Archive for the 'Religion' Category

Egypt bans porn sites

Yesterday’s decision by one of Egypt’s highest courts to ban porn sites is yet another example of the government’s losing battle to control the thoughts and actions of its people. arabicporn

The Administrative Court, based in Cairo, has ordered the government to block the sites in response to a case brought by Muslim lawyer Nizar Ghorab, who filed the case under his own initiative.

He welcomed the decision today, saying: “Thank God we won. Now the government should stop these electronic dens of vice immediately.”

Arguing in court, Ghorab cited the case of a senior civil servant and his wife who were arrested last year for holding “swinger” parties after soliciting other parties over the internet.

Although the decision can be appealed to a higher court, Ghorab believes that this is unlikely as it would put the government in the uncomfortable position of being seen to protect pornography.

“Freedoms of expression and public rights should be restricted by maintaining the fundamentals of religion, morality and patriotism,” the AFP news agency quoted the court as saying in its ruling.

Freedom of speech has long been under fire in Egypt. The country has been held in a state of perpetual emergency rule since President Hosni Mubarak’s National Democratic Party came to power in 1981. An estimated 18,000 people are in prison under Egyptian law, which allows police to arrest people without charge, while media organisations are kept firmly under the yoke of state control.

This curtailment of civil freedoms on the street has led many young Egyptians to turn to the virtual highway. According to government figures from 2007, Egypt has around 12m internet users, one in nine of the country’s population, making it the largest online presence of all the Arab nations.

080729%20egyptNine per cent of this – around 800,000 people – use the social networking site Facebook, which has become a powerful voice for the country’s youthful population. Epitomised in the April 6 Youth Movement, a political group created during last year’s protests which now has more than 700,000 members, social networks are taking on a political face.

Within hours of the first bombings of Gaza by Israel in January, around 2,000 people had organised a n ad hoc demonstration using Facebook and taken to the streets, many of them voicing their anger at their own government for what they saw as collusion with Israel.

In this light, the Egyptian court’s ruling to try to censor the internet is a cynical and hollow attempt to extend its waning power to the untapped domain of the internet. Pornography may often typify the exploitation of society’s most vulnerable and expolited, yet it also represents  the power of freedom of expression in the face of moral censure from mainstream society.

Love it or loathe it, porn is a barometer to a country’s politics. And the more the Egyptian government tries to restrict the freedoms of its people in the name of “religion, morality and patriotism,” the closer it will come to its own demise.

To have and to hold…at least til the contract ends

Ask your average man on the street what he thinks of marriage and you’re unlikely to hear the word “pleasure” enter the conversation.

But ask your average Muslim what they think of a “Mutah” marriage – meaning a “pleasure” or “temporary” marriage – and you will get a quite different reaction.

Mutah marriages, specific to the Shia form of Islam, have always been a controversial subject. Dating from the time of the Prophet Muhammed, it allows a man to have a short-term contact with a woman in which he enjoys all the benefits of a marriage but few of the responsibilities, such as providing for her or sharing the same bed.mutah

It can last for anything from one hour to 99 years.

“It’s totally hypocritical,” says Ahmed Asfahani, a Shia journalist from Al Hayat who moved to the UK from Lebanon more than 30 years ago. He argues that while Mutah is formalised and regulated by families in Shia communities in the Middle East, in the Western world it is used as an excuse for hypocrisy.

He says: “Mutah was originally created to allow older women – widowers or spinsters – to find companionship late in their life when no one will do a Nikah [permanent] marriage with them.

“But in places like Britain and America, it is used by young men as an excuse to sleep with Western girls. They don’t care because it means nothing to them, but for the boy, it is an excuse to pretend he is not breaking his beliefs.”

This bias is clear in the difference in popularity of Mutah among men and women. A quick trawl of Mutah.com, a dating website for Muslims around the world to advertise for Mutah relationships, reveals 122 entries under the male profiles but only 3 under the female.

“I need a companion with whom I can talk to, somebody who shares some depth in life, somebody with dignity and self-respect,” reads one male testimony.

“I need a partner who can fill the void in my empty life. I don’t want to be alone anymore. I don’t wish to be a hermit.”

Writing under an alias, the young British Muslim says that he cannot wait til he can afford to be married. “There is no way that I can wait till my late 20’s, early 30’s – when most people seem to be getting permanently married. This is far too long to wait for somebody who doesn’t want to slip.”

Yet Mutah is controversial even in Muslim circles. Few Shias and even fewer Sunnis agree with the practice, which stems from Qua’ranic verse 4:24. It reads:

“As to those whom you married for a fixed time (mutah), give them their agreed dowries; and there is no sin for you in what you mutually agree together after what has been settled.”

In the time of the Prophet Muhammad, this was taken as meaning that soldiers could form temporary marriages while they were away from their wives, but it was banned by Umar, the second caliph, and later abandoned by most schools of Islamic law.

Sunnis, which form the vast majority of the 2m Muslims living in the UK, often treat the practice as impulsive sex, not far from prostitution. Although the “Twelver” Shias, who predominate in Iran and Iraq, disagree, actively promoting the practice as essential to the sexual health of a society, the stigma attached remains rife in the West.

And it is particularly pronounced among women. Although Mutah is prohibited for virgins and between Muslim girls and non-Muslim men, it is often viewed as at best a form of laxity or at worst, an excuse for adultery and prostitution.

In Iran, prostitution has increased by an estimated 635 per cent since the Islamic revolution 30 years ago.

For this reason, statistics on its prevalence are hard to come by. A recent review by four Government departments – the Treasury, the Work and Pensions Department, the Inland Revenue and the Home Office – has concluded that 1,000 men in the United Kingdom are now polygamists.

But because Mutah marriages require no formal contract and are not recognised under British law, no statistics are even collected.

Yet there are those among British Shias in the West that advocate the practice as an important way for Islam to accommodate the practicalities of love and life. Sheikh Ali Al-Hakim, of the Islamic Centre of England, editor of Islam & Feminism; Theory, modelling and applications, argues that Mutah offers an alternative to the lax morality of Western morals.

“In Mutah, it is a marriage it is a contract,” he says. “Without it, people have no responsibility to each other. If a man walks up to a woman and propositions her, what is she meant to say; ‘I have a boyfriend?’ That means nothing.

“Look at this 13-year-old boy who is having a baby [referring to boy-dad Alfie Patterson]. it is easy to exploit religion but at least this way this kind of thing cannot happen.”

Obama is the new religion

Today, while trawling the blogosphere, I stumbled upon a post by one of my fellow opinionaters that has left me utterly bemused.

Caleb Land, who describes himself as “the Student Pastor at Mabel White Memorial Baptist Church in Macon, GA” posted a quote from W. Bradford Wilcox, Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Virginia, saying:

“…the more the state steps in to reduce the economic and social insecurity of its citizens, the less likely fair-weather believers are to darken the door of a church on Sunday. Now, to paraphrase Charles Krauthammer, Obama hopes to expand the size of the welfare state by offering cradle-to-grave health care and cradle-to-cubicle education to Americans. If he gets his way, Americans will not have to trust in God, or their fellow congregants, to support an ailing parent, or to help them figure out how to pay for their daughter’s college tuition. Instead, they can put their faith in Uncle Sam.”

Willcox cites a study of religion in 33 countries by Anthone Gill and Erik Lundsgaarde, political scientists at the University of Washington, which indicates that there is an inverse relationship between faith and state spending on welfare.

He argues that “the nanny state [Obama] is seeking to build will likely crowd out religious institutions in America”. Without religion, he says, “social solidarity [goes] down and social pathology – from drinking to crime – [goes] up.”

Not only does this argument confirm the line that atheists have been taking for hundreds of years – that people only turn to religion in desperation, as articles chronicling the increase in churchgoers since the onslaught of the recession have noted – but it actually seems to suggest that the healthcare system will cause a rise in crime.

Are we seriously meant to believe that people not having to beg for help to send their children to college is a bad thing? And as for the idea that with better state care fewer “fair-weather believers will darken the door of a church” – surely this is not genuine faith and certainly not the kind that the Baptists advocate?

The American electorate turned away from the Bush regime because they finally saw that it was morally bankrupt, elitist and, above all, greedy. They have placed their hope in a man that claims to be none of these things. His dedication to universal healthcare is the greatest proof of this to date.

The future is uncertain and the path is dark. But for those who wish to provide a safety net for the most vulnerable and who value the fundamental Christian values of faith, love and charity above the powerplay statistics of congregations attendance and funding of religious institutions, Obama is the light at the end of the tunnel.

Inciting stupidity

The furore that has greeted the Dutch politician Geert Wilders’ failed attempt to gain entry to the UK in order to show his anti-Islam film, Fitna, has been remarkable.

Not because of the heated reaction from ministers, not because of the wall of barrage of anger that has come from Muslim groups, but because so few of the people who denounced with it such vehemence had actually seen it.

After Jacqui Smith, the home secretary, banned Wilders from the UK on the grounds that his “presence in the UK would pose a genuine, present and sufficiently serious threat to one of the fundamental interests of society”, Labour ministers were quick to jump on the bandwagon.

David Miliband, the foreign secretary, described Fitna as “a hate-filled film designed to stir up religious and racial hatred and is contrary to our laws”. He then had to admit he hadn’t seen it.

Similarly, when Keith Vaz, Labour chair of the Commons Home Affairs committee, spoke in support of the ban on Newsnight he openly admitted he hadn’t seen the film and then, incredibly, went on to say that he didn’t need to.

More incredible than the sheer arrogance of this comment, which is hardly incredible at all, is the fact that if any of them had actually taken the time to watch the film they would have seen that it is nothing more than puerile, badly-produced trash.

Wilders intersperses verses from the Koran with images of terrorist attacks and various (mainly Saudi) Imams preaching hatred to the West and images of baying mobs, veiled women and children taking part in the Ashoura, a Muslim religious festival.

Yes, it incites racial and religious hatred. Yes, it calls the Koran “fascist” and compares Muslims to Nazis. And yes, it uses the Koran in the most irresponsible, selective manner to do this (exactly what it accuses the Imams of doing).

But the idea that it could pose any serious threat bar providing fuel for existing bigots and racists is nothing more than an insult to the intelligence to the British public.

As Maajid Nawaz, co-founder of the anti-extremist think tank the Quilliam Foundation, puts it:

Banning Geert Wilders from the UK is not the solution. Just as the ideas of non-violent Islamist groups like Hizb ut-Tahrir should be tackled through debate and argument, so should those of Wilders and others.

Freedom of speech should be protected – so long as people do not use this freedom to call for violence against others.

Well I won’t fall into the same trap. Instead, you can decide for yourself. To see the English version, click the link here.

Faith in the future

The smell of goat hair hangs thick upon the air and the rich texture of the prayer mats rubs between my toes. Stillness reigns; sunlight falls through the stained-glass window while outside the buzz of the City, muffled by the surrounding buildings, fades into a distant hum.

This is the Tent, a multi-faith space where people of any religion can come together to explore the relationship between faith and conflict. It is part of the St Ethelberga’s Centre for Peace and Reconciliation, constructed on the site of a medieval Church after it was devastated by an IRA bomb in 1993.

The 16-sided structure was built according to traditional Bedouin techniques using materials from Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Lebanon and stained-glass from Britain. Its clientele are as diverse: in the first three years after it opened in its current incarnation in 2002, it had 20,000 visitors from 39 countries.

Justine Huxley, Interfaith Projects Coordinator for St Ethelberga’s, says: “The Tent is an inclusive space where people can discuss questions of shared devotion. It is a very unique environment; somewhere you can create a level playing field.”

A pocket of tranquillity in the heart of the City, it is hard to believe that only 50 metres away is the bustle of Liverpool St Station and beyond, the mighty shrines to capitalism of the London skyline.

Huxley believes that:

“Our location is a mystery we haven’t quite solved”

Herself a retired trader for Deutsche Bank with a doctorate in psychology, she left the seductions of the City when she converted to Sufism – a mystical branch of Islam – ten years ago.

During her three years on the trading floor, she can only remember having one conversation about spirituality. She believes this “reflects the materialism and consumerism in our culture.”

Huxley is not alone in this belief. Religious leaders have been outspoken in their criticism of the government and last week, five Bishops of the Church of England condemned the fruits of Labour’s term in office. A poll of the General Synod, the Church’s parliament, by the Telegraph found that 86 per cent of Bishops supported their actions.

The Rt Rev Nigel McCulloch, the Bishop of Manchester, said: “The Government has acted scandalously. This is not just an economic issue, but a moral one. It’s about what we value.

“The Government believes that money can answer all of the problems and has encouraged greed and a love of money that the Bible says is the root of all evil.”

The Church has a long history of holding the government to account. From the moment that Henry VIII broke with Rome, the fate of the Anglican establishment has been intimately linked to politics. Yet the political clout of the Church has been in sharp decline for decades.

In the 2001 census, 37.3 million people stated their religion as Christian, yet congregations are dwindling and in 2006, the number of marriages in the UK fell to its lowest rate since records began.

The number of priests in England and Wales has slumped by nearly a quarter in 20 years, from 4,545 in 1985 to 3,643 in 2005.

The primacy of the Anglican Church in British politics is fading as religious diversity grows and is replaced by a new emphasis on inter-faith dialogue.

In November, the House of Lords’ procedure committee is considering replacing traditional Anglican prayers at the daily opening of Parliament with multi-faith prayers modeled on BBC Radio 4’s Thought for the Day.

In response, Andy Burham, the Culture Secretary, has called for churches that were falling into misuse to be turned into cafes, gyms and inter-faith centres.

Churches have a “new, multi-faith, multi-racial community to serve,” he said.

“’We need to find new purposes with the support of the local community and we need to increase secular interest in our church heritage”

Huxley acknowledges this change, although she still believes there are many hurdles to clear before people of different faiths can truly understand each other.

Faith, be it in religion or the secular tenets that rule much of our lives, has been tested to its very core in recent months. Watching the news, it is hard to believe that it breeds nothing more than hatred and violence.

“There are some areas that are irreconcilable”, she says. “Christians and Muslims talking about the nature of God are never going to agree. But we can still learn from each other.”

A war of words: Islam in the press

Today I went to a conference about Islamophobia in the British media. Run by Media Workers Against the War, ‘Under Siege: Islam, war and the media’ examined the biased treatment of Islam by in mainstream reporting, why this is and how it can be changed.

Addressing the conference Jeremy Dear, general secretary of the NUJ, railed against the prejudice of the British press and the policies of a government that tells us “the price of peace at home is a bloody war and the price of peace abroad is the curtailment of our civil liberties”.

He said: “The media has too often failed to ask the questions we need to ask if we are to make decisions as informed citizens. Such poor journalism is a recipe for driving people to extremes.”

A survey found that 91 per cent of coverage of Islam in the national press since 2001 has been negative, with more than 4,000 stories written since 9/11. Another found that 35 cent of the language used was alarmist. The most common nouns to be associated with Muslims were: extremism, suicide bombers, militancy, radicalism.

Islamophobia is rife throughout the British media, but nowhere more obviously than in the Daily Star. In the past month they have run four incendiary stories against Muslims, including: ‘Poppies banned in terror hotspots: Muslim snub to forces’, ‘Vile preacher insults our poppies’ and ‘Muslim nutters still preaching hate on our streets.’

Yet a more pervasive form has also made its way into the liberal discourse of the broadsheets. The Times, bastion of the British press, ran an article on how terrorists were using child pornography to pass messages on the internet.

As one comment put it: “This makes as much sense as to hide some crack in a bag of marijuana.”

In the UK media, ‘Islam’ and ‘Muslim’ have become bywords for religious extremism and evil. From the moment that George Bush announced his War on Terror, words have become political tools used to demonise Muslim communities.

Louise Christian, an outspoken human rights lawyer who has represented Guantanamo bay detainees, said: “Words are important things – words are what journalists do”.

“The reaction to 9/11 changed language,” she said. “When [politicians] use the language of war against terror [they] invalidate the protection of international human rights legislation”.

Those captured in Afghanistan and Iraq, held under ‘enemy competence’, are denied the protection of the Geneva convention. There are 270 people held in Guantanamo bay, yet only 16 of these are ‘high-level’ detainees and 90 per cent have no evidence to support their detention.

Muslims have been silenced in the mainstream media, made into a scapegoat for a never ending war of ideologies. Yet in a world where jobs are scarce and scruples scarcer, journalists will do anything for a front page. The more pressure they face, the harder it is for journalists to fight prejudice and the more that minorities will lose their voices.

Speaking at the conference today, Peter Oborne, Daily Mail columnist and author of Muslims under siege, said: “I believe in truth – that’s why I became a journalist. “I remain proud of being British and proud of our traditions, but that tradition in being flouted.”


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