An ancient community in Pakistan fades as conversions to Islam rise

Sad report regarding the fate of a small minority community:

For centuries, a small community of fair-skinned, blue-eyed people known as the Kalasha have inhabited a remote valley in northwest Pakistan, farming and raising animals.

Legend has it that their roots go back to Alexander the Great, whose forces passed through the mountainous region in the 3rd century B.C. But scientific studies describe them as a having “enigmatic” and “complex” origins, possibly being the first migrant group to reach the Indian subcontinent from Asia.

The Kalasha people, who speak a unique dialect, have no written religion or places of worship. Instead, they hold ritual celebrations of seasonal change every spring and fall, with colorful costumes and dancing that have long attracted visitors to their alpine home.

In recent years, however, a new outside influence — Sunni Islam — has started seeping into the valley, changing its way of life and dramatically reducing the number of non-Muslims. In the past three years, according to local surveys, 300 Kalashas have converted, reducing the number of non-converts from about 4,100 to 3,800. Local leaders fear their culture may be swallowed up and vanish.

The pace of conversions has accelerated, especially among young people, with Kalasha girls marrying Muslims and Muslim teachers urging students to convert. There also has been a boom in the construction of mosques, with at least 18 now in the valley.

“After hundreds of years, we have been turned into a minority on our own land,” said Shah Feroz, 27, a volunteer teacher in this hillside town of wooden chalets and steep lanes, located in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.

The religious inroads have become entwined with land disputes, especially over large tracts of forest that Kalasha communities own jointly as a matter of tradition. Last month, one court case over land rights reached the Supreme Court of Pakistan, which instructed the provincial courts to review the issue and report back in one month.

Last summer, the Kalasha gained their first-ever voice in government. Wazirzada Khan, 34, a political activist from the valley, was named to the provincial assembly under the law reserving seats for minorities. His nominator was Imran Khan, then a political leader in the province and now Pakistan’s prime minister.

“The Kalasha are the indigenous owners of the land, forests and mountains. We need laws to preserve our community,” Wazirzada Khan said. Kalashas who convert to Islam “do so willingly,” he added, but the community “should be declared a national heritage with special status.”

Other Kalasha activists said they were historically disdained by Muslims as “infidels,” along with a separate group of Kalashas in Afghanistan’s Nurestan province across the border.

Akram Hussain, 34, a social worker, described himself as “the sole Kalasha survivor in my family” after his mother died and his father married a Muslim woman.

“When a Muslim teacher warns you that you’re an infidel and will be burned in hell, a kid can’t evade this threatening influence,” he said. “I was told by my Muslim teachers to read [Islamic verses] that say it is compulsory to become a Muslim. But we don’t pressure our youths about our Kalasha beliefs.”

Feroz noted that all students in mixed schools are taught Islamic studies. On a recent morning, in the sixth-grade girls’ class at one local school, all Kalasha and Muslim students were reciting Koranic sayings. Feroz said community leaders want a substitute subject, such as ethics, to be taught.

“If you start reading Islamic subjects as compulsory from beginning through university level, then you will be influenced by Islamic teachings,” he said.

In recent years, the Kalasha have attracted European researchers and support, resulting in community benefits including a school that teaches the Kalasha dialect. But some visiting foreigners have also been victims of criminal and insurgent attacks.

According to local leaders, in 2002, a Spanish researcher living in the valley, Jordi Magraner, was found dead with his throat slit, along with two local residents. In 2009, a Greek scholar who helped build the Kalasha school, Athanasion Larounis, was kidnapped by Afghan Taliban forces but eventually freed and returned to Greece.

There have been other episodes of violence attributed to cross-border Taliban intruders. One farmer said two goat keepers had been brutally killed and thousands of goats stolen. “When we ask, we are told that the militants came from Nurestan,” he said.

Yet the larger clash here is the competition between a long-dominant culture with relaxed, secular values and an aggressively expanding faith with strict rules and conservative moral views.

The Kalasha grow grapes and offer free wine to visitors at festivals, where men and women dance together.

They also mourn their dead by dancing and leave them inside coffins above the ground, weighted down by stones with their valuables, though lately they have started burying them because of robbers.

One Kalasha farmer complained of hate speech broadcast through local mosque loudspeakers.

“We don’t make wine to sell, and we don’t force people to drink,” said Shahi Gul, 50, a mother of six. “We are blamed by the local clerics as using wine to tempt Muslim youth, which is not true. We do this as it is allowed in our religion and culture.”

Gul, whose sisters and niece converted to Islam, said she worries about the conversion of so many young Kalashas, especially through marriage. She said girls are “easily converted” by Muslim visitors who woo and marry them.

“We don’t force our children over marriage,” Gul said. “When a Kalasha girl wants to marry a Muslim, she accepts Islam and shifts to a Muslim family.”

Jamroz Khan, a Muslim cleric in the valley whose grandfather converted to Islam 70 years ago, considers Kalasha customs to be wicked, but he said no one in the valley has been converted by force.

“We do our preaching and convince them they should come to the right path,” he said. “We teach them that they are practicing infidelity by mixed gatherings, dancing and using alcohol. We ask them to stop these infidel practices.”

Khan noted with pride that several decades ago, “there was not a single Muslim family here, but now half of the village has accepted Islam,” he said. “All praise to Allah, we are preaching to convert all.”

To Lali Gul, a Kalasha woman who sells traditional costumes and caps, the spread of Islam across the valley will be hard to stop. Muslim tourists, she said, bring money as well as take brides. When her daughter met a Muslim visitor and converted to marry him, she did not try to dissuade her.

“We are free and open-minded people. We don’t interfere in our children’s decisions to be a Kalasha or Muslim,” Gul said. “But our community is shrinking. I fear that very soon, there will be no Kalasha left in this valley.”

Source: An ancient community in Pakistan fades as conversions to Islam rise

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

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

Sigh:

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

The many meanings of freedom: A new set of essays offers a sobering look at Islam and human-rights discourse

Interesting discussion piece on the interface and compatibility of Muslims with liberal democracy and human rights. Some of the same concerns he raises, of course, can be applied to more traditional or fundamentalist strains of all religions.

Try substituting the names of other religions for Islam and Muslims to see some common threads:

MOHAMMAD FADEL, an associate law professor at the University of Toronto, is one of North America’s most thoughtful commentators on the interface between Islam, liberal democracy and Western understandings of the rule of law. He has made an elaborate case for the possibility of Muslims, including theologically conservative ones, finding a comfortable place in a diverse, noisy liberal democracy where many value systems co-exist. He draws on the ideas of John Rawls, perhaps the greatest American political philosopher of the late 20th century, to show that “public reason” can serve as a kind of common denominator between citizens with utterly different world views.

So it is sobering to find that in a newly published set of essays on Islam and the Western understanding of human rights, Mr Fadel puts more emphasis on difference than compatibility. His contribution is the sharpest of the essays, published by the Atlantic Council, an influential think-tank based in Washington, DC, under the title “The Islamic Tradition and the Human Rights Discourse”.

Mr Fadel artfully uses a Western source to show that basic concepts like freedom and happiness have one meaning for a liberal humanist and another for a theist idealist who sees the purpose of human life as devotion to God. For somebody in the latter camp, an addicted gambler is anything but free; but to the secular liberal, that way of life could simply be one way of exercising formal freedom.

Islamic thought about the family, as Mr Fadel adds, is oriented not only to the short-term happiness of individuals, and also to other perceived desirables such as “a reasonably stable household that produces a new generation of Muslims.” So Muslim thinkers could not be expected to see religiously mixed marriages in the same light as a secular libertarian would. He concludes that:

It is impossible to expect a complete convergence between human rights norms and Islamic norms: human rights norms are almost entirely concerned with securing the autonomy of individuals to make choices for themselves, while Islam is about influencing individuals’ choices about how to live their lives.

Asked if he had become more downbeat about Muslim communities finding a place in Western societies, Mr Fadel told Erasmus that he believed more passionately than ever in the need for such co-existence. But it was an observable fact that in Western societies, that effort was growing harder. Arguments, for example over female attire and the raising of children, suggest that in many Western countries, “liberals don’t trust Muslims, and therefore want to regulate their lives more closely, and Muslims don’t trust liberal society, which means they are less likely to have confidence in a neutral, rules-based political system and more likely to focus on their own communal life,” he says.

All the contributors to the new volume are themselves Muslim, and they bring to the subject of human rights concepts and assumptions that would be unfamiliar to most non-Muslims. Perhaps the most upbeat note is struck by the volume’s editor, H.A. Hellyer, who argues that Islam must rediscover the virtue of “rejuvenation”—new thinking about old texts and concepts—which, contrary to what many people say, is “deeply held within the Islamic tradition”. The oft-repeated proposition that in Islam, the gates of ijtihad (theological reasoning) were slammed shut a millennium ago is simply false, in Mr Hellyer’s view.

Another contributor is Mustafa Ceric, the grand mufti emeritus of Sarajevo, who  makes a pointed rejoinder to Western critics of Islam. It takes the form of a riff on the word “dhimmitude”. Among contemporary Islamo-sceptics, that term has been used in two senses. It refers to the second-class but still protected status which traditional Muslim empires offered to non-Muslim, especially Christian and Jewish, subjects. Today’s sceptics also use the word to denounce Westerners who seem excessively deferential to Islam.

As Mr Ceric notes, the “dhimmi” status in Ottoman times did at least allow religious minorities to remain alive, as long as they were loyal and law-abiding. His co-religionists who suffered genocide in Bosnia did not benefit from any such concession. That is a fair point. But if we are to judge any religion (Islam, Christianity, even Buddhism) or secular creed (Marxism, nationalism, fascism) by the respect shown by its adherents for the right to life over the last couple of centuries, then none fares too well.

Source: The many meanings of freedomA new set of essays offers a sobering look at Islam and human-rights discourse

Germany’s New Far-Right Campaign Poster Is Unsubtly Racist

Indeed. Reminder of messaging and posters under the Nazis regarding Jews:

The far-right Alternative for Germany party released a new campaign poster last week with a slogan promising “Islam-free schools” beneath a photo of smiling white schoolchildren.

Alternative for Germany, also known as AfD, released the posters in the midst of its election campaign in the southern German state of Bavaria. Recent polls show the party is on track to win the third-largest share of the vote as it saps votes from the traditional conservative party aligned with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

But as AfD rallies voters ahead of Bavaria’s elections next month, the party is under intense public and political scrutiny for its links to neo-Nazi organizationsand role in encouraging far-right riots in recent weeks.

AfD’s Bavarian anti-Islam posters have added to the backlash against the party. A German teachers’ associations called the posters dangerous, and an Austrian member of the European Parliament accused the party of promoting fascist rhetoric and racially segregated schools. A British hate crime monitoring group also denounced the poster, tweeting, “Welcome to the new face of fascism.”

AFD
Alternative for Germany’s new poster, vowing “Islam-free schools!” and promoting “dominant German culture.”

AfD claims that the posters are not calling for barring Muslim children from schools, Germany’s Der Spiegel reports, but are opposed to Islamic education in schools and face veils. But some Germans on social media criticized the posters for echoing Nazi-era discrimination against Jewish students, HuffPost Germany reported.

The party has a history of anti-Islamic propaganda, and during last year’s national elections it worked with a conservative American ad agency to create a controversial series of posters, including one reading “Burkas? We prefer bikinis” and another with a photo of a pregnant white woman with the tagline “New Germans? We’ll make them ourselves.”

Although AfD is often careful to distance itself from more politically toxic extremist groups and violent rhetoric, it has repeatedly provoked scandals after its officials made statements downplaying the Holocaust or siding with far-right activists. After anti-migrant riots erupted after the killing of a German man in the city of Chenmitz two weeks ago, a prominent AfD official marched with the founder of anti-Islamic extremist group PEGIDA in a demonstration against migration.

While AfD is still shut out of governing in Germany, its success has caused traditional right politicians to swing farther right in hopes of winning back voters, especially prevalent in Bavaria, where the Merkel-allied Christian Social Union is losing support and increasingly embracing anti-immigration, anti-Islamic views.

CSU leader Horst Seehofer nearly brought down the German government this year after demanding tighter border controls, and more recently he called immigration the “mother of all political problems” and said he would have joinedfar-right anti-migrant protests were he not an elected official. Bavaria’s CSU premier ordered that crucifixes be hung in all government buildings, and the party last year drafted a law banning full-face veils in public places.

Much like in several other countries where establishment parties mimic the far right, most recently Sweden, the CSU’s shift hasn’t worked, and the party is expected to lose its absolute majority government in a state where it once dominated.

Source: Germany’s New Far-Right Campaign Poster Is Unsubtly Racist

Macron Wants to Create ‘French Islam’ to Align Muslims With Secular Society

Ongoing French struggles with integration approaches. While there are obviously serious problems of Islamist extremism, France also needs to deal with failures of economic integration and ongoing discrimination:

French President Emmanuel Macron will review a new report that lays out proposals to reform Muslim society in France and create a “French Islam.”

The report’s author, Hakim El Karoui, who is the nephew of former Tunisian Prime Minister Hamed Karoui, has called for “a system with men, money and financing to combat [radicalization],” Politico reported. He proposes funding this regulatory system by taxing halal foods, while also restricting religious financing from abroad.

“There are activists on one side and nobody across to say something else. [The Islamists] have an influence that goes well beyond their number of followers,” El Karoui told Europe 1 Radio on Monday.

Speaking to BFM TV, the report’s author also warned that young French Muslims often learned about Islam via social media, where extremists often had a strong presence. He further raised concerns about preachers and mosques funded by religiously conservative foreign nations, such as Saudi Arabia.

In France, many politicians and analysts have long drawn attention to the “parallel society” arising within the country’s Muslim population. At the same time, France’s strict laws separating religion from the state prevent the government from interfering directly to oversee what is presented in mosques. Some politicians, such as far-right leader Marine Le Pen, have capitalized on a wave of terror attacks and anti-Semitic murders to urge the government to police mosques and crack down on extremist clerics.

A public call was made by several leading political figures in April to strike verses in Islam’s holy book, the Koran, that call for punishing and killing Jews, Christians and nonbelievers, The Atlantic reported. While the manifesto did not specifically say the verses should be removed from the text, many Muslims saw the open letter as an attempt to alter their sacred text, which led to significant backlash.

El Karoui also emphasized this week that only a small fraction of France’s Muslim population turned to extremism.

“There are many Muslims who are going to eat halal, women who are going to be veiled, but who are not Islamists in the sense that they do not think that the ideological political project of the Islamists is better or more important than that of the Republic,” he said, according to France 24.

Earlier this year, Macron indicated a plan to address the tensions arising in the country and to create an “Islam of France.” French Muslim leaders had also called for reforms, but efforts made by previous governments had proved unsuccessful. Under the leadership of former President Nicolas Sarkozy, France tried to create a central Islamic religious authority recognized by the state, as was done with France’s Jewish population during the time of Napoleon Bonaparte, according to Politico. But the representative council failed to maintain popular support, primarily because of significant differences among Muslims hailing from many different countries.

It remains to be seen whether or not the new report will lead to government action. Some politicians have already criticized the proposals.

Bruno Retailleau, a senator for the right-leaning Les Républicains party said that creating “an Islam of France” would “not protect the French from radical Islam,” Politico reported. He also argued that it could weaken the devoutly secular nation’s “republican pact.”

Source: Macron Wants to Create ‘French Islam’ to Align Muslims With Secular Society

Thilo Sarrazin’s ‘Hostile Takeover’: An Islam expert’s take on the book

Good critical review:

The fact that Thilo Sarrazin doesn’t have a high opinion of Arabs and Turks is no secret ever since his bestseller Deutschland schafft sich ab (Germany Abolishes Itself) was published in 2010. At the time, the book’s controversial theses on integration and immigration had sparked a heated debate in Germany.

In the book, the former Berlin senator of finance and former member of the executive board of the Bundesbank claimed that Muslim immigrants had educational deficits and refused to integrate. While Sarrazin already explained why he perceived Muslims as a threat to Western societies in his previous book, he did not deal explicitly with the religion of Islam.

He now tackles the religion more directly in his new book, Feindliche Übernahmen (Hostile Takeover; no English version available).

His initial question — to determine if Islam plays a role in the violent acts of Muslims — is understandable considering the world’s current events. Trying to find out if the religion itself has anything to do with the lower level of education, the lower rate of innovation and the weak economic development of certain parts of the Islamic world are also legitimate discussion points, which are also being debated by many Muslims.

However, the author’s claim that his book provides a sober and impartial study of Islam quickly proves to be an empty assertion.

Absurd presumptions

He explores Islam through the Quran, which he claims to have read in its entirety. Even though this approach sounds correct, his claim to be able to determine the core statements of Islam by reading the Quran without any knowledge of Arabic or theological background is an absurd presumption. Sarrazin openly admits that his analysis “exclusively” follows his own “direct understanding of the text,” as if the Quran were really to be understood without taking into account the context of its origin and the history of its reception.

He ignores everything that doesn’t fit into his own interpretation. He does not discuss the ambiguity of the text nor its poetic dimension. Instead of looking at the Quran as a whole, he takes individual excerpts out of context and reorganizes them under selected themes.

The “religious content” of the Quran is “very simple, the guidelines for the faithful are therefore very clear,” writes Sarrazin. His conclusion: The Muslims’ holy book is obsessive about questions related to sexuality, and it is full of hatred for unbelievers and calls for violence.

“If you take it literally, it leaves little room for misunderstanding,” writes Sarrazin about the Quran. His reading does not see a separation of politics and religion in Islam as possible. “The more literally one takes the Quran, the clearer it appears that the world’s governance can only find its legitimacy through God,” he writes. Like many other Islam critics, Sarrazin picks up one of the Islamists’ core arguments; he presents their interpretation of the Quran not only as a conclusive view, but also as the exclusive one.

A distorted picture based on prejudice

Sarrazin also ignores the fact that the political ideology of Islamism is a product of modernity and that its interpretation is rejected by a great majority of Muslims. He does not say a word about the moderate versions of mystical Islam prevailing in most Muslim countries.

It may appear contradictory that he should adopt the radical reading of the Islamists as the “true” version of Islam, but that is necessary to support Sarrazin’s concept, in which he condemns Islam in its entirety as an “ideology of violence in the guise of a religion.”

His portrayal of Islam is a caricature that has more to do with his own prejudiced views than with the beliefs guiding the lives of the majority of Muslims.

Beyond his study of the Quran, he tries to provide an appearance of objectivity though quotes, numbers and statistics, but the book’s goal remains clear: to confirm his preconceived ideas. His description of the history of Islamic culture as an 800-year-long decline reveals his downright malicious urge to deny Muslims anything positive.

Pitiful bigotry

Anyone who has ever been to Istanbul, Granada or Cairo can only be astonished to read Sarrazin’s declaration that “an independent Islamic building culture never developed.” Anyone who knows Iran’s impressive Naqsh-e Jahan Square in Isfahan, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, can hardly agree with his statement that Muslims do not know anything “about urban planning with axes and public spaces.”

He also reveals an almost astounding ignorance when he claims that Muslims, “apart from a few fairy tales,” have never developed their own literature — as if poets such as Hafis, Saadi or Mevlana had never existed.

Revealing the full force of his deeply Eurocentric perspective, he cites the lack of symphonic orchestras as evidence of the cultural backwardness of the Islamic world. He apparently cannot imagine that there are other concepts of culture and beauty than the ones developed in Europe. Instead of appreciating the richness, complexity and elegance of the ornaments on carpets, tiles and facades created in Muslim countries, he only sees the absence of portraits and sculptures. You can almost feel pity for Sarrazin for such narrow-mindedness.

No interest in finding solutions

Throughout the book, it is clear that he only takes into account anything that fits into his preconceived world view. He avoids mentioning that the credibility of the statistics he uses has been questioned — that would ruin his narrative. Beyond all the figures on birth rates, levels of education and economic performance, it’s his basic thesis that appears the most questionable, in which he claims that all the Muslims’ social and economic problems can be blamed on their religion — or as the second part of his book’s title states: “How Islam Impedes Progress and Threatens Society.”

Hardly a Muslim bases his actions primarily or even exclusively on Islam. But even if Islam were the cause of all problems, what would be the solution? That all Muslims give up their culture and their faith? That’s not likely.

Sarrazin does not present a solution to this dilemma, as he is not even interested in finding solutions. His whole book shows that he is not concerned with helping shape peaceful coexistence, but rather with the strict separation of peoples and stopping the immigration of Muslims.

Ulrich von Schwerin works as a freelance correspondent for various media in Istanbul. In addition to Turkey, he also focuses on Iran. His political science PhD dissertation was about Iranian cleric and dissident Ayatollah Montazeri.

Source: Thilo Sarrazin’s ‘Hostile Takeover’: An Islam expert’s take on the book