News in Brief: Hundreds of migrants feared drowned in Bay of Bengal
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Hundreds of migrants feared drowned in Bay of Bengal
Maseeh Rahman in Delhi
The Guardian, Monday 29 December 2008
More than 300 people believed to be illegal migrants are feared to have drowned off the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the Bay of Bengal after jumping into the sea and trying to swim ashore.
The Indian coastguard said yesterday it had rescued at least 99 people who had been drifting for days in the ocean.
Preliminary investigations suggest the men - aged 18 to 60 - had left Bangladesh bound for Malaysia, in six motorised boats about 45 days ago.
Coastguard commander SP Sharma said: "On Friday night, the men saw the lights of Hut Bay and over 300 jumped into the sea to swim ashore. We've rescued 99 in the last two days, and we're investigating what happened."
Sharma said the air and sea search by the coastguard and Indian navy would continue, but there was little hope of more survivors. Details of how so many men ended up drifting in the sea 750 miles off India's eastern coast, close to Thailand, remained sketchy.
The Indian news agency IANS quoted a defence official in the Andamans who said that after intercepting the boat people, the Thai authorities had put them on a pontoon tied to a ship to deport them. But they had quietly released the cable and the pontoon started drifting.
Mohammad Ismail Arafat, one of the survivors, told the coastguard he and others had paid a Bangladeshi agent for promised jobs in Malaysia.
Election fever grips Bangladesh ahead of Monday poll
Election fever gripped Bangladesh today ahead of a parliamentary poll on 29 December as candidates held their final rallies in cities and campaign CDs played in local markets and other public places in rural areas.
In Dhaka, former prime minister Begum Khaleda Zia of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) was scheduled to address a rally expected to draw tens of thousands before Saturday's midnight deadline for electioneering to end.
Her main rival Sheikh Hasina of the Awami League, also a former PM, was due to speak in the port city of Chittagong.
Elsewhere candidates and their agents made direct appeals to smaller groups of voters in the majority Muslim South Asian nation of more than 140 million people.
"I didn't open my shop today, as I will campaign for my chosen candidate. I will especially go to the women who usually do not come out of homes," said Delwar Hossain, a paramedic in the eastern district of Brahmanbaria.
"Both the BNP and the Awami League have separate campaign CDs that people are keenly watching. They seem to know only Hasina and Khaleda but have little idea about their manifestoes," Delwar said by telephone.
The sad exodus of Christians from the birthplace of Jesus
Impoverished by Israel's economic squeeze and persecuted by the Muslim majority, Christians are deserting Bethlehem
By Kim Sengupta and Donald Macintyre
Wednesday, 24 December 2008
The morning service at the Latin church in Beit Jala was packed, the enthusiastic congregation spanning generations filling the aisles and spilling out of the door, a powerful testimony of belief and faith. But, for many of the worshippers in the suburb of Bethlehem the driving wish was to secure their futures abroad, joining a Christian exodus from the land of the Bible.
According to Victor Batarseh, the Christian mayor of Bethlehem, the proportion of Christians here has slumped from 92 per cent in 1948 to 40 per cent. "It is a sad fact, but it remains a fact, that a lot of Christians are leaving," he says. One charge is that Muslims have been taking over Christian lands with the Palestinian authorities turning a blind eye.
Bethlehem has also been badly affected by Israel's separation barrier causing widespread economic hardship among both Muslims and Christians. Yusuf Nassir 57, is looking for a way to emigrate. "The problem is that we are a minority and minorities always suffer in times like these. My house was attacked [by Muslims] over nothing. There was a dispute between a Muslim and a Christian boy, this turned into a communal fight and then around 70 men turned on us. My sister got injured. She said to me 'you must leave for the safety of your family', but finding the money is not easy," he says. "I have also had Israeli soldiers fire at me, once when I was driving a car. The bullet missed me by about 25 centimeters.
"But it is the wall which has destroyed my business. I now owe $120,000 in back rent. I have had to sack staff, and other businesses around here have had to do the same. This just adds to the unemployment and social problems here."
One can't be Muslim without belief in Jesus
Lo! The Angel said, "O Mary! Behold, God sends thee the glad tiding, through a word from Him, (of a son) who shall become known as the Christ Jesus, son of Mary, of great honor in this world and in the life to come, and shall be of those who drawn near unto God. And he shall speak unto men in his cradle, and as a grown man, and shall be of the righteous." The Holy Quran 3: 45-46.
Since it's Christmastime, I would like to introduce the Prophet Jesus (Praise Be Unto Him!) from one Muslim's perspective.
One common misconception among some Christians is that Muslims don't believe in Jesus Christ (PBUH). We do. We believe Jesus was one of the mightiest messengers of God, that he was the Christ, that he was born miraculously without any male intervention, that he gave life to the dead by God's permission and that he healed those born blind as well as lepers by God's permission.
In fact, no Muslim is a Muslim if he or she does not believe in Jesus (PBUH).
Jesus, Mary and Islam
If Humza and Maryam Javed Ismail had their way, they would ride by the big display of Christmas lights every day on Yeatmans Station Road that's near their Landenberg, Pa., home.
The lights remind the children, who are 11 and 9, about the importance of Jesus and Mary in Islam.
"We believe in the goodness and purity of Mary," says their mother, Dr. Sheerin Javed. "And sometimes we talk about this -- that Jesus is a special prophet for Muslims so it makes us feel good to see him honored this time of year."
Mary -- or Maryam as she is known in the Quran -- is held in such high esteem that Javed and her husband, Dr. Hummayun Ismail, named their daughter for the mother of Jesus.
At a time when the birth of Jesus is on the minds of Christians, he is also revered by Muslims. And while they do not celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday, there are many similarities between what the Bible and the Quran say concerning the birth of Jesus.
These are so striking that a former Michigan congressman believes that a better understanding of the Muslim and Christian scriptures would be a healing force in the world.
Foreign Office warns holidaymakers against extramarital sex in Muslim countries
Number of Britons going to Turkey and Egypt rises as travellers look outside eurozone to make holiday cash go further
guardian.co.uk, Friday 26 December 2008 10.10 GMT
Holidaymakers to the United Arab Emirates have been told not to have sex outside marriage or kiss in public in strong government warnings over how to behave in Muslim countries.
The advice, which goes further than the traditional admonition for women to dress modestly, follows allegations of drunken sex romps. The Foreign Office is worried that increasing numbers of tourists will get into trouble abroad as they the travel to less traditional holiday destinations and fall foul of local laws and customs.
The number of Britons going to Egypt this year increased by 38% and to Turkey by 32% and similar rises are expected in 2009 as more Britons look outside the eurozone to make their holiday money go further. Warnings about modesty are also given to those planning to visit the Kenya coast and rural areas of Malaysia .
Travellers to several countries are warned about their strong anti-drug laws as well as no-tolerance attitudes towards excessive drinking. The government says embassies regularly deal with Britons who have failed to take enough money, telling holidaymakers to ensure they have back-up emergency funds and sufficient insurance.
Pope angers campaigners with speech seen as attack on homosexuality
Preservation of man no less important than tropical rainforests, says pontiff
Backlash against terror
The Mumbai attacks and similar incidents are pushing more and more Muslims away from extremism, writes researcher SETH G. JONES
The recent terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India, are part of a disturbing trend across the Muslim world of groups that target civilians in the name of Islam. Less visible to Western eyes, but potentially just as significant, is a growing backlash among Muslims who condemn such attacks as unethical.
The Mumbai perpetrators arrived by boat and launched small-arms assaults at several prominent hotels, a cafe, a hospital, a Jewish center, the city's main commuter rail station and a range of smaller targets.
Sajjad Karim, a British member of the European Parliament, was at the Taj Mahal Palace hotel when a gunman burst into the foyer. "He was standing there with a big automatic machine-gun type of weapon," Mr. Karim said. "And he just lifted it up and started firing it at us." The senselessness of the act was incomprehensible.
The Mumbai attacks are part of a broad array of terrorist incidents that have jolted India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq and numerous other countries. Terrorism is so pervasive across South Asia and the Near East that the region accounts for 87 percent of all attacks globally that led to casualties, according to a study by the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center released in early 2008.
One of the results is a growing debate within the Muslim community about the tactic of targeting civilians. There appears to be renewed and ever-broader acceptance of the principle that such terrorism is fundamentally unethical and immoral.
In India, throngs of Muslims have demonstrated against the Mumbai attacks, holding aloft banners with slogans such as "Killers of Innocents are Enemies of Islam." Several Muslim clerics harshly condemned them, including Maulana Abul Irfan Mian Farangi Mahali, a prominent cleric from the northern city of Lucknow. He stated that the terrorists should not be called legitimate followers of any religion, including Islam, and that terrorism is an act of cowardice.
Mumbai's top Muslim clerics vowed to block the burial of the nine attackers killed during the fighting with Indian forces, declaring their acts an affront to Islam. "Such demons -- they will not find an inch of land in any Muslim cemetery," remarked Maulana Sayed Moinuddin Ahsraf, secretary of the All-India Sunni Jamiat-ulema.
This backlash also has begun to confound al-Qaida. One of the most prominent critics of the group and its practices is Sayyid Imam al-Sharif, better known as Dr. Fadl. He is the former leader of the Egyptian terrorist group al-Jihad and was a close associate of al-Qaida's deputy leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri. In late 2007, in a major break with the past, Dr. Fadl published a book from his prison cell in Egypt calling for an end to violent jihad in the West and in Muslim countries. "We are prohibited from committing aggression," he wrote.
In his book, "Rationalizing Jihad in Egypt and the World," Dr. Fadl argues that "there is nothing that invokes the anger of God and His wrath like the unwarranted spilling of blood and wrecking of property." He characterizes terrorism as unethical and illegal under Islamic law, and contends that the "blowing up of hotels, buildings and public transportation" is not permitted under Islam.
This backlash from Dr. Fadl and Muslim clerics has not been confined to a few prominent figures. Public opinion surveys suggest a growing affinity for their views throughout the Muslim world. A 2008 Pew Research Center report shows declining support among Muslims for both terrorism and al-Qaida. Since 2002, there has been a major decline in the percentage of respondents saying that suicide bombing and other forms of violence against civilians are justified to defend Islam. In 2002, for example, three-quarters of Lebanese Muslims said such attacks could often or sometimes be justified. Today, only one-third agree.
Opinions about Osama bin Laden have followed a similar trend. Three years ago, nearly two-thirds of Jordanian Muslims voiced at least some confidence in the al-Qaida leader. Today, just 19 percent have a positive view of him. In 2003, 20 percent of Lebanese Muslims and 15 percent of Turkish Muslims had positive views of bin Laden. Today, bin Laden's ratings have plummeted to 3 percent in Turkey and 2 percent in Lebanon.
But the voices of Muslims who denounce terrorism have received scant attention in the Western press -- even though prominent Western groups like the Council on American Islamic Relations regularly condemn terrorist acts and hold forums aimed at broadening an understanding of mainstream Islam.
It also is apparent that many who may wish to publicly denounce terrorism have not, fearing retribution. Prominent clerics in Afghanistan and Pakistan, for example, have been killed for publicly condemning the Taliban as un-Islamic for targeting civilians.
Nevertheless, the trend is unmistakable. The attacks in Mumbai offer a window of opportunity for people from all religions to condemn terrorism in all of its forms as unethical and contrary to basic human dignity. And given their excessive gruesomeness, these recent attacks ironically may make it easier for more Muslims to condemn those who would hijack Islam to further their extremist agendas.
UN says Darfur conflict shows no sign of ending
UNITED NATIONS (AP) — As the conflict in Darfur enters its sixth year, there is still widespread violence in the region, no sign of a political settlement and millions of civilians living in camps on lifesaving international aid, the U.N.'s peacekeeping chief said Friday.
Alain Le Roy told the U.N. Security Council that the joint African Union-United Nations force that took over peacekeeping in Darfur almost a year ago "has been much too slow in providing real improvements for the ordinary citizens on the ground and inadequate in resolving the Darfur crisis."
He said the U.N. must accelerate deployment of the 26,000-strong force, but stressed that "the fundamental responsibility for making real progress" lies with the government of Sudan and rebel groups which must stop fighting and start talking under U.N. mediator Djibrill Bassole.
"Only a sustainable political settlement between the parties will end this conflict," Le Roy said. "It is therefore deeply regrettable that another year has passed while the parties continue to engage in military action rather than investing themselves fully in political negotiations."
Rebels took up arms in Sudan's western Darfur region in early 2003, citing neglect and marginalization by the central government. Attempts to bring the warring parties to the negotiating table or to broker cease-fires have failed, and so far up to 300,000 people have died and 2.7 million have fled their homes.
By Shimon Shamir
As everyone knows, Jerusalem is a city of seers and visionaries. The archives are full of plans for palaces and grandiose towers that savers of the world have dreamed of building in Jerusalem to spread peace and brotherhood. However, in contrast to those plans, which remain buried in the archives, one plan arrived not long ago that is supposed to take on flesh and sinew. A splendid Museum of Tolerance, initiated by beneficent Jews from Los Angeles, is set to go up in the heart of the city.
This is a hallucinatory plan about to be realized in a place that no one disputes is part of the historic cemetery in Mamilla - an 800-year-old site whose boundaries are clearly indicated on maps. The tabernacle of tolerance is supposed to be built in total defiance of pleas by families whose ancestors are buried in Mamilla, the anger of this country's Muslim community and the mood of many of Jerusalem's Jewish inhabitants who are infuriated by the absurdity. This is tolerance that cannot be tolerated.
The High Court of Justice has authorized the museum's construction, and apparently in accordance with its judicial methods, its view is correct: The objections were submitted late, the initiators have permits from all the authorities, and philanthropists from the United States have already invested money in the project. It is clear that the Supreme Court is very skilled at dealing with these kinds of legal issues, but it emerges that it is not designed to deal with inanity.
The High Court of Justice is right because there are precedents for building on the lands of Muslim cemeteries. People with interests have always found justification and methods for doing this. However, there is no precedent for imposing an institution that aims at tolerance in accordance with nothing else than the interpretation by Jews of Muslim law.
The High Court of Justice did a marvelous job in its scrupulous research on the bones of how many deceased Muslims were found and from exactly where they were exhumed. But on the public plane the question is entirely different: How can an institution dedicated to tolerance advance understanding among the religions from a building in a Muslim cemetery where the official Sharia Court's president has ruled there should be no building?
The High Court of Justice ruling sets forth the exalted vision of the Tolerance Museum: "From it will emerge a message of human tolerance among nations, among different segments of the population and among individuals. [The museum] is slated to serve as an important focus for reference in Israel and toward the nations of the world. It is set to attract visitors from all over the country, who will partake of an experience of the idea."
How lovely is the aspiration to be a light unto the nations. However, what will the museum people say when visitors ask them why of all places in Jerusalem did they establish their tabernacle on the land of a Muslim cemetery and nowhere else? What will their explanation be when visitors wonder why the museum embarked on its brotherhood project in a clash with the Muslims?
With regard to concerns that this institution is liable to fan harsh protests, the High Court of Justice says, rightly, that we must not cave in to violence. But from the public perspective the problem is different: An institution for tolerance that chooses a location so that it will become a permanent source of friction, even nonviolent friction, is grotesque. If this institution is established, it will be a civic, Jewish and moral disgrace. Presumably, Muslims who have self-respect and respect for their heritage will not participate in its activities and Jews of integrity and common sense will never set foot in it.
The author is a professor of the history of the Middle East.
Activists accuse Sudan of Darfur abductions
Reluctant judges rule Iraqis accused of killing British soldiers can be handed to Baghdad
What terror jury was not told: 'They tore my nails out. Then I was interrogated by MI5'
• Britons found guilty of al-Qaida membership
• Convicted man alleged torture by Pakistani agents
Chilling developments in Dubai
A refrigerated swimming pool and an artificially cooled beach - Dubai's latest excesses are enough to make conservationists weep. Leo Hickman reports
The day Alhambra was destroyed...again
The fabulous Alhambra fortress in Granada, jewel of Islamic architecture in Europe, has been swindled out of millions of euros by a ticket scam, allegedly hatched by its doorkeepers, travel agencies, a tour guide and a branch of a major bank.
Spain's most spectacular tourist landmark was almost brought to its knees by an €8m (£7m) fraud, criminal investigators reported at the weekend. Up to 50 people are implicated in the scam, which involved 800,000 faked or unauthorised entry tickets doled out over three years in a process described by investigators as "anarchic and uncontrollable".
The Alhambra, the medieval symbol of Muslim rule in Spain with its breathtaking beauty and spectacular hilltop setting, has attracted visitors for centuries. The American writer Washington Irving lived within its ruins to write Tales of the Alhambra in 1829. Bill Clinton visited in 1997 to share with Hillary and Chelsea what he remembered from his student days as "the world's most beautiful sunset". And Salman Rushdie's epic novel The Moor's Last Sigh, ends with a paean to "the glory of the Moors, their triumphant masterpiece ... Europe's Red Fort".
Yemen urged to investigate hundreds of cases of unlawful detention
Yemen is accused today of unlawfully detaining hundreds of people during a four-year war with rebel forces that the government says ended in the summer.
Human Rights Watch urged Yemen's president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, to establish an independent commission to investigate arbitrary arrests and "disappearances" and to punish those responsible.
The HRW report documents 62 cases of unlawful and arbitrary arrest in connection with the conflict in the north of the country that since 2004 has periodically erupted into heavy clashes.
Yemeni human rights groups have documented hundreds of arrests, and in August 2008 the government spoke of more than 1,200 political prisoners. The government has detained some individuals as hostages in order to pressure wanted family members to surrender while arresting others for publicizing government abuses during the conflict.
President Saleh declared an end to fighting in the northern Sa'da governorate in mid-July and in August and September he ordered some prisoners released. But dozens remain detained without charge or trial, and some are still unaccounted for.
"Dozens of people who committed no crime are still languishing in Yemeni prisons, months after the president promised to deal with their cases," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "Some family members still don't know if their loved ones who were 'disappeared' are dead or alive."
Yemen, the poorest and most remote of all Arab countries, is a key US ally in the "war on terror" and is fighting its own war against al-Qaida groups. But the fighting between Huthi rebels and the government in Sa'da attracted very little outside attention, despite accusations that Saudi Arabia and Iran were involved.
The rebels began as a religious revivalist movement, the Believing Youth, in the 1990s under the leadership of Husain al-Huthi. They are followers of Zaidi Islam, a branch of Shiism found mainly in Yemen, and sought to counter growing fundamentalist Sunni trends. They began fighting in 2004 after the central government in Sana'a closed their religious schools.
HRW said those arrested include people who did not actively participate in hostilities. Some were effectively held hostage to pressure a wanted family member to surrender. They also include people whom the security forces targeted for their religious activism.
"Over the decade preceding the outbreak of the conflict, Yemen made some advances in the rule of law, especially by setting out rights in the constitution and other legislation, such as the penal code and criminal procedure code," said HRW. "However, these have been eroded by hundreds of enforced disappearances and arbitrary arrests, mainly in the context of the Huthi rebellion but also relating to the government's domestic counter-terrorism efforts and its crackdown on social unrest in southern Yemen."
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When town halls turn to Mecca
Dec 4th 2008 | DUISBURG, LYON AND ROTTERDAM
IN CITIES all over Europe, mayors are fretting about the coming religious festivities. No, not just Christmas lights. They want to ensure hygiene and order in the slaughter of sheep for the feast of Eid al-Adha on December 8th. This remembers the readiness of Abraham—the patriarch revered by all three monotheistic faiths—to sacrifice his son. Muslims often sacrifice a lamb, whose meat is shared with family members and the poor.
In the Brussels suburb of Molenbeek, where the dominant culture is that of Morocco, a circular from the district authorities reminds residents not to kill animals at home. It invites them to a “temporary abattoir” that will function for 48 hours in a council garage. Molenbeek is one of four areas of Brussels which have set up makeshift slaughterhouses, each with a capacity of at least 500 sheep. In practice, home killing is hard to stop, despite vows by the city authorities to prosecute offenders.
In places like Molenbeek, a few miles away from the European Union’s main institutions, talk of the continent’s transformation into Eurabia doesn’t sound absurd. Although Muslims make up less than 4% of the EU’s total population, their concentration in urban areas is altering the scene in some European cities.
In some of these places bad relations between Muslims, non-Muslims and the authorities are creating political opportunities for the far right. In east London, for example, arguments are raging over plans for a “mega-mosque” near the site of the 2012 Olympics. In rough parts of northern Paris, there are fights between Muslims and Jews. In Italian cities, where Muslims are numerous but not many can vote, Catholics and secularists have united to stop the erection of mosques.
Yet talk of civilisational war in Europe’s cobblestoned streets is out of line in one respect: it understates the ability of democratic politics, especially local politics, to adapt to new social phenomena. For cities to work, compromises have to be struck and coalitions assembled. In city affairs, more than in national politics, politicians borrow each other’s slogans and policies.
In London, many expected a change in municipal attitudes towards Islam when a Conservative, Boris Johnson, took over as mayor from Ken Livingstone, a leftist maverick who had feted Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a controversial Muslim preacher. But in October, when the fasting month of Ramadan ended, Mr Johnson worked as keenly as his predecessors had done with the Muslim Council of Britain to stage an Islamic celebration in Trafalgar Square.
Or take Rotterdam, where Ahmed Aboutaleb, a Muslim from Morocco, will take over as mayor at the start of 2009. On the face of things, Rotterdam has the ingredients for a Eurabian nightmare. Its Muslim population (at least 13% of the total, some say more) huddles in a few poor districts; there is a big white working class; and this is the home of Pim Fortuyn, the Islam-bashing gay politician who was killed in 2002. A group set up by Fortuyn—Liveable Rotterdam—remains active, though it lost control of the city hall to a Labour-led coalition in 2006.
And yet for now the public mood in Rotterdam is one of compromise. Among the leftist councillors who induced Mr Aboutaleb to leave his government job, the talk is of reaching out to xenophobic voters. Some policies adopted by Liveable Rotterdam—such as house searches to find illegal immigrants—have been kept under Labour. And Labour councillors like Hamit Karakus (born in Turkey but now steeped in Dutch emollience) stress the need for sensitivity to the “host” community.
Muslim citizens, he says, must understand old Dutch people who fear to leave their homes because neighbourhoods have changed. Muslims, he adds, are entitled to call the Netherlands home and practise Islam, but must accept the basics of democracy, and equality between the sexes. For the foreseeable future, no ezan, or call to prayer, will be heard on Rotterdam’s quays: too provocative, says Mr Karakus.
In the rough dockside area of Feijenoord, a local Labour politician, Robbert Baruch, enthuses about the role of mosque committees in a “social network” that mitigates poverty. He has often helped Muslim groups to qualify for municipal funds by broadening (to include non-Muslims) the range of partners and beneficiaries in their social activities. While scholars debate the role in European history of Islamic culture, local politicians face practical issues. Should recreation be segregated by sex? What food should be served in schools? How should city workers dress?
Each European country has its own traditions and taboos. Since 1905 the French state (and public space such as ministries and schools) has been off-limits to religion; it is axiomatic that no faith can ask for political favours. Belgium is messily theocratic, with a raft of subsidies for “recognised” places of worship and religious teachers, a category that now includes Muslims.
Despite these contrasts, some dilemmas faced by local authorities with large Muslim populations vary little across Europe. And the responses are often similar. In east London, double-parking is tolerated when the streets fill with Friday mosque-goers; in Molenbeek, traffic is curbed during Muslim feasts. When there is an electoral, or practical, imperative to deal with Muslim concerns, local administrators somehow get round the taboos. Muslims, meanwhile, find themselves in strange alliances. Brahim Bourzik, a well-connected Rotterdam Muslim, co-organises public events with a gay newspaper: to remind people, he says, that gays have often spoken up for immigrants’ rights.
As a case of local pragmatism, take Lyon in France, where 16,400 pupils at primary schools returned from half-term to find a new lunch menu. Alongside the expected meat dish—sauté de dinde—there was a meatless alternative. Although it wasn’t presented that way, this change was a response to the fact that many Muslims won’t eat meat unless it has been killed in a halal way. In some city schools, about 40% of pupils had been skipping lunch.
Lyon council is the first in France to introduce in schools what it defensively calls a “secular menu”. Its meatless lunches are a neat compromise. Under France’s secular doctrine of laicité it would be unthinkable to make full halal meals; a gesture to “vegetarians” got round a problem that needed facing in a department where 300,000 Muslims (19% of the population) live.
When diet divides
One local civil-liberties group called the new policy “dietary apartheid”. But the Lyon authorities hope to avoid the passions over food in schools (and other Islamic issues) that rage in, say, Antwerp. That port is a bastion of the Flemish-nationalist movement, Vlaams Belang, which plays on fear of Islam as much as linguistic chauvinism. In the last city elections in 2006, VB retained about a third of the vote, and was kept out of power only by a broad centre-left block. Between Antwerp and Rotterdam—both historic ports that are diverse but Dutch-speaking—there is a big difference in political climate.
Every time moves are made towards opening a new mosque in Antwerp (there are now 36), Vlaams Belang stages a noisy protest. Last January it brought to Antwerp a gaggle of far-right groups from across Europe; a cross-border effort to stop creeping Islamisation was duly proclaimed. And nationalist Flemings reacted with triumphant rage when an Antwerp bureaucrat quietly decided that, henceforth, all food in city schools would be halal. The finesse that other north European cities bring to inter-faith relations seems lacking in Flanders. A compromise over the apparel of Antwerp city workers—scarves were not to be worn when dealing with the public, but okay elsewhere—left all sides grumbling.
If relations between Muslims and others are tense in Flemish cities, that reflects the sick state of Belgium. In Brussels, Flemings accuse French-speaking bureaucrats of enfranchising francophone Moroccans so as to tilt the balance against Dutch. And as Hilde de Lobel, a VB legislator, puts it: “People say they haven’t fought against the French language only to yield to Arabic.”
The Flemish right has taken heart from the widely publicised protests against a large mosque in Cologne. In September a protest meeting in the German city (with participants from Flanders, Italy and Austria) was called off only after police clashed with counter-demonstrators.
But in Germany as a whole, inter-faith relations are happier than in Belgium. Take Duisburg, just 60km from Cologne, where Turks began arriving in the 1950s to work in the coal and steel industries.
In the suburb of Marxloh, in Duisburg’s gritty outskirts, a big mosque has just opened with few problems. A history of inter-faith co-existence has made the region tolerant, says Peter Greulich, a city father in Duisburg. Still, when the Muslims of Marxloh decided to turn their prayer space (an old canteen) into a real mosque, they took no chances. Duisburg had been through a fight in 1997-98 over the call to prayer: “We learnt our limits then,” says Zulfiye Kaykin, head of community outreach at the new mosque.
From the start, non-Muslims were brought in. A board of 25 people—from churches, voluntary groups and trade unions—was set up to figure out “how to integrate the majority community into the whole project”, says Ms Kaykin. The mosque is something of a hybrid. It is built in a familiar Byzantine-Ottoman style, but some features reflect local needs. These include a community centre on the floor below the prayer space, serving both Muslims and non-Muslims. Planners didn’t want a male-only Turkish tea room. Instead, the communal area hosts events for women, youth and the aged plus exhibitions of Muslim and Turkish culture for outsiders. A cabaret artist of Turkish origin has performed there: a first for a mosque.
Miracles do happen
What some call the “miracle from Marxloh” draws little local opposition. Neo-Nazis from elsewhere held a protest in 2005, but Duisburg united against it. The city’s mayor, from the centre-right Christian Democratic Union, backs the project.
The mosque has also been a catalyst for change in the community. “Women have to come out of anonymity,” says Ms Kaykin, herself a stylish, scarf-less dresser. Of the mosque’s 740 members, 80 are women: a change from the old restriction to male heads of households. The mosque has big windows, in part to reassure Germans that nothing bad is being preached.
In Cologne, critics deplore the proposed mosque’s visibility, and the height of its minarets. But in Marxloh, visibility is part of the point. Duisburg has more than 40 mosques, most in nondescript buildings. Some arouse suspicious talk of “parallel societies”. A mosque that announces itself seems reassuring. “We need more mosques in our country, not in backrooms but visible,” said Jürgen Rüttgers, the CDU premier of North Rhine-Westphalia, at the mosque’s opening in October.
The fact that centre-right figures like him back Muslim construction projects shows how far political Europe has come in accepting Islam. In France, local politicians on the centre-right have let through initially controversial plans for large mosques—in Toulouse and Marseille, for example. Several French city halls have faced legal challenges for giving mosques land too cheaply. But in France and Germany it is now widely accepted that more purpose-built mosques are needed.
None of this means that all problems over mosques—and other policy issues related to Islam—are solved. In Heinersdorf, a poor area of east Berlin, there was uproar when Ahmaddiya Muslims from Pakistan, a group which mainstream Islam eschews, set up a mosque. A local citizens’ group called the newcomers “anti-women, anti-democratic and anti-Semitic” and the neo-Nazis were even ruder. But Abdul Basit Tariq, the imam, says the row died down a bit after the mosque opened in October, with the mayor of Berlin present.
On other touchstone issues, like segregated swimming, each country applies its own legal tradition. Rotterdam’s Mr Karakus says this question is no harder than having set times for older swimmers. In France, things are tougher. This year, the mayor of La Verpillière, a village near Lyon with a Turkish population, had to stop a weekly session at the pool that was reserved for women. Non-Muslim women liked these dips as much as their Islamic sisters, but they were deemed to violate French ideals of equality. Fadela Amara, the government minister for cities, who is of Muslim origin and a feminist, called segregated swims a sop to fundamentalism.
But on some matters, a humane accommodation of Muslim customs is increasingly common. One such issue is burial. In Britain, Leicester has pioneered good practice in Islamic interment. In Lyon, the Regional Council for the Muslim Faith (CRCM) has secured Muslim plots, aligned with Mecca, in public cemeteries. On this question, and over sheep sacrifice, regional councils work better than the national body—the CFCM or French Council for the Muslim Faith—of which they are part. On slaughter, talks with the prefecture were “efficient and straightforward”, says Azzedine Gaci, head of the Lyon CRCM.
This bears out an argument made by Jonathan Laurence, a professor at Boston College. As he puts it, local pragmatism often works better than high-stakes posturing between governments and “national” Muslim bodies. In the latter case, expectations are too high: governments want to resolve all their worries about security and political stability, while on the Muslim side, there is rivalry between ethnic groups and a compulsion to flex muscles. But Mr Laurence adds that for local deals to work, there has to be some national consensus about the limits of cultural freedom.
In many parts of Europe, the far right scored well by vowing to tighten those limits—only to lose ground, in some countries, as other parties adopted parts of their agenda (for example, by pledging to curb immigration), and as Muslims became more skilled at politics. However, there are areas of Europe where Islamophobia is still in the ascendant—such as Austria, where the far right took 29% of the national vote in September and picked a fight over teachers and veils.
In France and Germany, the centre-right has grown friendlier to Islam. In Italy, by contrast, the centre-left has been forced to take a tougher line over Islam by the xenophobic right. A mosque-building project in Bologna collapsed in April after its sponsors rejected terms imposed by a leftist mayor, such as transparent funding, and the severing of ties to a pan-Italian body which is seen as close to the Muslim Brotherhood. In Genoa, a leftist mayor has imposed even stiffer conditions (like a bar on minarets) on a mosque-building effort that began last year. But opponents still want a local referendum before work starts.
Neither in Italy nor elsewhere is there any ground for complacency about social peace in Europe’s cities. The absorptive power of local democracy is great, but it is not infinite. From Amsterdam to Leicester, conurbations that now thrive on diversity could face problems if economic pressures put an end to the municipal largesse that keeps all groups happy. But at least this much can be said: there are enough examples of Muslims and non-Muslims learning to rub along, through the trade-offs of local politics, to disprove the fatalists. In urban Europe, there is nothing predestined about the clash of civilisations.
Muslims for freedom and enlightenment
ABOUT three years ago, a handful of Muslim academics from disparate countries in Southeast Asia linked up and realised how similar their ideas were on the direction of Islam in their various states. They then became inspired to build a channel to keep in touch, in spite of their cultural differences, whether they spoke Tagalog, Bisayan, Thai or Malay.
The upshot of it all was a series of round-table meetings and study trips under a network called the "Southeast Asian Muslims for Freedom and Enlightenment" (Seamus). Comprising eminent Muslim activists and scholars, the network hailed itself as a historic "reform-oriented" movement; its purpose, to promote human rights, gender equality, pluralism, peaceful conflict resolutions and civil society, among Muslim communities across the region.
But as the meetings progressed, they threw open a whole new gamut of concerns, with the representatives confronting commonalities so identical and urgent. Chief among these, they found, was an overarching concern about their indigenous Southeast Asian cultures in the face of heightened fundamentalism in the Muslim world.
"In all our discussions, one issue that the participants brought to the table was of Middle-Eastern interpretation and its negative impact on local culture," said Amina Rasul, a convenor for the Philippines Council for Islam and Democracy. "In Southeast Asia, we did not have this kind of situation before. But now more and more, year by year, people are donning Arab garb to show they are Muslim."
"And as this goes on, the trend is going to impact the songs we sing, the traditional dances we have," added Amina who hails from Mindanao and is a former presidential adviser in the cabinet of Fidel Ramos.
"And so we said we should be wary of Arabic interpretations. We should differentiate our cultures from Arab customs."
And when the network recently held an unpublicised meeting in Penang, the delegates who had converged here found the mutual concern about their Southeast Asian identities become even more articulated. The meeting was co-organised with the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung.
According to Raja Juli Antoni, executive director of the Jakarta-based Maarif Institute, the adoption of Islam had for centuries never unduly affected the rich local traditions of the Southeast Asians. Because Islam entered the region peacefully, not through war or conquest, it seeped into peoples’ lives without disturbing their cultures, integrating side-by-side with local "Malayness", he says.
But increasingly, just over the last decade or two, there has been a growing tendency to abandon locally evolved traditions, fearing that they are "un-Islamic".
"We cannot deny that the Quran and the Hadith are written in Arabic, but we have to make a distinction between Islamic values and Arab traditions," he says.
His countryman, Luthfi Assyaukanie, chairman of the Liberal Islam Network, finds it ironic that it was the very democracy introduced in Indonesia after the fall of Suharto that allowed radical Islamic groups to grow over the last ten years.
"There is a contest of ideas between liberals and radicals ... And the conservatives are using this freedom to impose Islamic agenda.
"If the agenda is good, that it deals with poverty, the environment, with quality of human life, and so on, then it’s fine. But if your agenda is going to discriminate people, humiliate particular groups, then it needs to be looked at.
"In the past we were wiser ... But it’s the same problem in the Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia and south Thailand," Luthfi says.
Malaysian Institute for Policy Research executive director Khalid Jaafar insists that a powerful reconciliation between the two worlds – the traditions of Southeast Asia and the values of Islam – can be attained.
And it can be found in many of the ancient Islamic texts themselves. "The intellectual foundations are there," he says, stressing that the religion accommodates diversity while embracing different cultures. "What we want to do is to first understand the rich resources available within the spectrum of Islamic thought that have emerged historically.
"We need to be aware of the contemporary challenges faced by Islam, and look at how the deep spiritual resources can help to deal with the challenges."
And the intellectuals maintain there is hope for another dawn of Islam in Southeast Asia. "There has got to be a point where we see that we are in fact Malay, Indonesian, Thai or Bangsa Moro," says Amina Rasul. "And that we see to it that our cultures are not erased, even as we follow our Islamic faith."
Elusive Peace For Thai Muslims
NARATHIWAT, Thailand — With random detentions are rife and abuses by the military becoming a common practice, peace appears elusive for Thai Muslims in the violence-ridden south.
"There will be no end to this strife even in four generations to come," Pak Wan, a 65-year-old shop owner, told Bernama news agency on Saturday, October 25.
"Scores of our people have died but not even one soldier has been jailed.
"The government has changed hands but they have no consideration for our plight."
Thai Muslims, who make up five percent of the predominantly Buddhist kingdom's population, have long complained of heavy-handed practices by the military in the South.
Under a decree giving them sweeping powers, security forces often storm Muslim villages and detain hundreds on suspicion of supporting "rebel" groups in the south.
The army also sent hundreds of Muslims to "training camps" between three to six months in other provinces.
"We think the authorities used this decree to oppress the detainees and to get information on insurgent networks," Pornpen Khongkachonkiet, from the Cross Cultural Foundation, said of the emergency decree that gives sweeping powers to the military.
"But this method is only gaining more sympathy for separatist groups and making them go underground ... in the end only small fish are caught."
More than 3,400 people have been killed in south Thailand since violence erupted almost five years ago.
Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat are the only Muslim-majority provinces in Thailand and were an independent Muslim sultanate until annexed officially a century ago.
Human rights groups said that the abuses by the military are leaving Thai Muslims live in fear.
"Muslims in southern Thailand live in fear of the army storming in to take their men away to be tortured," said Brad Adams, Asia director at the Human Rights Watch.
The HRW has recently accused the army and police of using forced disappearances to intimidate Muslims, urging a public government's renunciation of the standard policy.
"The army is fighting an insurgency but that doesn't mean soldiers can abuse people," said Adams.
"And prosecuting troops for mistreatment could actually help calm the situation and rebuild trust with the Muslim community."
The International Crisis Group urged the Thai government to mull a political solution to the Muslim south.
"Ending the violence in the deep south requires more than a military response," the IGC said.
"Now, with the insurgents on the defensive, is a good time to take decisive steps to address the root causes of the conflict."
The IGC last year urged the Thai government in March 15 to start preparing the Buddhist majority to accept a negotiated autonomy for the Muslim-majority south.