The Vatican Confronts Islam

July 6, 2006

From Daniel Pipes:

Quest For Reciprocity

“Enough now with this turning the other cheek! It’s our duty to protect ourselves.” Thus spoke Monsignor Velasio De Paolis, secretary of the Vatican’s supreme court, referring to Muslims. Explaining his apparent rejection of Jesus’ admonition to his followers to “turn the other cheek,” De Paolis noted that “The West has had relations with the Arab countries for half a century … and has not been able to get the slightest concession on human rights.”

De Paolis is hardly alone in his thinking; indeed, the Catholic Church is undergoing a dramatic shift from a decades-old policy to protect Catholics living under Muslim rule. The old methods of quiet diplomacy and muted appeasement have clearly failed. The estimated 40 million Christians in Dar al-Islam, notes the Barnabas Fund’s Patrick Sookhdeo, increasingly find themselves an embattled minority facing economic decline, dwindling rights, and physical jeopardy. Most of them, he goes on, are despised and distrusted second-class citizens, facing discrimination in education, jobs, and the courts.

These harsh circumstances are causing Christians to flee their ancestral lands for the West’s more hospitable environment. Consequently, Christian populations of the Muslim world are in a free-fall. Two small but evocative instances of this pattern: for the first time in nearly two millennia, Nazareth and Bethlehem no longer have Christian majorities.

This reality of oppression and decline stands in dramatic contrast to the surging Muslim minority of the West. Although numbering fewer than 20 million and made up mostly of immigrants and their offspring, it is an increasingly established and vocal minority, granted extensive rights and protections even as it wins new legal, cultural, and political prerogatives.

This widening disparity has caught the attention of the Church, which for the first time is pointing to radical Islam, rather than the actions of Israel, as the central problem facing Christians living with Muslims.

Rumblings of this could be heard already in John Paul II’s time. For example, Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, the Vatican equivalent of foreign minister, noted in late 2003 that “There are too many majority Muslim countries where non-Muslims are second-class citizens.” Tauran pushed for reciprocity: “Just as Muslims can build their houses of prayer anywhere in the world, the faithful of other religions should be able to do so as well.”

Catholic demands for reciprocity have grown, especially since the accession of Pope Benedict XVI in April 2005, for whom Islam is a central concern. In February, the pope emphasized the need to respect “the convictions and religious practices of others so that, in a reciprocal manner, the exercise of freely-chosen religion is truly assured to all.” In May, he again stressed the need for reciprocity: Christians must love immigrants and Muslims must treat well the Christians among them.

Lower-ranking clerics, as usual, are more outspoken. “Islam’s radicalization is the principal cause of the Christian exodus,” asserts Monsignor Philippe Brizard, director general of Oeuvre d’Orient, a French organization focused on Middle Eastern Christians. Bishop Rino Fisichella, rector of the Lateran University in Rome, advises the Church to drop its “diplomatic silence” and instead “put pressure on international organizations to make the societies and states in majority Muslim countries face up to their responsibilities.”

The Danish cartoons crisis offered a typical example of Catholic disillusionment. Church leaders initially criticized the publication of the Muhammad cartoons. But when Muslims responded by murdering Catholic priests in Turkey and Nigeria, not to speak of scores of Christians killed during five days of riots in Nigeria, the Church responded with warnings to Muslims. “If we tell our people they have no right to offend, we have to tell the others they have no right to destroy us, ” said Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican’s Secretary of State. “We must always stress our demand for reciprocity in political contacts with authorities in Islamic countries and, even more, in cultural contacts,” added Archbishop Giovanni Lajolo, its foreign minister.

Obtaining the same rights for Christians in Islamdom that Muslims enjoy in Christendom has become the key to the Vatican’s diplomacy toward Muslims. This balanced, serious approach marks a profound improvement in understanding that could have implications well beyond the Church, given how many lay politicians heed its leadership in inter-faith matters. Should Western states also promote the principle of reciprocity, the results should indeed be interesting.


Indonesia Slowly Caves To Radicals

June 4, 2006

From The LA Times:

After model Andhara Early posed for Indonesia's first Playboy edition and landed on its cover, police called her in for questioning.

Investigators asked her to explain what she was doing in each of the five photos in her eight-page spread. It made no difference that she didn't pose nude — or that the photos were no more revealing than a lingerie ad.

"Police asked me whether my picture was pornography or not," she recounted. "I said, 'It's not. It's art, definitely art.' "

Playboy's entry to the Indonesian market has fueled debate over what constitutes pornography and how women should behave in the world's most populous Muslim country.

Indonesia, more moderate than most Muslim nations, faces mounting pressure from a growing conservative Islamic movement to pass a law redefining the concept of pornography and outlawing behavior that clerics consider an affront to Islam.

A measure before parliament would ban "pornoaksi," or porno action, a newly created offense so broad that it could include wearing a miniskirt or baring a navel. Kissing in public would be punishable by up to five years in prison. Dancing erotically could bring seven years. Exposing body parts that could be deemed erotic would be punishable by as much as 10 years.

"If you wear something sensual or sexy, it will be considered pornography," said Gadis Arivia, a professor of human rights and Western philosophy at the University of Indonesia who has helped organize opposition to the bill. "It will criminalize a lot of women in Indonesia."

Opposition to the measure has been especially strong in Bali, the predominantly Hindu island that depends heavily on tourism. Some worry that restrictions on attire could ban traditional Balinese dress and scare off foreign tourists accustomed to wearing revealing clothing. At one point, the governor of Bali threatened to secede if the bill was passed.

The threat of having to cover up has stirred moderate and middle-class Indonesians to political action, something that has seldom occurred since President Suharto was ousted and democracy was ushered in eight years ago. Opponents have organized demonstrations, launched a petition drive and pressured members of parliament to reject the measure.

"It's frightening because we see Indonesia being slowly turned into a conservative country," said Arivia, who attended high school in the United States. "We are scared to death that Indonesia will become an Islamic state. The majority of people would not want that."

Although more than 85% of the population is Muslim, the country is officially secular. Conservative Islam has been gaining ground since Suharto's fall in 1998. A series of deadly bombings funded by Al Qaeda and carried out against Western targets by local terrorist cells has demonstrated the success of Islamic extremists in appealing to disaffected young Indonesians.

Authorities in Aceh province on Sumatra and the city of Tangerang on Java have adopted Sharia, or Islamic law, leading to harsher treatment of suspected gamblers and prostitutes. Other communities are considering following suit.

Advocates of the anti-pornography legislation contend that a new national law is needed because existing laws and penalties are not "repressive" enough. Under today's standards, people may become too accustomed to seeing sensual dress or behavior, said Fauzan Alanshari, spokesman for the militant Indonesia Mujahedin Council.

"People might say that breasts are not pornography because they get used to seeing breasts," he said. "People might lose their sensitivity. We need the bill so that it will be more specific and thus it will be more repressive."

Alanshari said the bill would protect children from the possibility of encountering women wearing erotic attire.

"I'll give you an example," he said. "There's a prostitute wearing a sexy dress. I can control myself by not looking at her. But what about my children? So, we have to have a regulation to protect the public's rights. The public's rights include my right to protect my children."

The bill's sponsors say it has strong support in parliament, which is roughly 90% male. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, a former general, has not taken a public position on the issue. But he recently disclosed that he had stopped a singer from appearing at a presidential function because her belly button was showing.

"I was really disturbed," the president said. "I told the singer to go home even before she performed in front of me at the state palace."

Opponents of the bill point to the adoption of Sharia in Tangerang, a city of 2 million next to Jakarta, as reason to be concerned.

During a police sweep one evening in February, Tangerang authorities arrested Lilies Lindawati, a 35-year-old waitress, and 26 other women as suspected prostitutes. The pregnant mother of two had been on her way home after trying to collect her last paycheck from the restaurant where she had worked.

She was not allowed to contact her husband, a teacher, and was denied a defense lawyer for her trial the next day.

"Lots of government officials and residents were gathered there," she told reporters later. "They were laughing at us as if we were part of a show."

Despite her denial, she was found guilty of prostitution because she had lipstick and other makeup in her purse. She couldn't afford the $35 fine and spent three nights in jail. She filed a wrongful arrest suit last month against the mayor, seeking $57,000 in damages.

Although the first Indonesian edition of Playboy contained no nudity — disappointing many buyers — anti-pornography activists targeted the magazine because of its international reputation.

Soon after release of the first edition in April, Islamic militants demonstrated outside the magazine's Jakarta office. Some threw rocks at the building, breaking windows of the bank downstairs.

Cheap pornography is readily available in major cities, but Playboy Editor Erwin Arnada says the Indonesian edition is a "lifestyle" magazine. He says he wants people to buy it for the articles. The first edition carried pieces on politics and global warming and one of the last interviews with noted author and former political prisoner Pramoedya Ananta Toer, who died soon after.

"We have to change the content to fit Indonesian culture," he said. "We will never publish nude pictures."

After receiving complaints from Islamic activists, police called in Arnada, cover girl Early, and centerfold model Kartika Oktavini Gunawan, who had posed showing a bare midriff in one photo and a naked shoulder and bare thighs in another.

Arnada, 41, who runs several other magazines and has produced half a dozen horror films, said officers questioned him for more than five hours but could not uncover any violation of the law. Police asked him not to distribute Playboy at newsstands in Jakarta, the publication's biggest market, but it is unclear whether Playboy will honor the request.

The first edition sold all 100,000 copies and has become a collector's item, going on EBay for as much as $100. But the controversy has cost the magazine most of its advertisers, and the price of the next issue will more than double to $10.

Early, 26, a Muslim and the mother of a 9-month-old baby, said she was "proud" to be on the cover of the first Indonesian Playboy. Her sudden notoriety has resulted in a flood of job offers and interviews. But she is concerned that the proposed anti-pornography law would hinder the growth of democracy and impose a strict form of Islam on all Indonesians, whether Hindu, Christian or Muslim.

"I don't support pornography, but this bill is vague," the model said. "It's about freedom of speech. People should be able to say whatever they want."

Iran Law Requires Non-Muslims To Wear Insignias

May 19, 2006


Human rights groups are raising alarms over a new law passed by the Iranian parliament that would require the country's Jews and Christians to wear coloured badges to identify them and other religious minorities as non-Muslims.

"This is reminiscent of the Holocaust," said Rabbi Marvin Hier, the dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles. "Iran is moving closer and closer to the ideology of the Nazis."

Iranian expatriates living in Canada yesterday confirmed reports that the Iranian parliament, called the Islamic Majlis, passed a law this week setting a dress code for all Iranians, requiring them to wear almost identical "standard Islamic garments."

The law, which must still be approved by Iran's "Supreme Guide" Ali Khamenehi before being put into effect, also establishes special insignia to be worn by non-Muslims.

Iran's roughly 25,000 Jews would have to sew a yellow strip of cloth on the front of their clothes, while Christians would wear red badges and Zoroastrians would be forced to wear blue cloth.

"There's no reason to believe they won't pass this," said Rabbi Hier. "It will certainly pass unless there's some sort of international outcry over this."

Bernie Farber, the chief executive of the Canadian Jewish Congress, said he was "stunned" by the measure. "We thought this had gone the way of the dodo bird, but clearly in Iran everything old and bad is new again," he said. "It's state-sponsored religious discrimination."

Ali Behroozian, an Iranian exile living in Toronto, said the law could come into force as early as next year.

It would make religious minorities immediately identifiable and allow Muslims to avoid contact with non-Muslims.

Mr. Behroozian said it will make life even more difficult for Iran's small pockets of Jewish, Christian and other religious minorities — the country is overwhelmingly Shi'ite Muslim. "They have all been persecuted for a while, but these new dress rules are going to make things worse for them," he said.

The new law was drafted two years ago, but was stuck in the Iranian parliament until recently when it was revived at the behest of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

A spokesman for the Iranian Embassy in Ottawa refused to comment on the measures. "This is nothing to do with anything here," said a press secretary who identified himself as Mr. Gharmani.

"We are not here to answer such questions."

The Simon Wiesenthal Centre has written to Kofi Annan, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, protesting the Iranian law and calling on the international community to bring pressure on Iran to drop the measure.

"The world should not ignore this," said Rabbi Hier. "The world ignored Hitler for many years — he was dismissed as a demagogue, they said he'd never come to power — and we were all wrong."

Mr. Farber said Canada and other nations should take action to isolate Mr. Ahmadinejad in light of the new law, which he called "chilling," and his previous string of anti-Semitic statements.

"There are some very frightening parallels here," he said. "It's time to start considering how we're going to deal with this person."

Mr. Ahmadinejad has repeatedly described the Holocaust as a myth and earlier this year announced Iran would host a conference to re-examine the history of the Nazis' "Final Solution."

He has caused international outrage by publicly calling for Israel to be "wiped off the map."

Iran does not yet have nuclear weapons, but Tehran believed by Western nations to be developing its own nuclear military capability, in defiance of international protocols and peace treaties.

The United States, France and Israel accuse Iran of using a civilian nuclear program to secretly build a weapon. Iran denies this, saying its program is confined to generating electricity.