In This Issue
- On/File: May 2003
- Findings & Footnotes: May 2003
- Australian aborigines embracing Islam
- Criticism from within on Arab anti-Semitism
- Israel’s secular growth shown post-Passover
- Muslims in France organize — with some government help
- Indonesian Muslims open to the new age?
- Few cases of anti-Christian backlash due to war
- Iraq’s religious pluralism omen or promise?
- Current Research: May 2003
- ‘Free religions’ crossing art-religious border
- Christian theater finding secular acceptance
- A religious ministry to terrorists?
01: Damaris Salons that blend feminism with Christian spirituality are growing across the country.
The salons are the brainchild of the Damaris Project, a Dallas-based devoted to an evangelical perspective on faith and women’s issues. These forums, which have grown by word of mouth and are now active in cities including, New York, Atlanta, Washington, D.C., Dallas and Denver, is drawing younger and middle-aged professional women to its meetings that merge discussion and study of feminist texts with the New Testament teachings of Jesus.
Its founder, Lillian Calles Barger, has recently authored eve’s Revenge: Women and a Spirituality of the Body, which, like other material studied at Damaris meetings, is less the typical Christian self-help book and more a fusion between academic feminism and theological discussion.
(Source: Washington Times, April 22)
01: The founding of the Brandywine Review of Faith & International Affairs demonstrates the growing interest and involvement of Christians (and notably evangelicals) in diplomacy, human rights and religious freedom.
The quarterly, intended both for practitioners and academics, is published by the Institute for Global Engagement, which was founded by Ambassador Robert Seiple, a leader in the largely evangelical movement pressing for religious freedom. A lead article on evangelicals as the “newest internationalists” attempts to lay down principles for world engagement, and concludes with a statement critical of a one-sided policy favorable toward Israel and calling for justice for Palestinians. The issue includes other articles on how evangelicals should relate to China and on the reconstruction of Afghanistan.
For more information on the journal and Institute, visit the web site: http://www.cfia.orgi or write: Institute for Global Engagement, 1300 Eagle Rd., the Gate House, Eastern University, St. David’s, PA 19087.
02: Many lamented the disappearance at the beginning of this year of Keston News Service (KNS), a useful resource for monitoring issues of religion and religious freedom in the former Communist countries..Keston will continue its work from its base in England, but won’t be able to revive its news service. Fortunately, there is now a replacement.
Most of the former contributors to KNS now report in Forum 18, a news service active since March, with headquarters in Norway. The content provided by Forum 18 is very close to what KNS used to be (incuding being free). It is available online as well as via e-mail from: http://www.forum18.org/index.php
— By Jean-François Mayer
03: The Chinese new religion Falun Gong comes under in-depth examination in the April issue of the journal Nova Religio.
The issue brings together nine articles covering a wide range of developments and aspects of this syncretistic religion and its ongoing conflict with China’s government. Noteworthy articles include an overview of Falun Gong’s role in the history of China and the growth of apocalyptic rhetoric and teachings in the group.
Although much has been made of the spread of Falun Gong through the Internet, two articles discount this view, finding that this technology has not necessarily aided the rate of conversions nor helped in sidestepping Chinese control of the group (in fact, the government has successfully countered such Internet activism within China).
Another article documents the growth of tensions within the main body as well as the emergence of a splinter group as its leader Li Hongzhi and the New York leadership in general has attempted to moderate its political activism and protests.
For more on this issue, write: Nova Religio,University of California Press, Journals Division, 2000 Center St., #303, Berkeley, CA 94704-1223.
A growing number of Australian Aborigines are converting to Islam, according to a report by the BBC (March 31).
The numbers are still small but the pattern of conversions among Aborigines appears similar to that of African Americans turning to Islam. Aborigine converts, numbering about 1,000, claim they have taken up the new religion for spiritual and social reasons. Converts say Islam provides them with the inner-strength to face poverty and other forms of oppression and discrimination. Indigenous communities first came into contact with Islam more than 150 years ago when Afghan camel trains helped open up the interior region of the country. “These two vastly different groups — an ancient native people and Middle Eastern traders — found they shared a similar sense of spirituality,” writes Phil Mercer.
Some Aborigines have been ostracized by their communities who view them as traitors. “Others speak of racism with their adopted Muslim brotherhood.”
The growth of anti-Semitism in the Muslim and wider Arab world in recent years is now being met with growing criticism, particularly in the Arab media, according to the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI).
An April 23 MEMRI report notes that in the past anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial had become increasingly common in much of the Arab world. But in the past two years, the “Arab media has reflected significant criticism of, and reservations regarding, manifestations of anti-Semitism.” The report cites criticism by Arab intellectuals and the press of a conference on Holocaust revisionism to be held in Beirut, Lebanon, which was eventually canceled.
An Egyptian TV series on the anti-Semitic Protocols of the Elders of Zion was likewise targeted with criticism (first by the U.S. government). In March, Egypt’s Al-Azar University’s Institute for Islamic Research issued a recommendation for Muslims not todescribe Jews as “apes and pigs,” which has been fairly common in Islamist discourse. The report concludes that this change may reflect the increasing tendency (influenced by MEMRI itself) to translate and make public material from the Arab press.
Also, the increase in anti-Semitic statements since the Intifada has led some Arab and Muslim intellectuals to rethink or go public in rejecting such statements. But it adds that the “number of those criticizing anti-Semitism in the Arab world is still relatively small, and most are unwilling to rethink and reject Arab anti-Semitism.”
The easing of restrictions against establishments violating Passover laws in Israel is revealing a new secular mood embodied in a rising political party.
The Baltimore Sun (April 22) reports that while it is illegal to display or openly sell leavened products–such as wheat, barley, oat and rye–in Israel during Passover, this year secular authorities did not dispatch inspectors or levy fines. “The change reflects the growing influence of a determinedly secular party called Shinui, the only part of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s coalition government that campaigned promising to separate religion from government affairs,” writes Peter Hermann.
In 1986, Israeli lawmakers approved a law prohibiting business owners from selling leavened products. As recently as last year inspectors fanned out across Jerusalem, issuing tickets to shops where banned food products were visible from public streets. But laws upholding religious restrictions have “gradually eroded over the years, not only in cities such as secular Tel Aviv, but also in Jerusalem, where two-thirds of the Jewish residents describe themselves as observant.”
The creation of a new French Muslim Council suggests growing unity among Muslims in France, as well as a new approach the French government may take toward religious affairs.
Representatives from more than 900 mosques across France recently elected members of the new council. .The first generation of Muslim immigrants in France were immigrant workers, often expected to go back to their original countries after retirement. Not only did they stay, but more came over the years, and their children became French citizens. A growing number of the 5 million Muslims in France are entitled to vote, which means French governments will need to pay attention to their voice.
A problem has always been the absence of a representative body of French Muslims as an official partner for the French government, largely due to disunity among the Islamic groups. However, the new and dynamic Interior Minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, managed to bring all the major Muslim organizations in France to an agreement. About 80 percent of the French mosques have taken part in the April elections. It now remains to be seen how the newly elected body will conduct its work (the influential and moderate Paris Mosque makes no mystery of its opposition to the “fundamentalist” French Union of Islamic Organizations), and also how the government will respond to various issues which go beyond the role and place of Islam in France.
There are indeed indications that the current French government intends to redefine the religion-state relations, which have often been conflictual in France over the past century. On the other hand, such a redefinition will also involve drawing boundaries: addressing a Muslim gathering near Paris on April 19, Sarkozy reemphasized that wearing an Islamic scarf for pictures used on identity cards or passports would remain forbidden. The mostly scarf-wearing women in the audience were apparently unconvinced.
— By Jean-François Mayer
Over the past three years, middle class Muslims in Indonesia have been increasingly attracted toward a wide range of new religious expressions, including even New Age.
That was one of the findings presented by Australian scholar Julia Day Howell (Griffith University, Brisbane) at the conference of the Center for Studies on New Religions (CESNUR) attended by RW, which took place April 10-12 at the University of Vilnius, Lithuania. In the context of changes following the end of the Suharto regime, political parties proliferated in Indonesia, including radical expressions of Islam. However, according to Howell, one can also notice a remarkable trend toward liberalism, which may in part derive from the increased educational level during the Suharto period — and an accompanying development of a more cosmopolitan orientation.
Researchers note an increasingly autonomous approach toward religiosity among sectors of Indonesian Muslims, resulting in open attitudes toward reiki, yoga classes and various spiritual movements active on a multireligious basis. There is especially a rising interest in experiential religiosity, which accounts for an interest among urbanites in Sufism, but also in the New Age market (from the Celestine Prophecy to Brahma Kumaris).
Generally speaking, the Indonesian Muslim community has become much more pluralist in its orientations.
— By Jean-François Mayer
Although there were widespread fears of Muslim hostility toward Christians over the American-led war against Iraq, few if any actual cases of such violence or conflict erupted.
During the first two weeks of the war, The National Catholic Reporter (April 11) canvassed Christian and Muslim leaders in zones where relations between the two faiths have been the most tense: Pakistan, Nigeria, Indonesia, Egypt, Lebanon, Palestine, and the Catholic community of Baghdad. All the leaders confirmed that they were unaware of anti-Christian backlash. “Many reported that Christian-Muslim ties are actually better than ever, forged by common opposition to a conflict they see as an American, rather than a Christian, venture,” writes John L. Allen Jr.
The fear of anti-Christian reprisals was based on precedent, as the war in Afghanistan fueled anti-Christian violence in Pakistan and elsewhere. There were reports of death threats against Christians right before the war commenced, but they never materialized. Allen finds that Pope John Paul II’s opposition to the war was particularly influential in preventing conflict, as well as the Christian-Muslim dialogues that have been ongoing in the past few years.
The lack of anti-Christian reprisals was confirmed by the Center for Religious Freedom, a group paying special attention to the persecution of Christians.
As Iraq undergoes reconstruction, it may be too early to ascertain the shape of Islam in that country. But there are growing divisions among the Shiite Muslims in post-war Iraq adding to a pluralism that may possibly prevent theocratic rule by any one group, reports the Washington Post (April 20).
Shiite Muslims in Iraq are divided in their allegiance to the many leaders who are filling the leadership vacuum left by Sadam Hussein’s fall. The center of Shiite leadership in the holy city of Najaf itself has long been divided between a traditionalist wing that shuns politics and an activist wing calling for a political role for clergy. Some pledge loyalty to Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khameneii while others look to Kadhim Husseini Haeri, an exiled religious leader.
While some — particularly the Sunni Muslims and Christians — predict religious strife similar to that of Lebanon’s civil war. “Others are more optimistic, hopeful that Iraq’s diversity will temper the Shiite community’s demands and that it’s moderation, so far, is a signal of intentions,” writes Anthony Shadid.
01: The negative attitudes displayed by some evangelical leaders toward Islam since Sept. 11 seems to be shared by rank-and-file believers, according to a recent poll.
The poll, sponsored by Beliefnet and the Ethics and Public Policy Center, found that 77 percent of evangelicals had an overall unfavorable view of Islam. Seventy percent also agreed that Islam is a “religion of violence,” and 66 percent agree with the statement that Islam is dedicated to world domination. Eighty three percent agreed that it was very important to evangelize U.S. Muslims. Yet 93 percent said it was very important (52 percent) or of “some importance” (41 percent) to “welcome Muslims into the American community.”
Seventy nine percent said it was very important to “protect the rights of Muslims”
(The survey can be found at: the Beliefnet website: http://www.beliefnet.com/story/124/story_12447.html) .
02: The religious affiliations of the U.S. military personnel closely mirrors that of the U.S. population, according to recent figures by the Defense Manpower Data Center.
The Washington Times (April 28) notes that unlike the Census, which does not allow a religious question, the military polls its soldiers in order to provide chaplains to meet their religious needs Only about 0.1 percent of all American military declare themselves atheists while 44 and 24 percent claim the Protestant and Catholic labels, respectively. A recent Gallup Poll finds that 56 percent of all Americans are Protestant and 27 percent Catholic. Gallup only found eight percent of the public claiming no affiliation, while the military registered 27 percent with no such religious preference.
“There are differences between telling a pollster you have no religion and telling the military that you do not wish to specify a religion,” according to the article. Muslims and Jews are at 0.3 percent, though the former is more represented in the military on a per capita basis than the latter. Buddhists stand at 0.2 percent and Hindus, 0.1 percent in the military.
03: The recent British Census shows a larger Christian population than do other surveys, while confirming the gap between profession of faith and commitment to a congregation. Quadrant (May), the newsletter of the British Christian Research Association, reports that the Census — the first one to ask a question on religion in 150 years — finds that 72 percent of the population in England and Wales said they were Christians.
The number of people who selected the Christian designation was greater than found in past Christian Research estimations (63 percent), the British Social Attitudes Report (53 percent in 1998) and the European Values Study (66 percent). But at best, only a third are churchgoers, and half of these only come once a year. The six percent belonging to the other religions “emerged much as predicted–1.5 million Muslims, 600,000 Hindus, 300,000 Sikhs, 300,000 Jews, 150,000 Buddhists and 300,000 “others.”
(Quadrant, Vision Bldg., 4 Footscray Rd., Eltham, London SE9 2TZ)
04: France has long been a country with a comparatively low average level of religious beliefs and practices, but the trend downward may not have yet hit bottom, according to a survey released in April by CSA (http://www.csa-fr.com), a leading survey institute.
The survey is based on detailed questions asked to a representative sample of 1,000 people and offers comparisons with the results of a similar survey conducted in 1994. Interestingly, the skeptical attitude does not only apply to formal religious beliefs: for instance, there is a strong decline in beliefs in astrology (from 37 percent not believing in astrology in 1994 to 63 percent in 2003), which led some Catholic observers to suggest that alternative spiritual beliefs are actually much more affected than traditional religious beliefs by secular developments.
Thirty Seven percent consider religion as important in their lives and 25 percent claim to pray daily. Behind rationalism, secularization and decline in religious practice, interest in religion has not disappeared: more people today than ten years ago would describe themselves as believers, although this might indicate an inclination rather than a firm set of beliefs: for instance, while 39 percent claim there is nothing after death, only four percent believe in resurrection and six percent in reincarnation, plus 16 percent in immortality of the soul.
To the extent the survey results can be considered as reliable, they seem to indicate a strong tendency toward religious confusion, which probably goes along with a decline in religious knowledge — and with a relativization of religious boundaries. While it is not surprising that 88 percent of the Muslims in France believe that Muhammad was a prophet, it is more perplexing to discover that 34 percent of practicing French Roman Catholics claim to believe it too.
It might also be a sign that efforts toward interreligious dialogue and understanding other religions has left its mark among French Christians, since practicing Catholics show more willingness to believe it than non-practicing ones. But the impact of Eastern religions remain limited: only three percent express a strong interest toward Buddhism and one percent toward Hinduism.
— By Jean-François Mayer, RW Contributing Editor and founder of the website Religioscope (http://www.religioscope.com)
05: The percentage of Russians who consider themselves believers continues to rise, according to a recent survey by the Public Opinion fund.
This year, 69 percent of respondents said that they profess a religion, up seven percent since 1997. Rosbalt News Agency (April 28) reports that the study shows fifty nine percent identified themselves as Orthodox believers, eight percent as Muslims and two percent other religions. 30 percent of those questioned did not consider themselves religious, compared to 38 percent in 1997.
Most (83 percent) said they planned to celebrate Easter and there was a three percent growth of those observing Lent since 2000 (from six percent to nine percent).
Do-it-yourself religions that were created as parodies of established faiths are taking on a life of their own, as members find a sense of spirituality and community through participating, reports Reason magazine (May).
RW has reported on the growth of satirical religions, many of which start on the Internet, but Jesse Walker writes that many of these so-called “free religions” are actually “blurring the boundaries between art and faith.” He cites the example of the Dallas-based Hot Tub Mystery Religion, which started out when its founders dreamed of creating a work of performance art that “would occupy every sense, driving the audience into a transcendental state.” Today the 100-member group borrows freely from Roman paganism, Islamic heresies, Jewish mysticism, Philip K. Dick’s Gnostic science fiction and even a novel from G.K. Chesterton.
Walker writes that “Such playfulness marks the so-called free religions.” Under this header one finds Discordianism, the “non-Prophet Irreligious Disorganization,” devoted to the Greco-Roman goddess of disorder and the Moorish Orthodox Church, which borrows from Afro-American Islam. Observers, such as Jewish mystic Rabbi Schachter-Shalomi, believe that these free religions are one-generation phenomenons since they are not based in the household and families.
Walker concludes that there is nothing unusual about people leaving behind beliefs they dislike and creating syncretic religions. “What is new is the ease of the former, the speed of the latter, and the extent to which the two have combined.”
(Reason, 3415 Sepulveda Blvd., Suite 400, Los Angeles, CA 90034-6064)
A growing number of Christian-theater companies have opened across the U.S. and are finding acceptance in secular regional theater circles.
The magazine Books & Culture (March/April) reports that “Across North America in select urban markets, there are new Christian drama companies, often founded by theater artists in their 20s and 30s who feel duty-bound to supply an alternative for Christian’s entertainment dollars.” Some of these theater companies make evangelism their central mission such as Art Within, a group that operates in the center of Atlanta’s art community.
Other companies do not make their Christian identity explicit and may only ambiguously insert a Christian perspective through story-telling, such as the pioneer Lamb’s Players Theater in New York. The productions often generate debate and heated discussion and at company’s such as Art Within, there are talkback sessions that allow audience members to interact with the participants in the play. Art Within and Vancouver, BC’s Pacific Theater have shown growing attendance when many secular venues are declining as well as finding greater acceptance in the arts and media community; Pacific is the third largest resident company in Vancouver.
(Books & Culture, 465 Gundersen, Carol Stream, IL 50188)
Religious groups may be particularly effective in stemming religion-based terrorism, according to America, a Jesuit magazine (April 14).
One finding of a recent Carnegie Commission on Preventing Deadly Conflict concerned the pivotal role co-religionists play in countering the “hateful side of the religious sword with the other side of tolerance and love for humanity.”Statements condemning terrorism by religious leaders in major cities or in far-away nations are unlikely to convince local religious clergy “who are captivated by the rhetoric and manipulation of sacred symbols” by someone like Osama bin Laden. Counteracting the terrorism and violence that first breaks out locally (violence between Muslims and Christians, for instance) “requires local presence and local response,” writes Joseph Bock, a conflict resolution specialist.
One solution to this dilemma is the “model provided by civic groups, like Rotary, which are global in reach and have a local presence.” Bock cites the example of the Catholic diocese in Mumbai, India where it imported the base Christian communities approach from Latin America and transformed it into “Base Human Communities.” Each group, which include Muslim, Hindu and Christian members, monitors aggression by any religious group toward another and takes “immediate action to prevent malicious rumors from spreading. They also take measures to prevent isolated, yet potentially explosive, events from being blown out of proportion…” The program has been so successful that where these “interfaith civic groups” exist, interreligious riots, which have plagued other parts of Mumbai, have been noticeably absent.
Bock adds that scholars seeking preventative solutions to terrorism are embracing an ”iniquity theory.” For years social scientists have sought to explain terrorism with “equity” theories that sought to redress injustices and inequalities that result in violent behavior. The new thinking holds that it is one thing for people to feel the injustice of living in a refugee camp, but “quite another for them to develop a view that this injustice is evidence that the Christian West is the enemy of the Muslim world and that Muslims have not only the right to lash out violently against the Christian West but a religious duty to do so.”
Thus, social scientists are now paying attention to the way leaders of militant movements, like bin Laden, recognize that some of those who are discontented about geopolitical issues can be made to feel a collective sense of moral violation and “that they have an obligation to be violent against that which is defacing something they hold sacred.”
Another way scholars and activists are working to prevent terrorism and other forms of violence is by introducing the concept of forgiveness into political strategy, according to Bill Bole in the April 21 issue of America. The new emphasis on making public acts of forgiveness and mutual repentance takes its cues from the work of the post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa and applies it to cases where normal diplomacy does not solve conflicts, such as identity-based antagonism, including tribal genocide in Rwanda and varieties of Islamic extremism.
The concept is now slipping into an “array of initiatives aimed at building trust and relationships, especially in post-conflict societies. These “outsider-neutral organizations,” such as the World Conference on Religion and Peace, and the Appeal of Conscience Foundation often are instrumental in pushing spiritual leaders in such torn societies toward interreligous dialogues and in bringing the concept of forgiveness into reconciliation workshops. For instance, the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies has sponsored dozens of seminars in the former Yugoslavia that bring together lay members of the Catholic, Orthodox and Muslim faiths, where participants acknowledge the atrocities committed by their religious and ethnic groups against others.
Bole concludes that forgiveness can be of use in conflict resolution, if it leaves “behind much of its privatized religious and therapeutic baggage and if it is recognized as a process, not a single, instantaneous act.”
(America, 106 W. 56th St., New York, NY 10019-3803)