting Islam,” Alexander Gauland, a leader of AfD, said after Bedford-Strohm voiced his proposal.

No studies have examined the effectiveness of Islam classes in preventing radicalisation, according to Harry Harun Behr, a professor of Islam studies and pedagogy at Frankfurt’s Goethe University.

Still, he said, the classes are valuable because they show students their faith is as important as others taught in their schools and because they show Islam as a religion that is open to reflection and self-criticism.

At Mr Seddiqzai’s school, where almost 95 per cent of students are first or second-generation immigrants, Islam class is highly popular. When he crosses the schoolyard, he can barely walk five steps without being stopped by a student wanting to tell him about grades, romances or plans for the future.

“What Mr. Seddiqzai is teaching me is not really something you learn at mosque,” said 17-year-old Yusuf Akar. “How to interact with non-Muslims who may not be sure how to interact with us. Or who are scared of us.”

But it is more than that, too. “It shows me I’m welcome here,” Akar said. “Because the school no longer demands that we distance ourselves from our religion. They accept it and even create an opportunity to learn about it. And that gives me the feeling that I’m part of this society.”

Source: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/germany-islam-muslims-rightwing-extremism-afd-merkel-a8616886.html

Alberta Human Rights Commission seeks to appeal Muslim school prayer spat at Supreme Court

Another case to watch:

The Alberta Human Rights Commission is hoping the Supreme Court will hear its appeal in the case of two Calgary Muslim students who were not allowed to pray at a non-denominational private school.

Sarmad Amir and Naman Siddiqui, who were in Grade 9 and 10 at Webber Academy in 2011, told the human rights commission that praying is mandatory in their Sunni religion. They said the school told them their praying, which requires bowing and kneeling, was too obvious and went against the academy’s non-denominational nature.

The human rights tribunal ruled the school’s policy was too rigid and it could have accommodated the students without violating its secular status.

That decision was upheld by the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench. The school then took the matter to the Alberta Court of Appeal.

It overturned the commission’s original decision ordering the school to pay a $26,000 fine for discriminatory behaviour and said another hearing was required because Webber Academy raised new issues under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Webber Academy president Neil Webber said Monday the human rights commission is seeking leave to appeal the decision.

“We should know I think by Christmas whether or not they have been successful. It took them quite a while to make the decision,” said Webber.

“We doubt that they will be successful. My information from our lawyer and also from a former member of the Supreme Court is that roughly 90 per cent of applications for leave … are turned down.”

No one at the Alberta Human Rights Commission immediately responded to a request for comment.

Webber said he hopes to preserve the secular nature of the school, which has about 1,000 students. He said the school has always made it clear to incoming students and their parents there is no space in the school for praying. It has received only two requests for prayer space in its 22 years of operations and both were denied.

He said even if the Supreme Court refuses to hear an appeal, the matter is far from over.

“Then the human rights commission has a choice — they can have another hearing or they could just drop the whole thing. I don’t know what the probability of dropping the whole thing could be.”

Source: Alberta Human Rights Commission seeks to appeal Muslim school prayer spat at Supreme Court

KHATTAB: We Need to Make Room for People to Change

Khattab responds to earlier columns by Candace Malcolm (Controversial Islamic groups receive Canada Summer Jobs Grants):

In a series of columns published by the SUN this past spring, Candice Malcolm not only made several erroneous claims about Muslim organizations receiving funding from the federal government for Canada’s Summer Jobs grant, but she also did something more deplorable that I feel needs to be talked about.

Like many individuals in these divisive times, she erased the space we must afford people who are willing to change their problematic views.

I have come to terms with and apologized for misinformed and insensitive comments I made about members of the LGBTQ2S community in 2012.

Since that time, I have made concerted and humble efforts to learn more about my unconscious biases and unlearn the incorrect beliefs I had towards individuals who are different from me in the near past.

I have connected with LGBTQ2S people who have graciously been willing to spend time learning from one another about life, culture and faith.

I have started developing more critical awareness of where I get my information and actively seek out new viewpoints, even if I feel uncomfortable.

Through dialogue and actively seeking knowledge, I continue to stand by my faith’s definition of traditional marriage while accepting members of the LGTQ2S as my brothers and sisters in humanity.

This response isn’t about me though. It is about how I was afforded a place where I am able to become more aware and can continue the process of cultivating a more compassionate and accepting ethos.

I wouldn’t have been able to do these things without the space to be humbled and vulnerable about what I do not know.

Confronting deeply entrenched biases and prejudices, as well as understanding our complicity in the systems that cultivate them is a lifelong process – one to which I have made a commitment. It should be a lifelong process because those systems of disenfranchisement are all around us as long as they remain standing; they are immersive.

Malcolm did not leave space for discovery and change. In her articles about me, she purposely left out the years of work I have done and continue to do.

This sends a dangerous message to readers, particularly in politically polarized times. It tells people that if you have a change of heart or you mature in your understanding of society and culture, there are no second chances.

Now, more than ever, we need to give second chances to the remorseful.

As an Imam I live by the principles of my faith – including justice, equality, tolerance, freedoms and human rights – and I have dedicated many years to spreading knowledge, advancing dialogue and supporting families and youth.

Ultimately, people who persist in actively preaching hate speech ought to be unequivocally  condemned outright and/or prosecuted. But if someone accepts the consequences of their past words and actions, and shows they are willing to learn how they were wrong, we must as a society make room for  restorative justice.

It is the health and cohesion of our collective communities that hang in the balance. A place like Canada – while still having its own work to do – has afforded me the humility and vulnerability to admit I should have known better and strive to do better.

It is part of the ideals Canadians should continuously strive towards that makes me proud to live here.

Dr. Mustafa Khattab is a member of the Canadian Council of Imams and a Fulbright Interfaith Scholar. He’s currently the senior Imam of the Anatolia Islamic Centre, Mississauga, Canada.

Source: KHATTAB: We Need to Make Room for People to Change

How to understand Salafism in America: The Economist

Expect similar differences in Canada:

THE word “Salafism” is often used loosely, especially in continental Europe. When the relationship between Islam and jihadist violence is discussed in, say, France or Germany, the assumption is often made that the problem begins and ends with the Salafis—who put overwhelming emphasis on the first three generations of Muslims and who are thought to have professed the faith at its purest. This Franco-German sloppiness can be bewildering to Islam-watchers in Britain where Salafis have at times been encouraged to play a part in countering terrorism.

In fact, as anyone who studies the Salafi phenomenon quickly realises, things are far from simple. Scholars generally distinguish three strands of Salafism. First, there is the apolitical, quietist sort which favours intense conservatism in dress and personal life and eschews most kinds of involvement with the modern world. Then there are more activist Salafis who share the impatience of the Muslim Brotherhood to see the replacement of relatively secular governments in Islam’s heartland by religiously inspired regimes. They are not quite as energetic, or as pragmatic, as the Brotherhood’s members but they are influenced by Brotherhood thinking. And thirdly, there are jihadist Salafis who think the only appropriate response to the decadence of the modern era, and to a lack of zeal in the historically Muslim world, is violence. All three strains share a suspicion of democratic institutions that confer on fallible human beings an authority that, as they see things, should belong only to God.

In a new report, published under the Programme on Extremism at America’s George Washington University, Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens shows that all three forms of Salafism have flourished, albeit with considerable ebbs and flows in their fortunes, on American soil in recent decades. He agrees that the distinction between the three forms of Salafism should be maintained, but also stresses they are not hermetically sealed categories, and that important individuals have moved between them.

Confusingly, the author notes, Salafist thinking (whose hallmarks include deep suspicion of the modern, secular world) has been disseminated by some people who do not themselves accept the label of Salafi. One such person is Muhammad Syed Adly, an influential imam based in South Carolina who urges Muslims to focus on Islamic education and avoid secular education and worldly politics. He has encouraged American Muslims to consider alternatives to regular public schools where their children might pick up liberal ideas about gender and sexuality.

As an example of quietist Salafism, Mr Meleagrou-Hitchens cites the Quran and Sunnah Society (QSS) which flourished across the United States both before and immediately after its formal incorporation in Ohio in 1995. Its back-to-basics message, driven home with tapes from Saudi clerics, appealed both to Arab students in America and to African-Americans who had embraced Islam in a spirit of black power and wanted to hew close to the faith’s fundamentals. As the author points out, Salafism’s utter rejection of secular institutions appealed to some African-Americans who felt the American system had nothing to offer them. Although the QSS eventually went into terminal decline, its legacies apparently include a contingent of American Muslims who are fiercely protective of Saudi Arabia and its clerics.

To show how jihadist Salafism can be generated on American soil, the report looks at some notorious individuals such as Ali al-Timimi (pictured), who was born in Washington, DC, spent part of his teens in Saudi Arabia and later returned to the United States where he gained a doctorate in computational biology. In 2005 he was jailed on ten charges including enlisting people to wage war against America and helping the Taliban. His case, according to the new report, “is a fascinating case study due to his steady progression across the wider American Salafi milieu: from student of the traditional quietist Saudi sheikhs…to an open promoter of Salafi jihadism.”

But of course, quietist Salafism doesn’t always lead in an extremist direction, as the author also stresses. As an example of that point, he cites a school of “post-Salafis” who “have contributed to the development of Americanised version of Salafism” that combines conservative theology with a constructive engagement with national and international issues.

In other words, American Salafism (for all its professed emphasis on simplicity) is irreducibly prolix. Given how many lives could depend on getting things right, it is worthwhile engaging with that complexity.

Source: How to understand Salafism in America

Deep In The Desert, A Case Pits Immigration Crackdown Against Religious Freedom

Interesting test case regarding a positive exercise in religious freedom unlike Hobby Lobby, which was more about restricting rights:

In January, Border Patrol agents walked up to a ramshackle old building on the outskirts of a small town in Arizona’s Sonoran Desert. They found three men.

Two were Central Americans who had crossed the border illegally. The third was an American — a university lecturer and humanitarian activist named Scott Warren.

Warren was arrested and ultimately charged with two federal criminal counts of harboring illegal migrants and one count of conspiracy to harbor and transport them. Warren has pleaded not guilty.

Warren’s arrest briefly flickered across the national news amid the partisan tug-of-war over the administration’s immigration policy before fading into the background.

But his legal team’s decision to stake out part of his defense on religious liberty grounds has made the case a clash between two of Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ top priorities: cracking down on illegal immigration and defending religious liberty.

A law written to shield faith

One aspect of Warren’s defense is based on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, also known as RFRA. At root, Warren is saying that his faith compels him to offer assistance to people in dire need, including immigrants.

Congress passed RFRA in 1993 with an eye toward protecting the exercise of religious beliefs, particularly of religious minorities, by providing narrow exceptions to neutral laws that apply to everyone.

The law would allow, for example, a religious group to use an otherwise illegal drug, such as peyote, in religious observances. In recent years, Christian evangelical groups have used the law to advance their causes.

In one prominent case, Hobby Lobby Inc., a for-profit chain of arts and crafts stores, opposed — on religious grounds — providing its employees with health insurance that includes contraceptive services, as required under the Affordable Care Act. The Supreme Court ultimately ruled in Hobby Lobby’s favor.

Warren’s lawyer declined to make him available to talk with NPR for this report. But Warren’s parents and others familiar with his work spoke about the case.

Sessions and religious freedom

As attorney general, Jeff Sessions has taken up the banner of religious liberty for the Trump administration.

Last year, Sessions issued a memo with guidance on protections for religious liberty in federal law.

And in a July speech, he called religious liberty America’s “first freedom” and vowed to aggressively protect it. He also announced the creation of a task force to help the Justice Department accomplish that goal.

One of its jobs, he said, would be to ensure that the cases that DOJ attorneys bring and defend — and the arguments they make in court — are in line with federal protections for religious freedom.

“That includes making sure that our employees know their duties to accommodate people of faith,” Sessions told the crowd. “As the people in this room know, you have to practice what you preach.”

But some critics say the Justice Department is failing to do just that. Instead, they say the DOJ is selectively supporting religious liberty.

“There’s a public face of this government, which is very protective of religious liberty, and then the real work they’re doing is only protecting the religious liberty rights of those who are religious conservatives, not of religious progressives,” said Columbia Law School’s Katherine Franke, director of the Public Rights/Private Conscience Project at Columbia Law School.

Franke was one of several law professors who filed a friend of the court brief in Warren’s case to help explain the statute.

The American Civil Liberties Union also has accused the Trump administration of uneven support for religious freedom.

“The Trump administration’s view of religious liberty is both selective and distorted,” said Daniel Mach, director of the ACLU’s program on freedom of religion and belief.

“It supports an unfounded, unprecedented religious license to discriminate; and at the same, the administration is indifferent or outright hostile to faiths and religious individuals with which it disagrees.”

The Justice Department declined to respond on the record to those allegations.

Many conservative groups and faith leaders have lauded the Trump administration for its efforts to protect religious freedom and people of faith.

One of the most prominent examples of that support was the Justice Department’s decision to file a brief in support of a Colorado baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple.

United States v. Warren

Warren, who worked as an instructor at Arizona State University, volunteered with a humanitarian organization called No More Deaths. The group aims to save lives in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands, where people frequently die as they try to cross the desert on the journey north.

To that end, volunteers for the group hike into the scrubland and leave food, water and other supplies. They also provide emergency first aid to people they find in distress.

No More Deaths and other humanitarian groups use a private residence they call “the barn” on the outskirts of the small town of Ajo, Arizona, as a base of operations.

That’s where Warren discovered Kristian Perez-Villanueva and Jose Arnaldo Sacaria-Goday in January, according to court papers.

Warren found the two men hiding in the barn’s bathroom, the government says. He gave them food, water and clothes, and allowed them to stay for three days.

On Jan. 17, Border Patrol agents and local law enforcement officers conducting surveillance on the barn saw Warren talking with “two subjects that matched a description given of two lost illegal aliens,” court papers say.

The agents approached the barn on foot and spoke with Warren, who told them to leave, prosecutors said.

The agents then conducted a “knock and talk,” during which they identified Perez-Villanueva and Sacaria-Goday and determined they were in the country illegally. Warren was arrested, while the two undocumented men were detained as material witnesses, deposed and then deported.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Arizona declined to comment on Warren’s case.

It’s unclear whether national political dynamics played any role. But the group No More Deaths believes it is connected to the Trump administration’s broader crackdown on illegal immigration.

“What we see under DOJ now is that they’re going after the activists,” said No More Deaths volunteer Catherine Gaffney. “But unfortunately when you go after activists, they’re going to raise their voices and fight back and not be deterred.”

Gaffney also raised questions about the timing of Warren’s arrest.

She said it came hours after No More Deaths released a report that accused Border Patrol agents of slashing water jugs that the group had left out in the desert. The report included videos of Border Patrol agents destroying plastic water containers.

“So we see a clear pattern of political attack here and of weaponizing these immigration statues to go after the activists,” Gaffney said.

Warren and RFRA

Warren, whom neighbors called an active citizen within the town of Ajo, filed a motion earlier this year to have two of the charges dismissed on RFRA grounds.

Under the law, he has to show three things to make his case: that his beliefs are religious in nature; that they are sincerely held; and that they are substantially burdened by a law that applies to everyone.

If he can do that, the burden of proof then shifts to the government.

Prosecutors have to show that the government has a powerful reason to apply the law in Warren’s specific case. They also have to show that the government is using the least restrictive way possible to accomplish that.

At a court hearing in May, Warren testified about his beliefs. He described a life force that permeates all things — animate and inanimate. And his faith, he said, compels him to act when someone is in need.

“For me, we most definitely do unto others as we would want to have done unto us,” he told the court.

The government opposed the motion, saying the prosecution does not substantially burden Warren’s beliefs. DOJ lawyers said Warren “is not required by his beliefs to aid in the evasion of law enforcement. Nor were the people associated with these charges ‘in distress.’ ”

The district judge presiding over the case denied Warren’s motion to dismiss it. But the judge left the door open to Warren to try again when he’s scheduled to go to trial in November.

Source: Deep In The Desert, A Case Pits Immigration Crackdown Against Religious Freedom

25 Years Later, Norway Files Charges in Shooting of ‘Satanic Verses’ Publisher

About time:

William Nygaard, publisher of the Norwegian edition of Salman Rushdie’s novel “The Satanic Verses,” was shot three times and left for dead outside his home in a quiet suburb of Oslo on the morning of Oct. 11, 1993.

Twenty-five years later, just two days before a deadline that would have foreclosed prosecution, the Norwegian police have at last filed charges in the shooting of Mr. Nygaard, who recovered from his wounds. And the authorities stated what many people had always taken for granted: that the attack had to do with Mr. Rushdie’s book, which infuriated Muslims around the world — a theory that the police played down a generation ago.

“We have no reason to believe there is any other motive for the attempted killing than the publication of ‘The Satanic Verses,’ ” said Ida Dahl Nilssen, a spokeswoman for Norway’s National Criminal Investigation Service. The shooting was about more than an attack on one man, she said, it was a violent attempt to shut down free speech.

But the charges, announced on Tuesday, remain steeped in uncertainty, leaving it unclear how close the authorities really are to holding anyone responsible for one of Norway’s most notorious unsolved crimes. Officials have refused to say publicly what evidence they have or how many people have been charged, or to disclose the suspects’ names, nationalities or current locations.

In 1989, shortly after the book’s initial publication in English, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, declared it offensive to Islam and called on Muslims to kill Mr. Rushdie and anyone involved in publication of the book. But Mr. Nygaard, then the chief of the publishing house Aschehoug, which his family controls, went ahead with publication of a Norwegian-language edition, two months after the ayatollah’s edict.

The Iranian threat, followed by protests and attacks on bookstores in other countries, was not an idle one, and Mr. Rushdie went into hiding for several years.

In 1991, Ettore Capriolo, who had translated the book into Italian, was stabbed in Milan by a man who tried — and failed — to get him to disclose Mr. Rushdie’s location. Mr. Capriolo survived, but days later, Hitoshi Igarashi, the novel’s Japanese translator, was fatally stabbed in Tokyo.

Ayatollah Khomeini died within months of declaring the death sentence. Iran’s government said in 1998 that the threat had been dropped, but religious authorities there have said it still stands, and there is a bounty on Mr. Rushdie’s head.

In the attack on Mr. Nygaard, Norwegian authorities filed charges under a rarely used article of the criminal code, protecting fundamental societal values from attack. Under Norwegian law, if they had not filed by Thursday, they would have been required to drop the case.

“As a consequence of the charges, the investigation may now go on,” Ms. Nilssen said. “We have a strong desire to solve this case.”

On Wednesday, Norwegian news organizations, citing unnamed sources, said there were at least two suspects, one from Iran and the other a former resident of Norway with ties to Lebanon.

In a statement provided by his agent, Mr. Rushdie said: “This is good news, and one can hope that this 25-year-old case will now finally advance.” He has long criticized the investigation, and in his statement, he questioned “why the names and nationalities of the indicted persons have been withheld.”

The announcement also came as a relief to Mr. Nygaard, who is retired from publishing and is the chairman of the Norwegian chapter of PEN, a worldwide association of writers that fights for freedom of expression.

Asked if he regretted publishing “The Satanic Verses,” Mr. Nygaard, now 75, replied with an emphatic “absolutely not.” He did not publish the work, he said, to be provocative, but “to build dialogue,” and if given a choice, he would do it again in the name of freedom of speech.

He shrugged off his own remarkable survival and recovery from the shooting, which included months of hospitalization, calling it a matter of mental and physical vigor.

“I used to be a very good Norwegian ski jumper,” he said. “And quite a good publisher.”

After the attack, the police focused principally on investigating personal motives, rather than wider political or religious ones, according to a 2008 documentary by Odd Isungset, an investigative journalist who also wrote a book about the case.

That documentary reawakened interest in the shooting, and the police reopened the case in 2009.

Knut Olav Amas, a former deputy culture minister who now runs a free speech advocacy group, said it was a major “scandal” that investigators did not pursue the possibility of terrorism and a religious motive.

“The Nygaard investigation itself should be investigated,” Mr. Amas said.

At a 2012 celebration of “Joseph Anton: A Memoir,” Mr. Rushdie’s book about his time living under a death threat, he described decisions like Mr. Nygaard’s to publish the book, as “one of the greatest defenses of free speech of our time.”

Source: 25 Years Later, Norway Files Charges in Shooting of ‘Satanic Verses’ Publisher

The ‘Islam is Not a Religion’ Argument

Good points on the hypocrisy of those arguing Islam is not a religion:

Asma Uddin has an op-ed in the New York Times about an argument I’ve heard and engaged with a lot, always coming from the Christian far right. The argument is that Islam is not really a religion, it’s a political ideology masquerading as a religion and therefore it does not qualify for protection under the First Amendment. It’s an absurd and blatantly hypocritical argument.

“But when it comes to religious liberty for Americans, there’s a disturbing trend that has drawn much less attention. In recent years, state lawmakers, lawyers and influential social commentators have been making the case that Muslims are not protected by the First Amendment.

Why? Because, they argue, Islam is not a religion.

This once seemed like an absurd fringe argument. But it has gained momentum. John Bennett, a Republican state legislator in Oklahoma, said in 2014, “Islam is not even a religion; it is a political system that uses a deity to advance its agenda of global conquest.” In 2015, a former assistant United States attorney, Andrew C. McCarthy, wrote in National Review that Islam “should be understood as conveying a belief system that is not merely, or even primarily, religious.” In 2016, Michael Flynn, who the next year was briefly President Trump’s national security adviser, told an ACT for America conference in Dallas that “Islam is a political ideology” that “hides behind the notion of it being a religion.” In a January 2018 news release, Neal Tapio of South Dakota, a Republican state senator who was planning to run for the United States House of Representatives, questioned whether the First Amendment applies to Muslims.

The idea that Islam, which has over 1.6 billion adherents worldwide, is not a religion was even deployed in a 2010 legal challenge of county approval of building plans for a mosque in Murfreesboro, Tenn. The plaintiffs argued that Islam is not a religion but rather a geopolitical system bent on instituting jihadist and Shariah law in America. Because Islam is not a religion, the argument went, the mosque construction plans should not benefit from the county or federal laws that protect religious organizations. The local court ruled against the mosque, but the Tennessee appellate court overturned the ruling and the mosque prevailed.”

The hypocrisy is obvious. This argument is almost always made by people who push aggressively for their version of a Christian nation. They advocate policies based on their fundamentalist Christian beliefs, demand exemptions from generally applicable laws whenever they think their religious beliefs demand it, including the right to discriminate in business if they choose to, and organize primarily on the basis of their Christian views. Their version of Christianity is every bit as aggressively political as they imagine all Muslims are. The difference is that they have actual influence to get their religious views mandated by law, while Muslims in this country don’t have that kind of power and influence.

So by their own reasoning, Christianity is also not a religion and deserves no First Amendment protection. Of course, they won’t follow their argument to its logical conclusion, they just engage in special pleading. Because this is not a serious argument, it’s a pretext for denying the same rights and protections to others that they so loudly demand for themselves.

Source: The ‘Islam is Not a Religion’ Argument

Unique underwater sculpture in the Maldives destroyed after deemed un-Islamic


A unique underwater sculpture exhibit at a Maldives resort was destroyed on order of the country’s president after it was deemed to violate Islamic beliefs.

President Abdulla Yameen said the country’s religious leaders had complained that the sculpture represented idols, which are banned by Islam. Strict Islam bans any manmade depiction of the human form.

The project, called the Coralarium, was created by British artist Jason DeCaires Taylor to bring attention to rising sea levels.

PHOTO: In this handout picture released by the Maldives Police on Sept. 21, 2018, Maldivian authorities demolish sculptures by artist Jason deCaires Taylor near the island resort of Fairmont Maldives Sirru Fen Fushi in Shaviyani Atoll, Maldives.Handout/AFP/Getty Images
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Night visits to the Coralarium, when the sculptures were illuminated with underwater lights, were popular with visitors to the country.“I was extremely shocked and heartbroken to learn that my sculptures have been destroyed by the Maldivian authorities at the Coralarium, despite continued consultations and dialogue,” DeCaires Taylor wrote on Instagram. “The Coralarium was conceived to connect humans to the environment and a nurturing space for marine life to thrive.”

The Maldives archipelago, a chain of 26 coral atolls and more than 1,000 small islands in the Indian Ocean southwest of India, is under threat of being submerged as ocean levels rise. The country, which has many luxury hotels popular with honeymooners from the West, is the lowest in the world, with its average ground level just over four feet above sea level.

The sculpture project, in addition to being a work of art, was also part of the island nation’s first coral regeneration project. It consisted of human-looking statues that were submerged underwater inside a large stainless steel structure that acted as gallery for visiting snorklers and scuba divers.

PHOTO: Artist and environmental sculptor Jason deCaires Taylor has created a semi-submerged tidal gallery exhibiting a number of artworks designed to evolve over time called Coralarium, Aug. 14, 2018, in the Maldives.Jason deCaires Taylor/Cover Images/Newscom
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The Maldives police published photos of the officers using axes and saws to remove and destroy the sculptures.

President Yameen said there was “significant public sentiment” against the exhibition.

PHOTO: Artist and environmental sculptor Jason deCaires Taylor has created a semi-submerged tidal gallery exhibiting a number of artworks designed to evolve over time called Coralarium, Aug. 14, 2018, in the Maldives.Jason deCaires Taylor/Cover Images/Newscom
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Previous goverments have tried to highlight the threat of rising ocean level to the county. Former President Mohammed Nasheed held an underwater cabinet meeting in 2009 to highlight the threat to the country. He also announced plans to buy land on mainland Asia to move the population in the future if necessary.

Source: Unique underwater sculpture in the Maldives destroyed after deemed un-Islamic

Church sign meant to spread word of God sparks human rights complaint

The Canadian equivalent of the US baker refusing to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple

A United Church minister in west-end Toronto is pitted against a Christian business owner over an outdoor signboard used to spread the word of God.

In a rare complaint filed with the Ontario Human Rights Commission on Wednesday, Rev. Alexa Gilmour, minister of Windermere United Church, alleges Archer Mobile Signs refused to post a message encouraging people to “wish your Muslim neighbours a Ramadan Mubarak (Happy Ramadan)” and another that promoted the celebration of diversity during Pride Week.

“Interfaith dialogue and action is a central part of my faith and ministry,” Gilmour told the Star. “If Windermere United cannot post the messages we choose, then we cannot do the ministry we feel called by God to do.”

According to the human rights complaint, the church had rented a mobile sign from Archer Mobile Signs since 2012 and its owner, Steven Thompson, was responsible for updating the text on the sign every week.

One side of the sign generally displayed announcements about church life and events, while the other displayed a message of faith, entitled “This Week’s Spiritual Exercise,” that was authored by Gilmour as “an expression of my faith and an act of Christian ministry.” Gilmour or her staff would dictate the weekly text to Thompson by phone or email.

In the past, there had been disagreements over some of the messages on the signs, but Gilmour said the two instances flagged in the human rights complaint were the first in which he clearly defined his reasons for objecting to the minister’s choice of words.

In May, Gilmour claimed, church administrator Michelle Maldonado wrote to Thompson and requested the Ramadan message. However, Thompson only updated the announcement on the board and refused to put up the Muslim greeting.

In an email from Thompson dated May 16 that was included in Gilmour’s human rights submission, he said he found himself confused by Gilmour’s spiritual message.

“I am all for befriending Muslims in order to reach them for Christ … There is a sense in which your spiritual exercise goes beyond wishing Muslims well, to actually encouraging them in their ideology. I have no problem with wishing them well, but I would violate my own conscience before God to encourage them in their pursuit of Allah,” according Thompson’s email.

“Because I do not see any support in the scriptures to encourage anyone in a false ideology, Islam or otherwise, I must refrain from posting your spiritual exercise. For me, this would be a sin.”

Thompson did not respond to several requests from the Star for comment and waved off a reporter who approached him in person.

The church’s allegations have not been proven. As part of the human rights process, Thompson has 35 days to respond to the complaint. He has not yet filed a response.

Gilmour said she respects Thompson’s right to his opinions and did not ask him to give up his beliefs and embrace hers, but she said he has no right to censor her religious values.

“People may say it’s just a sign,” said Gilmour, “but I use the sign to post my messages of welcome and inclusion.”

Gilmour pointed out to Thompson that he had not objected to prior interfaith messages to the Jewish community (Happy Chanukah) or people of African heritage (Happy Kwanzaa).

In his email reply, Thompson explained he had concerns about his signs being vandalized and that he has the right to refuse to let customers “say what they want’ and to “limit messaging on an Archer Sign where a threat is deemed possible.”

According to Gilmour, Thompson proposed alternatives to her message such as “Wish your Muslim neighbour well,” “befriend a Muslim” or “Invite a Muslim over for dinner” to avoid the “trigger word” Ramadan.

But Gilmour refused the suggestion because “we wish to acknowledge this holy time in the Islamic calendar and believe that treating the faith traditions differently is prejudicial and possibly racist.” Thompson then reportedly said the continued sign rental was contingent on the church accepting his company’s discretion to control its messaging, and mentioned that the placement of the mobile signs at Windermere violated city bylaw.

The minister also asked Thompson if he would post the message “Celebrate God’s diverse LGBTQ2S community with Pride” in June. According to the complaint, Thompson responded: “I think you have an idea as to my view of scripture.”

In mid-June, Thompson emailed the church to say he was removing the sign on the front lawn of the church, at Windermere Ave. and Bloor St. W., in order to comply with municipal code.

City rules on mobile signs specify they cannot be on the public right of way, such as sidewalks or boulevards. Gilmour said she believed the sign was in compliance with the bylaw.

The United Church of Canada is known for championing interfaith relations and gay rights, values that Gilmour said she always stands by.

“It’s not acceptable for a service provider to limit the way I express my Christian ministry,” she said. “I’m taking this step only because many attempts to resolve this issue through dialogue or mediation have failed.”

Source: Church sign meant to spread word of God sparks human rights complaint