religion

Translation: ‘Ton corps est ton crime,’ by Kamel Daoud

[NOTE: This is a guest post and translation by author and translator Suzanne Ruta, who has contributed translations to TMND in the past. The piece was written in the context of  the Amina trial in Tunisia and discussion around women's dress in Algeria.

Kamel Daoud, Algerian novelist and journalist, (Quotidien d’Oran, Algerie-Focus)  wrote this rant  the day eighteen year old Amina Sboui was found guilty in Tunisian court, of carrying pepper spray at a Salafist demonstration in the Tunisian holy city of Kairouan in late May.  She was still in jail as of June 5th, when she appeared in court, in handcuffs and a full body covering, to answer charges of public indecency and desecration of public property. (She had written the word FEMEN on a cemetery wall.)

The whole flap  began when Amina wrote in Arabic on her bare torso, and published the photo on facebook in March ” My body belongs to me. It is not the source of anyone’s honor.”  Daoud backtracks that hopeful assertion.  “To whom does a woman’s body belong? To her country, her family, her husband, her older brother, her neighborhood, the boys on her street, her father, and the State, her ancestors, her national culture and its taboos.” 

This is another of Daoud’s  highly original riffs, where he jumps from close up social observation, to millennial grief  you could call it, but somehow with a  heartening result.  It’s best understood against the background of fog, obfuscation and vast lies by omission that permeate Algerian TV (the lone state run channel) and political discourse.  It continues his lament, over the last year, about creeping salafism in Algeria, as its spokesmen are emboldened by recent successes in Tunisia. In Blida, Daoud noted lately with some bitterness an imam proposes that young women adopt the hijab at the age of ten!  Daoud has a big following in Algeria and in France for his witty passionate succinct commentary on current events. 

Daoud has been writing a column several times a week in the Quotidien d’Oran, raina raikoum – meaning your opinion, my opinion, for the last ten years. He is also a prize winning novelist and short story writer. His facebook link is https://www.facebook.com/kamel.daoud.7

Nasira and Comparing Islamists

Hani Nasira describes the roles of Tunisian and Egyptian Islamists in those countries’ uprisings and transitions. Salafists have a considerably stronger presence in Egypt — where they formed parties and performed exceptionally well in recent election — than in Tunisia. Both parties have been forced to cooperate with other parties and factions, some of them non-Islamist. En-Nahdha in particular entered a coalition with left-wing and secular parties in that country’s constituent assembly. What Nasira does not describe, perhaps for reasons of space or something else, is how the Tunisian and Egyptian socio-political contexts differ and how this contributes to producing rather different Islamist scenes and behavior in relation to both Islamist and non-Islamist elements. What kind of relationships to Islamist actors have with the masses and institutions in the rest of society? What structures their course of action? That en-Nahdha was pushed into a coalition with non-Islamist parties in Tunisia can easily be understood given how divisive religious issues are there; and how the diversity of expectations regarding religious politics in Tunisia differs from the Egyptian situation where Muslim identity politics leans in the favor of the major religious parties somewhat decisively. The Tunisian tradition of official state secularism also differs qualitatively from Egypt’s (as well does the overall conversation about religion), and there is a comparatively large element which is comfortable with excluding religion as such from public life which pulls the politically active religious trend more to the center of things and it also means there is more popular contestation between the religious and secular tendencies over the larger picture as compared to in Egypt. Non-Islamsit parties performed much better in Tunisia than in Egypt, and the average Tunisian and probably in somewhat of a different place politically form the average Egypt in how he views Islamism and Islamists more generally, even accounting for class and regional variation which is quite acute. Islamists and secularists ‘get away with’ certain things in Egypt which they cannot in Tunisia and vice versa. Some Tunisians voted for en-Nahdha not out of ideological solidarity but because they felt the other parties were too obscure or arrogant or shallow or the like — protest votes, which one heard about when so many Algerians voted for the Islamic Salvation Front in 1991. But because of the way the electoral system was arranged there was the problem of ‘wasted votes’ and the actual returns for en-Nahdha might have been somewhat understated in the final election results. The Salafist trend differs considerably in the two countries, both in their numbers and their attitudes toward elections. The number of their parties in Egypt is truly impressive. What accounts for the vast numbers of Salafists in Egypt and the ideological and political diversity of Salafist parties there in comparison to Tunisia?

In any case, with all the ink let out over how well Islamists have performed in recent elections, it is worth looking at how these parties got to where they are in political context — what regulates their electoral performance and popular appeal, internally and externally, socially (in official and non-official ways) and  both at the elite and mass levels.

UDPATE: Reader ‘Salah’ left the following thoughts in the comments section and they help explain some of en-Nahdha’s performance. (more…)

Minority Questions

Piotr Zalewski’s piece on the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood in Foreign Policy leaves the reader with questions. The piece changes in the Syrian Brotherhood’s attitude toward religion and politics since its violent encounters with the Syrian regime in the 1970s and 1980s; the Syrian Brothers, he quotes one as saying, “have  faced a revolution in our thoughts.” Zalewski describes this process broadly; he touches on very few specific questions and relies primarily (though not wholly) on interviews with Syrian Brotherhood members in the diaspora, in Turkey or Europe. The bulk of the article is concerned with explaining the influence of Turkey’s AK party as a “model” for Syrian Islamists. The party’s worldview has been influenced heavily by generational shifts and the success of Turkish Islamists. But the piece suffers heavily from avoiding a discussion of specific changes in the party’stance on specific questions.

For example: It would make sense to consider the Brotherhood’s position on the rights of religious minorities in the Brotherhood’s Syria. Given the strong sectarian element in Syria’s politics and the deep (and sometimes irrational) fear many Syrian minorities have at the prospect of the Ba’th regime falling and leading to even the possibility of “domination” by the Sunni majority (by means of the Brotherhood, for example) it is just as relevant to explore the Brotherhood’s “evolution” in this context as well as its view of the female dress code or the “light” role of ideology in general. Should a non-Muslim have the right to be the head of state (recall the Brotherhood’s campaign against the this provision in Syria’s proposed 1973 constitution)? Should Islam be the state religion? What do Brotherhood members when they refer to free “practice” of religion? How are their positions on these questions different from what they were in the 1970s and 1980s? How does the Brotherhood’s sectarianism relate to the sectarianism elsewhere in Syrian society?

Studies VII: The PCOT & Religion and the State (II)

This post is a part of a new series of posts which will consist of translations and excerpts from the communiques, statements, pamphlets and other literature from left-wing political parties in the Arab world, especially Tunisia (others as well, Egypt, Algeria and Mauritania in particular). The selections will focus on foreign policy, women’s issues, relations with other political factions (mainly Islamists and other leftist tendencies), ideology, rhetoric and general worldview. The purpose of this series is to put into English elements of the contemporary Arab political discourse which are generally neglected in western and English-language reportage and analysis while the of Islamist tendency receives extensive, if not excessive coverage. The translations in this series should not be taken as this blogger endorsing or promoting the content of particular materials: the objective is to increase access to and understanding of the contemporary Arab left by making its perspectives known, especially in areas of interest and relevance to English-speakers. This series will include both leftist and Arab nationalist [party] documents, statements, communiques, articles and so on. The series will attempt to touch on as many of the main (and interesting) leftist parties as possible.

Below is a translation of an essay (“Marxism and the relationship between religion and state: State secularism”) included in a pamphlet released by the Tunisian Communist Workers Party titled في اللائكية ”On Secularism”. The essay is itself an excerpt from a longer piece dealing with similar issues. The title of the pamphlet and this essay use the term اللائكية (al-la’ikiyya) derived from laïcité/laïque rather than علمانية (al-’ilmaniyya), the the standard Arabic term for secularism. This has been discussed earlier in this series. The essay lays out the author’s view of the corrosive influence of religious and religious partisans on science, freedom of conscience, women, class and the most effective means of dealing with the religious problem from a leftist perspective. It makes a strong effort to avoid targeting Islam as a religion and to cast its criticism of religious politics firmly in the realm of materialist political discourse, criticizing “Islamism” and “Islamists” as a system of political philosophy and explicitly admits that the party and the left cannot attempt to ban or eradicate religion from society. The essay also lays out the party’s view of what the Marxist take on religion in Tunisia ought to be.Below is a translation of an essay (“Marxism and the relationship between religion and state: State secularism”) included in a pamphlet released by the Tunisian Communist Workers Party titled في اللائكية ”On Secularism”. The essay is itself an excerpt from a longer piece dealing with similar issues. The title of the pamphlet and this essay use the term اللائكية (al-la’ikiyya) derived from laïcité/laïque rather than علمانية (al-’ilmaniyya), the the standard Arabic term for secularism. The implications of this have been discussed earlier in this series. Most of the essays/polemics in “On Secularism” are aggressive and loud critiques of Islamist political thought and leaders like Rachid Ghannouchi. More than one of the essays come from the late 1980s but others are not dated, like “Marxism and the relationship between religion and the state”.

The essay lays out the author’s view of the corrosive influence of religious and religious partisans on science, freedom of conscience, women, class and the most effective means of dealing with the religious problem from a leftist perspective. It makes a strong effort to avoid targeting Islam as a religion and to cast its criticism of religious politics firmly in the realm of materialist political discourse (drawing heavily on Leninist themes), criticizing “Islamism” and “Islamists” as a system of political philosophy and activism, explicitly admitting that the party and the left cannot attempt to ban or eradicate religion from society. The author clearly hopes to avoid conflating opposition to Islamist politics to Islam as practiced by ordinary people (which might alienate potential followers) while at the same time arguing for open-mindedness on religious thought (note that the essay mentions the right to atheism, for example). The forceful arguments on education and minority rights are notable as well. These come in support of the piece’s three main problems with religious government (its negative impact on”scientific renaissance, its suppression of free thought and its restrictions on political freedom). “Marxism and the relationship between religion and the state” was selected for translation because it represents a relatively brief and straightforward introduction to the party’s ideological and practical stance on religion and politics, in the general sense. It does not deal specifically with Tunisian rivals of the PCOT or secularism in general by name; it discusses the subject in social and historical terms. Thus it gives readers a general idea of the party’s overall stance which is fleshed out further in other (longer) and more specific essays. Additionally it reveals important elements of the party’s attitude toward education in general. (The article includes footnotes which are not included here but will be in a later format.)

Thoughts RE: Arab Uprising & Ramadan 2011

Ramadan begins on 1 August and will last through 29 August. The Islamic holy month of Ramadan will coincide with a variety of ongoing uprisings in the Arab world. It is worth considering how this might be significant in political terms since it seems to so obvious that this Ramadan is likely to be especially eventful. The Islamic holiday’s overlap with several ongoing and developing uprisings in the Arab countries is highly likely to increase openings for popular activism, especially by sectarian and Islamist factions. Additionally, Ramadan will provide opposition elements with greater opportunities for organizing and protest as large numbers of people gather at mosques and communal festivities in the open air in major cities. In counties with ongoing uprisings, such as Yemen and Syria, there is a high probability that Islamist groupings will become bolder and more confident during Ramadan, taking advantage of opportunities to use religious festivals and sermons to rally their followers against their regime and factional enemies. At the least, Ramadan could intensify already common post-Friday afternoon prayers demonstrations and nighttime protests that have become more and more common in several Arab countries. (more…)

Rationality Will Not Save Us

Politics is in the Fourth Quadrant.  Efforts to apply rational, scientific analysis often fail to explain political outcomes and processes. Politics is the struggle for power and the process by which individuals and groups determine the division of power in human society. There is a need to recognize that relativism has some place in politics, however unhappy this may make some: individuals are frequently certain of what they believe to be in their own “best interest”. These perceptions are often limited in scope or even wholly tacit (known/unknown unknowns); individuals often do not fully understand why they feel they need or want something but still feel its necessity. In the fundamental human cell, the group, humans are not totally sure of what others in their groups — or in other groups —  intend or wish to happen. Uncertainty and fear dominate human life, tacitly and often explicitly. When made explicit, tacit sentiments can be of high utility in society and especially politics. (more…)

Trials and Visits

Here are some highlights and thoughts from the last week in Mauritania (another post on issues beyond what is below is coming down the pipeline):

Five of nineteen Mauritanians on trial for terrorism charges were sentenced this week. Among the nineteen are Sidi Ould Sidina, Mohamed Ould Chabarnou and Maarouf Ould Hiba who stand accused of murdering four French tourists at Aleg in 2007 who will go on trial on Sunday. The men are discussed here, here and here. In addition, one of the group’s prominent ideologues, Brahim Ould Ely (“Saharaoui”) was sentenced to ten years in prison. Others managed lesser terms and hard labor. One was acquitted. The sentences are relatively light, though some feel the process was unfair or in the words of Sheikh Mohamed Hassan Ould Dedew, “unjustand “contrary to the President and the atmosphere of dialogue”. Aqlame published an article on 18 May declaring that “Dialogue is Futile,” writing that “has the government has backtracked on its approach to dialogue” and questioning the government’s involvement with the “global war on terrorism”. It concludes by worrying that the government is “returning to the first position of taking any open confrontation with al-Qaeda, relying on force alone to achieve victory.” Depending on Ould Sidina, Chabarnou and Ould Hiba’s sentences, it will be more clear as to where the government stance with regards to these criticisms and its relationship to the Islamist tendency (which it has been cultivating since last winter).

In news related to AQIM, France is widely believed to be pressuring Mauritania into releasing prisoners to get the terrorist group to release a Frenchmen kidnapped in Niger . This is said to be one of the main purposes of Alan Joyandet’s (the French Minister of Cooperation and Francophonie) visit to Mauritania earlier in the week. The French would like the Mauritanians to do a deal similar to Mali’s earlier this year.

Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the famous tele-Sheikh, is visiting Mauritania this week. He is the guest of Sheikh Dedew, which greatly increases Dedew’s credibility within the religious movement and beyond. It also distracts some attention from the The pair have made and will make several appearances together, including one at the Olympic stadium in Nouakchott. Qaradawi’s remarks one such event touched on a variety of subjects including economic development, “the force of Islamic civilization,” the importance of the Muslim diaspora (specifically mentioning China), the need for Muslim unity, Qur’an recitation competitions and so on. He was met by President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz on arrival, and praised the president for shutting down the Israeli embassy and his “interest in social justice and the poor”. The video of this reception can be seen below.

General Mohamed Ould Ghazouani hosted a dinner for Qaradawi. Ould Ghazouani is one of the main centers of power in the regime (easily the second most powerful officer) and the dinner represents the government’s attempt to establish and maintain bona fides with the religious tendency. Like much of the population, Ould Ghazouani’s tribe, many members of which are important patrons of the religious movement, was excited for the occasion. Qaradawi enjoys a wide following in Mauritania. Ould Abdel Aziz’s and Ould Ghazouani’s public associations with him are designed to improve the regime’s standing with the religious movement and the population at large by projecting an image of piety and populism.

Dialogue interview in Taqadoumy

Taqadoumy has an interview with participants in the government’s Islamist prison dialogue. Here Ould Sidina outlines his views on the dialogue, his opinions about media coverage of the process and AQIM in general; he says: “I am not a spokesman for al-Qaeda, but a simple soldier.” His ilk will not “work for any government [referring to a question about his trouble with the Abdellahi government] this one or another so long as they do not govern by the laws of God.” He reports “no dissent” in AQIM’s ranks, though one wonders how true this can be and how knowledgable he can be after his time in prison. He rejects media reports that say he expressed willingness to go to northern Mali during the dialogue sessions. Read it all here (in Arabic).

Meanwhile, government officials are emphasizing that the process is not reconciliation or negotiation, but an “intellectual dialogue” and a “thoughtful conversation on certain ideas and concepts that need some degree of reflection, correction, and a fact-based discussion.” The whole process should also be looked at in a broader picture where President Ould Abdel Aziz is attempting to grow a base, and build pillars and sectors of support for his regime. The Islamist community is a primary target for this, especially in  Tawassoul’s following and increasingly the Salafist tendency (in terms of efforts, though not necessarily results). His outreach to and use of Sheikh Dedew must be understood this way; Tawassoul’s cooperation with the government must also be seen in this context. The real issue here is not combating extremism or fighting terrorism per se, but establishing a system of reciprocity by setting up favors (which must naturally be returned) in the short-term and mechanisms of dependency in the medium/long-term. There are rumors that some prisoners may be released in the near future — a sign that there is an attempt to coopt such elements. At this stage that there are elements in government considering that option speaks to intent; if it plays out it speaks to an important choice in regards to house Ould Abdel Aziz will deal with the Islamist movement. His over all approach is a departure from the military’s past to be sure.

Addendum I on Mauritanian and Algerian Islamists

My previous post regarding the role of Algerian Islamist parties in the post-Civil War period focused primarily on the functional and strategic role of such parties. This is also true of the previous posting on the Mauritanian Tawassoul. The conclusion of both of those posts was that the net affect of these parties, both representing historically marginal political constituencies and tendencies, was to legitimize established political authorities. In their pursuit of position, whatever their intentions or goals might be, have served to offer a glean of Islamic legitimacy to their respective regimes through their commitment to compromise at any cost.

Unfortunately, both posts fail — as I see it — to address what affect these parties’ activities might have on Islamist politics in their countries and some of the less functional and more ideational aspects of their behavior. Both posts under-emphasize the parties’ own agency within the structural limits of Mauritanian and Algerian political society, which is admittedly limited. (more…)

Algerian Islamists in the Era of Reconciliation

Recently, the Economist ran two articles on Arab politics, one focusing on the Muslim Brotherhood and the other focusing on Arab oppositions in general. In both cases, the Maghreb is poorly addressed, referenced only in passing in the first one (while curiously leaving out the two Maghrebine that have active branches of the Brotherhood, Algeria and Mauritania) and somewhat more extensively in the second, though still inadequately.

The first article focuses on the Egyptian and Jordanian Brotherhoods. The Egyptians are “determined to crush,” the Brotherhood, and its large membership is divided along generational and ideological lines. In Jordan’s case, moderate Brothers have been allowed to sit in parliament, though the government has dealt them several serious blows following the invasion of Iraq, and has seen changes in leadership, specifically the rise of a Palestinian chief. In Syria, the party has allied with the government, praising its patronage of Hamas (the Palestinian Brotherhood) and resistance against Israel. “Such shifts of convenience have sometimes damaged the Brotherhood’s reputation. But its decline in some countries is owing instead to a failure to fulfil its promises to bring about change.” It describes the North African Brotherhoods (mentioning only Tunisia and Libya) as “banned and persecuted.” This ignores, as said above, the Algerian Brotherhood — the Movement for a Society of Peace (aka HAMAS, or MSP), and the breakaway parties en-Nahdah and el-Islah — as well as the Mauritanian one, Tawassoul. In both of these cases, the party operates openly, in Algeria serving as the third leg of the tripartite governing alliance, and in Mauritania as an active part of the opposition, though it has recently changed its positing in part (more on that later).

If the notion of a Brotherhood engaged in peaceful collaboration with a secular government for progressive aims sounds too good to be true, it is. The Algerian case is an alternative scenario borne of Algeria’s troubled recent history, but the motives behind it — the preservation of the elite and breaking the popular will to rebel — remain the same. Here, the intention is to address the Brotherhood in the context of Algeria’s decade of “peace and national reconciliation“. The Mauritanian branch will be addressed in a later post. (more…)

Mauritania bombing update

Some updates on the attack in Mauritania. All things are pointing to AQIM, and it indicates a greater level of integration of the Mauritanian branch with the GSPC mainframe. It also shows the danger of the Mali camps and how poorly prepared the Mauritanian security forces have been for this kind of challenge. (more…)

Bigotry dressed as gallantry: Sarko and the burqa

France’s strict secularism, entrenched by law since 1905, keeps religion firmly out of the state sphere. There are no religious studies (let alone nativity plays) in state schools, nor may public workers sport the headscarf. The government denies that such policies constrain religious freedom or are especially aimed at Islam. France welcomes private Muslim schools. Mosque-building is widespread. The 2004 headscarf ban outlawed “conspicuous” religious symbols of all faiths. Yet there are growing worries about the spread of hard-line Islamism in the heavily Muslim banlieues.

Now that Mr Sarkozy has publicly condemned the burqa, the chances of a ban have risen sharply. Parliament has launched a cross-party mission to report back in six months. In fact, few women wear the full garment in France. But mayors of cities with big Muslim populations report a steady increase in numbers, due not to immigration but to its adoption by French-born women—often from North African countries where the burqa is not traditionally worn.

France ponders a burqa ban: No covering up,” The Economist, 25 June, 2009. (more…)

On Obama’s Cairo speech

Official and unoffficial reactions to Barack Obama’s speech at Cairo University are out, and the minds of many have been made up. Here are this blogger’s reactions to some of its major points, thematically, with emphasis on criticism, not genuflection (for the former is more valuable than the latter). (more…)

Books on Islamic Architecture

51fjh43554l_ss500_Western Islamic Architecture: A Concise Introduction by John D. Hoag (Dover Publications, 2005; First edition, 1963) briefly introduces the social, material and visual construction of social space in North Africa, Egypt and the historical regions of Muslim Spain, emphasizing the Alhambra and Grenada. Mosques dominate the volume. Its strength is in the power of the information it delivers. It provides students with a solid academic introduction to the distinctiveness of North African architecture in illustrating the contrast between Egypt’s stylings and those of Algeria and Morocco, where many of the most historic mosques include important Almoravid elements. Its details show uncommon shots from the Alhambra, the Great Mosque of Tlemcen, and several humble yet fantastic Moroccan structures. More time could have been spent on the precise character of the Almoravids and other North African empires. Still, the context of various architectural forms, especially in mosques, is well presented with concision, though more clear differentiation between specific elements of western continental architecture and the eastern elements very much evident in Andalusia as well as those of the Egyptian form would be welcome.

Of major concern, though, are this slim volume’s illustrations, which are prodigious yet small and entirely in black and white. Hoag’s book, which was originally published in the early 1960′s, uses dense black and white images from across the region surveyed. The 2005 edition would have surely been vastly improved if it used contemporary color photographs of the same structures, comparing them with their middle twentieth century counterparts. This would have required more considerable effort and would have required an appendix noting upgrades or additions to a greater extent than they are available in the volume. Hoag’s work remains, for the most part, unaltered from its 1963 edition; It remains useful but is nevertheless, in part, dated.

51x451p3d9l_ss500_The Mosque: History, Architectural Development & Regional Diversity
, eds. Martin Frishman and Hasan-Uddin Khan (Thames & Hudson, 2002; First edition 1994) attempts to offer a wide survey of mosques across the Muslim world. It succeeds triumphantly. The emphasis of this sprawling coffee table volume is diversity. Vivid color with epic clarity make The Mosque both pleasurable and informative. The writing is at once elegant, quick and brief. The Mosque offers readers both photographic information, as well as detailed layouts of African, South East Asian and Central Asian mosques, seamlessly integrating illustration to explanation and  captions. It is judicious in its treatment of disparate traditions, and clever in its language and presentation of historical and social context. The photographs dominate the text, making it less dense — and somewhat less academic — but this is better suited to the book’s purpose.

The book’s subjects are presented in their full splendor, each of them appearing as if they were in a golden age. If the reader is familiar with some, he will know that regardless of the plush appearances in The Mosque, some of these are well beyond their prime. Again, this would appear to be precisely the point: Frishman and Khan have put together a compilation of beauty, and their purpose is to enlighten and to lift the reader’s spirits. The Mosque is anything but heavy, it is itself somewhat weighty; Instead it is lucidly hops from region to region examining the manner in which Muslims societies express and organize themselves. As it is a strong contribution to Islamic world studies, it is also a great contribution to leisure time.

Sufis will outlast Salafis, Islamists

From The Economist: “The Islam of the Taliban is far removed from the popular Sufism practised by most South Asian Muslims”.

This is true in most of the Muslims world. There are few places (aside from the obvious ones) where the practice of Islam at all resembles that of the Taliban, especially as far as traditional Islam is concerned. The reformist and Salafist movements have attempted to do away with Sufism and Sufi orders — sometimes on nationalist grounds (accusing them of facilitating foreign domination), other times on theological ones (considering them decadent, degenerate and pagan), and still others on simple power calculations (they allow for the growth of alternate power centers based around the brotherhoods which can compete with central/government/urban control schemes). The colorful and well written Economist piece would do well to more explicitly mention that mysticism and Sufism are not eastern phenomena alone: They are present in all Muslim societies and tradition in one form or the other. (more…)

“Luther decade” and other interesting things from Germany

This is far beyond this blog’s general sphere of interests, but I find this article fascinating nonetheless (this one, too):

The city has been the venue for a handful of miracles, such as apparitions of Mary or the comeback made by Russian Orthodoxy after 70 years of Soviet suppression. But in today’s Wittenberg, the real miracle to behold is something more like a miracle of disbelief: Luther can’t be avoided here, but the beliefs he stood for are easy to miss. An official from the organization responsible for the city’s Protestant churches describes the ironic tension by saying it’s “a tension that isn’t always easy to take.”

But all that is set to change. This year marks a half-millennium since Luther arrived in Wittenberg as a student and a monk. In 1517, he nailed his theses to the door of the city’s Castle Church, launching the Protestant Reformation. In honor of those anniversaries, the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD) has declared a “Luther Decade,” providing a sort of 10-year plan for German Protestantism.

Protestant Rome: Luther City Revisits the Reformation,” Der Spiegel, 28 October, 2008.

Several articles dealing with religion in Germany are up at English Der Spiegel page, including two relating to Islam. One is more useful than the other — the one dealing with Islam in Germany is more relevant (and interesting), I think, than the one discussing “Muslim Luthers,” a popular concept in Western countries, but one that I think is based on problematic assumptions and confused comparisons.

Ghlamallah interview in Liberte

Fatwa man.

Read this Liberte interview (from Sunday) with Bouabdellah Ghlamallah, the Algerian Minister for Religious Affairs and Waqfs. He discusses the merits of arresting individuals for violating such mores as eating during Ramadan, the issuing of fatwas, and a variety of issues relating to religious authority in the country. Interestingly, he says that gobblers are not arrested during Ramadan for violating religion, but rather for “disrupting social organization.” He says that he does not favor forcing individuals to practice religion (which should not really be a surprise), and talks about strengthening faith among young people. He predictably avoids answering questions about limiting the proliferation of frivolous fatwas, even as he speaks of centralizing their authoring process. There is little discussion of the influence of Islamist law makers and officials in the policy making process in Ghlamallah’s Ministry, but this is to be expected.

That the state is talking about taking more responsibility for the country’s religious identity should be surprising, especially given the increase in the intensity and sensationalism of GSPC/AQIM attacks, and the persistence the country’s youth unemployment problems, which increases the appeal of criminal and terrorist networks. It must also be remembered that the Algerian state has little legitimacy whatsoever when it comes to religion (or most other things), dating back to the end of the 1970′s. This is what led to the popularity of the FIS in the 1980′s, and what leads to apathy and despondence in many of the areas where GSPC/AQIM operates. It is doubtful that such efforts to bolster the government’s religious authority will succeed in the short term. Most Muslim countries’ governments attempt to control the flow of religious ideas within theirborders, with varying levels of success. Totalitarian and more authoritarian regimes have greater success. Countries on the geographic periphery with strong local traditions (like Malaysia, Indonesia, Mauritania, etc.) have a little more facility (though as much due to governmental efforts). Algeria failed to do this from the late 1970′s to the 1990′s. At present it is co-opting much of the Islamist agenda, but has not improved the quality of life of its people. No matter how hard it tries, it will not regain the full confidence of the population until it can end the violence and improve the country’s overall standard of living to meet the bare minimum of its citizens’ expectations.

Muslim Melians

Mr. Ellison believed that Mr. Obama’s message of unity resonated deeply with American Muslims. He volunteered to speak on Mr. Obama’s behalf at a mosque in Cedar Rapids, one of the nation’s oldest Muslim enclaves. But before the rally could take place, aides to Mr. Obama asked Mr. Ellison to cancel the trip because it might stir controversy. Another aide appeared at Mr. Ellison’s Washington office to explain.

“I will never forget the quote,” Mr. Ellison said, leaning forward in his chair as he recalled the aide’s words. “He said, ‘We have a very tightly wrapped message.’ ”

When Mr. Obama began his presidential campaign, Muslim Americans from California to Virginia responded with enthusiasm, seeing him as a long-awaited champion of civil liberties, religious tolerance and diplomacy in foreign affairs. But more than a year later, many say, he has not returned their embrace.

[. . .]

“A lot of us are waiting for him to say that there’s nothing wrong with being a Muslim, by the way,” Mr. Ellison said.

Muslim Voters Detect a Snub From Obama,” 24 June, 2008, New York Times. (more…)