In This Issue
- Findings & Footnotes: July 2003
- Central Asian Muslims conflict with regimes and fellow believers
- Al Qaeda reaching more muslims post-Iraq War?
- New South African religions revive white supremacy
- European constitution: Debate on the place of religion
- Scandinavian crime fiction grapples with ‘surplus evil’
- Current Research: July 2003
- Evangelical-style Catholic music finding following
- Charter schools drawing church-state fire
- Evangelical missions eye Islam while divided over strategy
- Reaching European seekers: The online imperative
Findings & Footnotes: July 2003
01: A teacher at a high school in Geneva and a lecturer at the University of Fribourg (Switzerland), Tariq Ramadan has been enjoying a growing audience among young Muslims in Europe, especially in France.
A charismatic speaker, Ramadan (b. 1962) is the grandson of Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood in Eygpt in the 1920s. He emphasizes the reformist dimension of his grandfather’s thinking and develops his own proposals in order to take into account the Western context. He has attracted the attention of a number of US media as well: he was recently portrayed in the Christian Science Monitor (May 19) and had been profiled as one of the leading “innovators” in the field of religion at the dawn of a new century in the Time magazine (Dec. 11).
Tariq Ramadan’s project is to develop an approach allowing Muslims both to keep their religious roots and to feel fully European, going beyond the “Islam vs. the West” opposition. It could be described as an inculturation of Islam, while not downplaying islamic doctrines in any way. As Ramadan has explained in countless media interviews, there are fields open to interpretation. For instance, he supports a Muslim woman’s full access to work, equal income, equal opportunities, but would base such equality directly upon Muslim principles; The goal is not at all the Western model of “liberated women”, but to develop — to quote his own words — “another way to be free”, i.e. a Muslim way.
Muslim feminism as he envisions it is fully compatible with wearing the Islamic scarf and other observances The permanent presence of Muslims in the West offers opportunities to differentiate between what belongs to the cultural background of Muslim countries and the essentials of the Islamic message. In addition, Ramadan is convinced that Muslims in the West are best qualified to play a role as bridges between Muslim and Western countries.
At the same time, he reminds the West that a dialogue between civilizations is impossible if the West claims to hold the only valid model of democracy. The fact that such a contextualized approach is attractive to a significant number of young Muslims indicates how many of them feel the need to redefine their identity, no longer connecting it automatically to the countries from which their parents came. However, Ramadan’s proposals are criticized by literalist-minded Muslims, who think his reformism is going too far. Others accuse him of being a proponent of fundamentalism under a new guise. At the same time, a number of Muslim and non-Muslim intellectuals see him as raising some of the most important issues for the future of the Islamic communities in the West.
— By Jean-François Mayer
02: Although many new religious movements and other religions-from the New Age to Hinduism–share pantheistic beliefs, the World Pantheist Movement promotes the belief in the universe itself as divine as the core of its spirituality.
The movement, founded five years ago by Paul Harrison, now has more than 2,000 members and anticipates that there are many more pantheists who would join if they knew of such a group. The movement leaves it to members to decide if their pantheistic beliefs are a religion, philosophy, or simply a way of life. Some may celebrate pantheistic festivals such as the solstice and equinox (and Thoreau’s birthday) while others may see exploring nature or engaging in environmental activism as central to their beliefs.
Harrison views his group as a support network in largely Christian America.
(Source: Utne Reader, July/August; the WPM’s website: www.pantheism.net)
Central Asian Muslims conflict with regimes and fellow believers
A return to a secular ideal is unlikely in Central Asia, according to Shirin Akiner, a leading expert in Central Asian studies.
Her article is one of the contributions on religion in Central Asia and Islam in the former Soviet Union in the journal Religion, State & Society (June). The developments in Uzbekistan — considered as the key country for the whole area — show that the situation is more complex than a simple opposition secular government versus. Muslim opposition. The government has actually “coopted Islam to help legitimise and consolidate the postsoviet regime”, but the same government is keen to promote what it consider as “good,” mainstream Islam.
In this process, it has taken steps “toward the formal institution of an established faith” — while harshly repressing “fundamentalists,. who seem to have gained a strong foothold among many Muslims, as examplified by the militant group Hizb ut-Tahrir
In the Russian Federation, as in the rest of Central Asia, there has been considerable dispersion of Islamic authority, writes Galina Yemelianova the University of Birmingham (UK). “The existing four muftiates of the USSR have been superseded by dozens of new Islamic Spiritual Boards or muftiates.” According to Yemelianova, the collapse of the former ideology “has created a fertile breeding-ground for the emergence of new leaders” in all spheres of life, including Islam.
The flow of foreign Islamic assistance to Russia’s Muslims has also contributed to that development. It sometimes leads to confusion and competition between rival spiritual authorities. At the same time, village imams (90 percent of the Muslim clergy in Russia) feel that they receive no help or spiritual guidance from the muftiates. Another article chronicles how the spread of the Turkish-based Nurcu movement and schools in Central Asia have become a model of quality education in the region. But these schools have also raised controversy by their sophisticated and indirect method of Islamic proselytism.
(Religion, State & Society, Keston, 38 St Aldates, Oxford, OX1 1BN, UK. RSS is published by Carfax, an imprint of Taylor & Francis; http://www.tandf.co.uk.)
— This article was written with Jean-François Mayer
Al Qaeda reaching more muslims post-Iraq War?
In the aftermath of the Iraq war, Al Queda and its supporters are “fragmenting, mutating and spreading again” in the Islamic world, reports the Toronto Star (June 22).
Although the U.S. has made significant progress in stemming the operation of Al Queda since 9/11, the network has used the U.S. and British led war to help it become “an even stronger magnet for disaffected Muslims who feel the “only way of stopping Washington’s mammoth military machine is through terrorist action.” One Saudi analyst adds that before September 11, bin Laden and the other “jihadi” terrorist groups were separate. But those groups have now integrated themselves into the Al Queda strategy. The recent attacks in Morocco and Saudi Arabia and the suicide bombing in May by two young Britons of Asian origin suggests that extremist Muslim groups in these countries are following this new global strategy.
The article adds that Al Queda now consists of three levels: fighters personally loyal to bin Laden, numbering up to 600; a worldwide support network of thousands who offer money and other logistical help; and a “new group of Islamic scholars devoted to jihad, or holy war, whose ideology attracts and inflames supporters.”
The war in Afghanistan eliminated a physical base for Al Queda but it also forced an “already decentralized organization to become even more decentralized. It’s members have dispersed and integrated into other societies,” says Jonathan Stevenson of the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies. The Internet is serving both as a gateway to membership in militant groups and also as an aid to those who have already taken up studies with local Muslim extremists.
New South African religions revive white supremacy
Far right religious groups advocating a return to white rule and supremacy are finding a place in South Africa.
The Times of London (June 26) reports that “Scores of right-wing religious groups, more reminiscent of US-style cults than conventional churches, have sprung up preaching a gospel of white supremacy to a growing army of believers, 10 years after the collapse of white minority rule.” Although the groups are quite different from each other, they share a common belief that black majority rule is a punishment imposed on the Afrikaner people by God for disobedience, and “that one day the white man will be returned to his rightful place as ruler.”
A version of British Israelism, which claims whites as the descendants of the lost tribes of Israel, also figures in these groups’ doctrines. One such group is Living Hope (or Lewende Hoop) based in Kroonstad. Run by Rev. Willie Smith, a former Baptist minister, the group claims to have 30 congregations with 6,000 worshippers and condemns racial intermixing and holds that God ordained white rule. Smith says he doesn’t want to overthrow the government and counsels members to “wait for deliverance from the Lord.”
European constitution: Debate on the place of religion
While the preamble of the draft constitution for the European Union does not make any explicit reference to Europe’s Christian heritage, a compromise has been reached to make some room for the influence of religion in the document.
In late May, a draft of the preamble pointed to the influence of ancient Greece and Rome as well to the philosophical currents of the Enlightenment, while ignoring completely the centuries during which Christianity was the dominant influence. This provoked strong reactions, especially from the Holy See and from Orthodox Churches. The President of the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Community addressed a letter to the President of the European Convention (in charge of elaborating a draft constitution) and not only asked for a reference to Christianity, but renewed the bishops’ proposal for a reference to God in the Constitution.
Finally, the authors of the draft chose not to refer to any specific religion. The current draft preamble–which has still to be discussed before being possibly signed next year– only mentions the “cultural, religious and humanist inheritance of Europe” Both the Pope, who has just published an Apostolic Exhortation on Ecclesia in Europa (28 June), and the head of the Greek Orthodox Church have strongly emphasized again the need for a reference to Europe’s Christian heritage.
“For the moment, the secularists have won”, commented Kenneth Woodward in theNew York Times (June 14). In a lecture in Fribourg (Switzerland) on June 12, a Catholic expert, Prof. Giovanni Barberini (University of Perugia, Italy), saw it in a more nuanced way. The fact that references to the Enlightenment had been dropped could be seen as a kind of victory for the Roman Catholic Church, which had been in fierce competition with influential Belgian and French hardline secularist circles on the issue.
Barberini emphasized other elements worth noticing in the draft constitution. Article 51 states that “the Union respects and does not prejudice the status under national law of churches and religious associations or communities in the Member States.” Moreover, “the Union shall maintain an open, transparent and regular dialogue” with churches as well as philosophical and non-confessional organizations. The ways for such a dialogue have still to be created, concluded Barberini. Anyway, it remains to be seen if amendments are introduced on those various issues.
— By Jean-François Mayer
Scandinavian crime fiction grapples with ‘surplus evil’
The popularity of Scandinavian crime fiction in Europe may be due to these writers’ attempt to describe and explain the presence of “radical evil” in strongly secularized and socially managed societies, writes Risto Saarinen in the journal Dialog (June).
In recent years, Scandinavian writers have become popular practitioners of crime novels, (now the leading fiction genre in Scandinavia) finding a large readership in the rest of Europe (particularly Germany and France). Saarinen, a Finnish theologian, writes that such best-selling authors as Henning Mankell, Anne Holt and Sven Westerberg deal with the “surplus of evil…that is, the problem of why we still meet so much unexplained badness and tragedy in spite of our best efforts to build up a just welfare society . . .”
It is no coincidence that these best-selling books often have the word “God” or the “Devil” in their titles, Saarinen adds. But far from signaling a return to religion, they use the metaphor of the absence of God as a way to describe the puzzling “secular presence of evil “ This can be seen in the titles of three best-sellers: “The Terrible Absence of God,” “What God Didn’t See,” and “God Sits Silent.” Scandinavian crime fiction also echoes the Lutheran concepts of the “hidden God,” and evil as a destructive force extending to social injustice and even illness that cannot be explained only in terms of ignorance and lack of education.
Saarinen writes that “Many Scandinavian authors of previous generations accused narrow-minded religiosity for conflicts and intolerance. The contemporary authors, however, claim that modernist liberal tolerance does no better in offering social welfare [which] is helpless in facing the radical evil expressed by brutal crime and tragic life histories of the criminals.”
(Dialog, Pacific Lutheran Seminary, 2770 Main Ave., Berkeley, CA 94708)
Current Research: July 2003
01: A recent Barna poll finds that four out of 10 adults discuss religious matters during a typical week.
The 42 percent of Americans most likely to be discussing religious matters are women, baby boomers, upscale individuals, blacks, residents of the South, Republicans, conservatives and those attending churches of over 100 adults. Hispanics and Asians, residents of California, those without a party and political moderates are among those least likely to talk about matters of faith.
Evangelicals are twice as likely as non-evangelicals (58 percent versus 33 percent) to engage in such conversation. “Unexpectedly, the research found that one out of every three atheists and agnostics (32 percent) talks about faith-related matters during a typical week.”
02: One finding from Canada’s recent census [see May RW] that received less attention is a surprising decline in Pentecostalism in that nation.
In the e-newsletter Sightings (May 29), John Stackhouse writes that evangelical groups such as the Baptists have maintained their proportion of the population by growing about 10 percent (as Canada itself did). He adds that “At the same time, the Pentecostals have actually declined by 15 percent. In a global framework of exploding Pentecostal/charismatic Christianity, a decline of Pentecostalism is like a `decline of Starbucks.’”
Stackhouse speculates that as the nation’s main Pentecostal body, the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada, has “cooled off” and become more “generically `evangelical,’ it is no longer as attractive to `hotter’ Christians who then migrate to the Vineyard or to non-denominational Pentecostal/charismatic churches.”
03: Women leaving the churches is one of the main sources in the decline of religion in Scotland, according to the recent Scottish Church Census.
Quadrant (July), the newsletter of the British Christian Research Association reports that of the 120,000 fewer churchgoers on Sunday in Scotland in 2002 compared with 1994, two-thirds were women. Half of these women — one-third of all dropouts — were between ages 20 and 44 — a key attender group in many congregations.
Focus groups which were held as part of the Census research found that the main reason more women were leaving the church was because of working full-time and having to work on Sunday. One finding that may apply to churches in other countries as well was that the smaller the leadership team, the greater the likelhood a church would grow.
A small number of decision-makers are more strategic in leadership than “many who may have a pastoral or administrative interest,” according to the newsletter.
(Quadrant, Christian Research, Vision Bldg., 4 Footscray Rd., Eltham, London SE9 2TZ, UK)
04: The same issue of Quadrant reports that the 2001 census in Nothern Ireland shows a sharp rise of those claiming no religion, growing by 37 percent since 1991.
Yet the census finds that Catholics also increased by nine percent (against a seven percent growth in the population).
05: Nature religions are the fastest growing group of religions in Australia, according to recent figures by the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
Pointers (June), the newsletter of the Christian Research Association of Australia, cites the statistics as showing a 130 percent increase between the 1991 and 2001 censuses and a 140 percent rise between 1996 and 2001. Nature religions attracted an additional 20,000 people in the decade, bringing their numbers to a total of 24,156. [The Pentecostals attracted more than twice that number — about 45,000].
Among the nature religions group, paganism is the largest and fastest-growing (representing 44 percent of all nature religions, followed by Wicca or goddess worship (representing 36 percent); Australian traditional indigenous religions were not included in these figures. Nature religions had the youngest age profile of all major religious groups in the 2001 census.
Although involving veneration of nature, 64 percent of these practitioners live in major cities. “Generally agricultural communities are more likely to identify with mainline Christian denominations,” according to the newsletter.
(Pointers, CRA, Locked Bag 23, Kew, 3101, Australia)
06: A study of Muslims in Norway suggests that they are not integrating into society largely due to distinctive marriage practices.
The study, carried out by the Oslo-based group Human Rights Service and based on statistical analysis, finds that members of most of Norway’s non-Western immigrant groups are not just avoiding intermarriage but are marrying spouses–often their own cousins–from their countries of origin. These marriages are usually arranged and forced and intend to provide the foreign spouse with Norwegian residency while “injecting into the European branch of the family . . . a hostility to pluralism, tolerance, democracy and sexual equality,” writes Bruce Bawer in the Herald-Tribune newspaper (June 27).
While Norwegian Muslims of both sexes have arranged marriages, the women are married off very young and their imported husbands often expect a subservient attitude among wives, even if they were raised in the more open environment of the West. Among immigrant Muslim groups, the prevalence in Norway of this practice of `fetching marriages’ increased between 1996 and 2001. Bauer adds that although the study was carried out in Norway, this situation may be prevalent in other European countries.
Evangelical-style Catholic music finding following
Contemporary Catholic music is finding a growing audience, suggesting a growing affinity between young Catholics and their evangelical counterparts. National Catholic Register (June 22-28) reports that the “paradigm is shifting” from the contemporary Christian music category being overwhelmingly dominated by evangelical Protestant performers.
“Until recent years, Catholic music distributors primarily geared their offerings to the tiny liturgical music marketplace. Today, the leading contemporary Catholic music distributor, Heartbeat Records, based in Donnellson, Iowa, offers CDs from more than 50 contemporary artists.” The growth is found in Europe and Latin America as well, particularly as Catholic performers are headlined in music festivals nearly every month. Poland’s Song of Songs Festival held at the end of June is one of the largest.
Observers say an important factor in the growth of the music is the influence of and youth devotion to Pope John Paul II and the rise of Catholic TV programs geared toward youth. “The increased enthusiasm among Catholic youth for matters of faith is…somewhat attributable to seeing their friends attend [evangelical] contemporary Christian music concerts,” says Bob Halligan of the Catholic band Ceili Rain.
But Catholic contemporary music is unlikely to rise to the level of its evangelical counterpart because of the difficulty in reaching the Catholic audience and its distinctive emphasis on the Eucharist rather than acting as a central focus of evangelical worship and praise services.
(National Catholic Register, 432 Washington Ave., North Haven, CT 06473)
Charter schools drawing church-state fire
Charter schools have become more open to religious sponsorship and inspiration as they have expanded to most U.S. states — a development leading to a new round of church-state battles.
Church & State, a magazine promoting strict church and state separation (June), reports that charter schools and their supporters are finding themselves in court battles and other conflicts with parents who claim that the curricula in many of these school are “pervasively religious.” At the center of the controversy are the Waldorf Schools, which are run by Anthroposophy, an esoteric spiritual movement founded by mystic Rudolph Steiner.
About 30 of these schools are operating as publicly funded charter schools (many in California).Their emphasis on the importance of the spirit world and alternative teaching methods have brought together a coalition of evangelicals (who claim Anthroposophy is a cult) and church-state separationists to file a suit against the group.
Other cases of charter schools drawing on religious teachings have included black Christian, evangelical and Islamic groups. Jeremy Leaming writes that some of these schools have run into trouble with the law over misappropriation of state funds. A charter school in Houston, Tex., run by the Greater Progressive Tabernacle Baptist Church is being investigated for using much of the state money for the enrichment of the church and its pastor.
Leaming concludes that the charter movement has in effect “opened secondary education doors to many groups of people–some looking to make money, others intending to bring religion or varying philosophies into the schools to combat the religiously neutral approach of traditional public schools.”
(Church & State, 518 C Street, N.E., Washington, DC 2002)
Evangelical missions eye Islam while divided over strategy
The U.S. victory in Iraq and a host of other factors has awakened a missionary fervor among American evangelicals to win the hearts of Muslims, even while they are divided about strategy. A cover story in Time magazine (June 30) reports on the growing evangelical attention to Islamic countries [a trend unfolding for some years; see September, 2002 RW], especially since the Iraq War.
David Van Bema writes that “Not for decades has evangelicalism enjoyed such an Iraqi beachhead,” with some missionaries believing the Allied bombardment induced Muslims to question their “god.” But there are sharp differences about how to introduce Christianity to these often-restricted lands, with some [such as those in Iraq] concentrating on relief work, others working around the rules against conversion from Islam (taking secular jobs and evangelizing from there), and still others engaging in stealth missions and starting underground churches.
The question of how far Christianity should be “contextualized” or made indigenous to Muslim societies is proving divisive in missionary circles. The Evangelical Missions Quarterly (April) reports that in recent years missionaries have embraced a contextualized approach stressing the formation of Muslim Background Believer Congregations (MBB) which subscribe to “Muslim-friendly” vocabulary, diets, clothing and culture, even addressing Jesus as Isa Al Masih.
The division and controversy lies with a more extreme approach known as C5, which calls on converts to remain Muslims worshipping in their mosques, performing Muslim prayers (while praying to Isa), fasting during Ramadan and even making the pilgrimage to Mecca. While the goal of C5 is to reach more Muslims for Christ by embracing the mosque, critics claim that this position is marked by deception and skirts close to encouraging syncretism between Christianity and Islam.
(Evangelical Missionary Quarterly, Billy Graham Center, Wheaton College, Wheaton, IL 60187)
Reaching European seekers: The online imperative
Churches may not yet have become virtual, but they need to be accessible online if they want to reach people. Such were the views of the participants to the Eighth European Christian Internet Conference attended by RW.
The conference, which took place on a ship between Helsinki and Stockholm in early June, gathered webmasters and other project managers belonging to mainstream Churches, primarily Protestants from Germany, the Nordic countries and a few Eastern European countries.
A group of ministers in the Danish Lutheran Church organized around Paul Bo Sorensen is currently developing a project known as http://www.cyberkirke.dk. It recreates online church surroundings and should ultimately be open 24 hours a day, with somebody ready to answer questions at any time, and at least from 8 a.m. to 1 a.m. the next morning.
In Germany, the website http://www.evangelisch-das-ganze-leben.de targets people who would like to reconnect with the Church, primarily women who are eager to recreate a link during turning points in their lives, explained Tom O. Brok.
In the Netherlands a website will be launched this Fall (to be at:http://www.dejacobsladder.nl), as the Missionary Department of the Dutch Reformed Church is taking into account the reality that 75 percent of the Dutch people had a link with the Church in 1958, 37 percent in 1999, and the figure is expected to be down at 25 percent in 2010. Despite this apparent disinterest, commented Otto Sondorp (who is in charge of the project), human beings remain religious as usual, but religious feelings no longer mean being a Christian for many Westerners. Consequently, the Church must find new ways to communicate the Gospel.
All these projects are the product of long reflections and their designs are highly professional. They are clear indications of the increasing significance given by mainstream Churches to the new media. Conversely, some commercial firms have also become aware that there is a “Christian customer segment” worth their attention: in Finland, the huge IT group Telia-Sonera has entered into a partnership with CredoNet (http://www.credo.fi), a Christian firm active in the field of communications.
According to a representative of the company, a cooperation with a Christian partner firm helps Sonera to understand and serve better the Christian customer segment. With about 630 fellowships of the Evangelical Lutheran Church and 300 other Christian fellowships, it represents a market which should not be ignored in a country counting a little more than 5 million inhabitants
— By Jean-François Mayer, RW Contributing Editor and editor of his own website Religioscope