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Islam and Pluralism ( 15 Nov 2008, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Saudi-inspired 80-state conference on religious tolerance at the United Nations


Too many Christian-Muslim talks, Catholic cardinal warns

Malaysia Islamic party moves to embrace non-Muslims

Author Provides Brief Intro to Islam for Jews

Non-Muslim NGOs warned: 'Stay out of Muslim matters’



Saudi-inspired 80-state conference on religious tolerance at the United Nations


November 16, 2008

The United Nations was the venue of an 80-state conference on religious tolerance at the end of which a declaration called “Culture of Peace” has been issued. It expresses concern over “serious instances of intolerance, discrimination, expressions of hatred and harassment of minority religious communities of all faiths”. Everybody talked of promoting dialogue during the conference, thinking that its failure in the past should not discourage those who champion it in the midst of violence.

All religions were mentioned in the speeches made during the conference but it was Islam whose followers were mainly addressed under the heading of religion while the word “justice” was used when addressing the secular states of the West now presiding over the international economic and political order. Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah was the driving force behind the conference. Since he presides over Sunni Islam — and to some extent Shia Islam too because of his custodianship of Hajj — the gathering was not without significance.

In response to an appeal for “justice”, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said the creation of a Palestinian state side-by-side with an Israeli state “can be achieved by goodwill”. His country represents the European consensus that disagrees only in detail with the way the US handles the “dialogue” in the Middle East, but goes along passively with the drift that has characterised American diplomacy in the region. Europe’s compulsion to go along with the US — a compulsion equally felt by the Muslim states of the Middle East — on other global-strategic matters incapacitates them from delivering on “justice”. Europe and the US also have their problems with expatriate Islam: Europe surprisingly has more of them than the US.

The expatriate Muslim in the West has integrated into the host culture less and less over the years. The two approaches to expatriate workers — assimilation and integrationism or multiculturalism — have failed. Assimilation insists that the expatriate person should accept the local culture in public places to become a full-fledged citizen. Multiculturalism believes that Islam is a deep-seated culture too and will not fade away as new generations come and go, and so its practises may remain side by side with those of the host country. One approach opposes separation; the other allows separation to achieve integration.

Assimilationist France doesn’t allow the wearing of the veil to Muslim girls in public places, and has provoked protest. Multiculturalist UK, Belgium and Germany are poised to also follow France and restrict the wearing of the Muslim veil because allowing Muslim citizens to remain separate has not led to integration as originally envisaged. European scholars critical of their governments seek resolution within the matrix of Western values and observance of human rights and think that current remedies sought officially are all wrong.

But Islamic scholars have not succeeded as intellectuals because of the use of violence by the orthodox and the extremist who dominate Islam these days. Intellectual interpretations of the faith are still not popular in the Muslim world mainly because of low levels of literacy and the consequent concentration of power in the hands of the clergy. Muslim intellectuals, like Muhammad Arkun, Abdul Karim Soroush, Khaled Abu El Fadl and Abu Zayd, who believe that early Islam was a free-wheeling adaptive Islam that was gradually arrested by a specific culture, have been forced to live abroad. The absence of the intellectual in Islam makes the faith impervious to change in the light of the kind of consensus expressed by the UN conference.

Looking at Pakistan in the light of this observation one can say that it is not Islam that is destroying Pakistani culture through Talibanisation but a certain interpretation of Islam that is frozen in a specific culture. Iranian intellectual Abdul Karim Soroush actually appeals for a contraction of religion (qabz-e-din) away from the political sphere as well as culture. The greater problem is that as terrorism in Pakistan spreads through the vehicle of religion, a new religion unfamiliar to Pakistan’s South Asian Muslim tradition is coming into existence. Therefore the modern state is hurting more than society because it is less resilient to ideas that place sovereignty outside the state with such concepts as jihad and munkiraat (prohibited practices).

Most lethal is the tendency to use violence in pursuit of the sect. This is the internal conflict that all Muslims condemn but do nothing about. This obfuscates the meaning of Islamophobia as used by the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in his address. If a Shia fears a Sunni, what should one call it, if not Islamophobia? Similarly, the spread of suicide-bombing has been condemned by Muslims of all sects, but some Muslims continue to practice it against fellow-Muslims. So it is worth asking: as the Muslim state retreats in front of these trends of violence, how can it offer any assurances of peace to the world?


Too many Christian-Muslim talks, Catholic cardinal warns

Tom Heneghan, Reuters, November 15, 2008

Vatican City - There are now so many efforts to improve relations between Christians and Muslims that they risk overlapping and creating confusion, the Vatican's top official for interfaith contacts says.

Jean-Louis Cardinal Tauran, head of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, said a conference between Catholics and Muslims last week was a fresh bid for mutual understanding that could become a "favoured channel" for the Vatican.

But there is now so much interest in Christian-Muslim dialogue that it is getting hard to see where it is going, said Cardinal Tauran, who was preparing to fly to New York for United Nations talks linked to another drive led by Saudi King Abdullah.

"In my opinion, there are too many Christian-Muslim initiatives. Everybody's doing it," he told Reuters in an interview. "One doesn't know where this will go. That proves there is a great interest, but it sows a bit of confusion.

"There's a risk of overlapping ... It may be the price to pay for all this interest that interreligious dialogue incites."

Dialogue between Christians and Muslims is nothing new, but the Sept. 11 attacks and sharpened tensions between western and Muslim states have given it a new urgency and sparked concern about a growing gap between the world's two largest religions.

A Common Word, an informal group of religious leaders and scholars across the Muslim world, gave interfaith dialogue a new impetus last year by inviting Christians to examine how both faiths have shared core principles of loving God and neighbour.

On Nov 4-6, a Common Word delegation held an unprecedented meeting at the Vatican called the Catholic-Muslim Forum, a bilateral exchange due to be held every two years.

Cardinal Tauran noted the Vatican had several established dialogues with Muslims, including with the leading Sunni university Al-Azhar in Cairo, with Shi'ites in Iran and with the World Islamic Call Society in Libya.

The next two largest Christian families after Catholics, the Orthodox and the Anglicans, also had their own dialogues, he noted. A broad spectrum of churches recently met near Geneva to try to get an overview of how each is interacting with Islam.

Asked if Christian churches could co-ordinate their efforts, Tauran shook his head and said, "It's like in Islam. There is no single voice. For the moment, it's not possible."

The French-born cardinal praised the Common Word group for trying to represent a broad consensus in the fractious Muslim world. Tauran said he was most struck by the openness and mutual respect that prevailed despite clearly stated differences.



Malaysia Islamic party moves to embrace non-Muslims

Nov 14, 2008

Kualalumpur (Reuters) - Malaysia's opposition Islamist party PAS is opening its doors to non-Muslims to bolster its support in the nation where just over half of the people are Muslims, its deputy chief said on Friday.

By constitution, Parti Islam se-Malaysia (PAS) -- largely run by Muslim clerics but gradually being taken over by young, moderate leaders -- is out of bounds to non-Muslims as direct members.

But a surge of support by Chinese and Indian voters for the party outside its home base in the watershed March 8 general election has prompted PAS to change its tack, PAS deputy president Nasharudin Mat Isa said.

"We have to expand the membership to all especially with the March 8 support that we received," he told Reuters. "It's a matter of implementation once the technical issues are resolved."

Politically, the PAS move could further unsettle the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition that has ruled the country for 51 years, analysts said.

A resurgent opposition and a voter discontent caused the Barisan to stumble to its worst result in March, losing its key two-thirds majority in parliament and five of 13 states.

PAS, which is traditionally strong in the Malay heartland in northeastern Malaysia, scored unprecedented electoral gains, including winning several urban seats in the west coast states.

PAS is known for advocating a theocratic Islamic state in a multi-racial society of 27 million people where sizeable ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities practice Buddhism, Hinduism or Christianity.

But in the last election, it shied away from this long-standing objective in its campaign and instead pushed for a "welfare state" agenda to attract non-Muslim voters.

Under the membership plan, PAS will directly admit non-Muslims as members but they will not be allowed to contest in internal party elections, officials said.

"But they run for general elections on PAS ticket, or become senators," Nasharudin said.



Author Provides Brief Intro to Islam for Jews

November 13, 2008 - Bryan Schwartzman

Especially since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Western scholars and pundits have wrestled with the question of whether violence and intolerance of other viewpoints are somehow endemic to Islam; and, if this is not the case, can liberal forces within the Muslim world act to temper its more extremist elements?

Put another way: Is the so-called clash of civilizations inevitable or can the West in general and Jews in particular, find a way to co-exist with Islam?

Put author Reuven Firestone's name in the optimist's column.

The ordained rabbi is also a professor of medieval Judaism and Islam at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. A 2002 fellow at the Center for Advanced Judaic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, he is also the author of a new book, put out by the Jewish Publication Society, called An Introduction to Islam for Jews.

"I do not believe that religion is the cause of the world's problems, but I do believe it can be part of the solution," Firestone has stated in the book's introduction. "Jews, as never before, have a pressing need to understand the history, theology, and practice of Muslims and Islam."

The book concentrates on aspects of Islamic religion and history that are of particular interest to Jews: One chapter examines the relationship between Mohammad and the Jews of Medina, something that might not be covered in as much detail in an introduction to Islam aimed at the general reader, he noted.

Speaking to a packed auditorium at Gratz College on Oct. 30, Firestone largely eschewed present-day concerns and, instead, discussed the Koran's treatment of Jews and Judaism, acknowledging that Islam's holiest book -- considered the direct word of God by Muslims -- contains some less-than-flattering references to its fellow religion, including accusations that the Jews of Medina distorted their own religious teachings in order to justify rejecting Mohammad. On the other hand, the Koran also focuses heavily on the notion of Jews as fellow believers who "shall not fear nor grieve."

Firestone added that the text, in general, takes a far harsher view of Arabian polytheists -- followers of an ancient indigenous tradition that focused on multiple desert gods -- who, at that time, constituted the dominant religious group in Mecca.

Harsh Criticism All Around

Firestone argued that the founding texts of upstart religions often contain harsh criticism for more-established faiths, whose leaders often seek to suppress or discredit nascent religious movements. For instance, he said that several biblical books contain passages exhorting the ancient Israelites to destroy the Canaanite tribes as part of their conquest of the Promised Land.

"There are no Canaanites around today to call Jews to task for the nastiness in the Hebrew Bible," said Firestone.

He also said that the Koran "is more open to other religious systems than either the Hebrew Bible or the New Testament. There is some openness in all three, there is some condemnation of all three -- that's the phenomenon of religion."

After his presentation, Firestone took questions from a largely sympathetic audience. However, he was asked to address the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and the religious sanction of violence.

He asserted that radical religious sects have emerged throughout the history of Judaism and Christianity, insisting that the phenomenon is hardly confined to Islam.

"Religion is being used by people who feel that they are not getting a fair shake," said Firestone. "When better resources are available to people ... then we will alleviate some of the stresses that are encouraging radicals."



Non-Muslim NGOs warned: 'Stay out of Muslim matters’

By STEVEN DANIEL, November 13, 2008

Gombak: Non-Muslim Non Governmental Organisations (NGOs) have been warned against interfering in matters involving Islamic laws or risk facing severe action by police.

Inspector General of Police Tan Sri Musa Hassan said this following a string of remarks made by various NGOs in connection with the National Fatwa Council’s edict on tomboys and proposed announcement ruling against yoga exercises.

“NGOs must respect the Fatwa council’s decision on Islamic matters and not interfere in the matter.

“Their actions and comments can cause a lot friction which could lead to fighting,” he said.

Earlier during a seminar in University Islam Antarabangsa Malaysia here, Musa said there was no reason for non-Muslims to feel threatened by the council’s fatwa because it was only meant for Muslims.

“I will not hesitate to take stern action against these NGOs if they continue to fan sentiments,” he warned.

Last week, several protesters walked through the city centre denouncing the National Fatwa Council’s decision against tomboys.

The protesters claimed that Muslim women should have the right over how they wanted to express themselves or dress.

The protesters, comprising women from two groups and several men, marched from Jalan Ampang to KLCC, while chanting slogans, carrying banners and distributing pamphlets to passers-by. Source: