The state and Islam: Converting the preachers | The Economist

Good article in The Economist regarding state control of mosques and Imams to reduce radicalization:

In fact, the Saudi effort to tone down its clerics is mild, hesitant and belated compared to what some Muslim states do. Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan already routinely use cameras. Kuwait has long installed tape-recorders to monitor Friday sermons. Preachers in the neighbouring United Arab Emirates need not write their own sermons. Except for a few trusted senior clerics, they read instead from a text delivered weekly by the government department for religious affairs that also pays all their salaries. “Protecting Youth from Destructive Ideas” and “Our National Flag, Symbol of Affiliation and Loyalty” provided two stimulating recent topics. Similarly, Turkey has for decades enforced a monopoly of Islamic discourse via a religious bureaucracy, known as Diyanet, that wields 121,000 employees and a budget of $2.3 billion.

Other governments aspire to such dominance. Tunisia’s government has in recent months restored strict state control of mosques that had slipped following its revolution of January 2011, leading to a brief flowering of Wahhabist-style jihad promotion. Morocco, whose king has traditionally posed as Commander of the Faithful, delivering televised Ramadan sermons, has steeply boosted state promotion of a relatively tolerant version of the faith. Its budget for training imams, including a growing number of foreign students, has swollen tenfold in the past three years. The unspoken aim is to counter the spread of extreme Salafist ideas in places such as Mali and northern Nigeria.

…Egypt’s government has of late clamped unprecedented controls. In January it decreed that all Friday sermons must adhere to a weekly theme set by the religious-affairs ministry, establishing a hotline to allow worshippers to denounce preachers daring to voice political dissent. Further decrees required all preachers to be government-licensed, imposed a code of ethics forbidding discussion of politics in mosques, and banned smaller prayer halls from holding Friday prayers. The ministry fired 12,000 preachers and now allows only those trained in government-approved institutes to deliver sermons.

…As a foil to the powerful Brotherhood, the [Egyptian] state had long allowed followers of quietist forms of Salafism to run some 7,000 mosques. But the ministry in September decreed it would take over their mosques too, after reports of a sermon forbidding the faithful from buying interest-bearing government bonds.

Amr Ezzat, an Egyptian researcher, sees the effort to impose state-ordained orthodoxy as misguided and possibly dangerous. Religious institutions will lose legitimacy with time, pushing more Muslims towards radical margins. And by acting in effect as the imam, the state takes upon itself a duty to enforce morality. It is perhaps as a sop to religious conservatives, for instance, that Egyptian authorities have mounted an increasingly lurid campaign against homosexuality, most recently by staging a midnight raid on a Cairo bathhouse on national television, dragging a score of naked men to prison.

The state and Islam: Converting the preachers | The Economist.

Religion and spending: Prudent but not puritan | The Economist

Interesting study by Vince Showers, a US finance professor, on the spending patterns of the religious (no breakdown by religion):

After using a lot of fancy statistical tools, they came up with some expected findings, and some rather unexpected ones. Households “with a strong commitment to faith”— demonstrated by higher spending on religious activities—are less likely to be weighed down by excessive mortgage outgoings or loan payments for cars. Compared with other households, they are more likely to be home owners but their property tax burden tends to be less—suggesting that “some moderation in [the] selection of home in terms of extravagance or location….”

Devout households seem keener on mitigating risk and therefore spend more on life insurance and health insurance; they lay out less on alcohol and tobacco and more on domestic appliances, including cooking utensils. Such homely behaviour is most heavily correlated with religious belief in the American South and Midwest, which are also the regions with “the most conservative interpretation of scripture,” Mr Showers notes, in an article in the Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion. (The research more-or-less conflates the term “religious” with “Christian” or “Judeo-Christian” which in the American context is only a smallish distortion.)

But religious families do allow themselves some earthly pleasures. Indeed, they are if anything a little more likely than other households to spend spare money on clothing or jewellery, although the amount each household splurges on jewellery is a bit less. Some of that jewellery, of course, might be devotional: silver crosses or stars of David. They are as likely as anybody else to be spending money on child support or alimony—a proxy for failed marriages—and they are as inclined as other folk to incur interest payments on credit cards.

Religion and spending: Prudent but not puritan | The Economist.

Europe and Islam: Degrees of separation | The Economist

Interesting overview of some of the debates in Europe over the role, or not, of the state, in training of Imams:

In addition to all these ideological issues, there is a hard reality to consider. Being an imam in Europe is a rather thankless task. Of the 1,800 imams in France, about 1,000 offer their services for virtually no pay. Only 330 receive a decent, full-time salary—in most cases from religious authorities in their home countries, such as Algeria, Morocco or Turkey. Only 25-30% of the imams working in France have French citizenship. The idea of “home-grown” French imams, well-trained and correspondingly well paid, is an attractive one in principle—but poor Muslim communities seem unwilling or unable to finance such arrangements. And for the secular French state, putting imams on its payroll would be inconceivable.

Europe and Islam: Degrees of separation | The Economist.

Islam and hadiths: Sifting and combing

Point well made in The Economist on religious and scriptural interpretation, and whether or not they lead to moderation:

Mr [Jonathan] Brown [author of Misquoting Muhammad] takes particular issue with The Economist for predicting that the information age will undermine the authority of old-time scholars and revolutionise the way in which ideas about Islam’s core teachings are formed. Given his fascination with long intellectual traditions, the author insists that nothing good can come of people going straight to texts which can foster extremist ideas unless they are leavened by scholarly wisdom.

In our defence, it is an already observable fact that electronics are making it much easier for ordinary Muslims, or self-taught “experts”, to bypass the older authorities and come to their own judgements on what their holy texts say and how they should be read. And as The Economist writing on the subject has made clear, this change can have bad consequences as well as good. Amateur theologians, bent on bypassing the professionals, can come to enlightened conclusions or appalling ones, such as the gimcrack theology used to justify acts of mega-terror by al-Qaeda or Islamic State.

However it’s also worth pointing out that neither conscientious scholarship nor participation in a centuries-old chain of editing and learning are foolproof guarantees of moderation. True, scholarly activities like hadith-sifting can sometimes help to mellow a religion. But remember, too, that the leaders of the Iranian revolution, who raised the standard of militant political Islam in the modern world, included many conscientious scholars.

Islam and hadiths: Sifting and combing | The Economist.

Anti-Semitism in Britain: My swastika | The Economist

On antisemitism in London:

Within Britain, the data on anti-Semitic attacks also turn out to be quietly encouraging, albeit with the proviso that much hate crime goes unreported. The Community Security Trust CST, which monitors anti-Semitic incidents in Britain, counted fewer of them in 2013 than in any year since 2005. The CST notes that spikes in aggressive anti-Semitism here tend to be triggered by external events such as war in the Middle East. Compared with the Jews of France and Belgium, who have suffered fatal shootings in the recent past—and compared with other minorities in Britain itself—British Jews seem to have little reason to fear.

So the evidence suggests that modern Britain is indeed an almost uniquely benign place for Jews lapsed or otherwise to live. My swastika was upsetting, but it was also unusual. All the same, there is something residually demoralising about it, and in these relative judgments. They imply that some degree of anti-Semitism is inevitable—as, apparently, it is. Even in this enlightened age, and the most cosmopolitan city in the world, this primitive, irrational, amazingly tenacious prejudice is still with us, written into our culture and occasionally on our walls.

Anti-Semitism in Britain: My swastika | The Economist.