A Diversity Institute Teaches Iraqi Students About Religious Minorities

A new institute in Iraq that aims to change the country’s discourse toward religious minorities through educational programs for Muslim students and clerics has published its first curricula.

The Institute for the Study of Religious Diversity, the first of its kind in Iraq and the Middle East, was established nearly a year ago by Masarat, a Baghdad-based nonprofit nongovernmental organization that focuses on minorities, collective memory studies and interfaith dialogue, in cooperation with a number of universities and civil-rights groups.

The new curricula are a series of textbooks on non-Muslim minority faiths, which include Mandaeanism, Yazidism, Judaism and Christianity, that will be used in a new course that was taught for the first time this year. All of the curricula were designed by experts, academics and leaders within the groups they describe.

Initially, the focus will be on teaching students of Islamic seminaries (both Sunni and Shia) in traditional religious institutions and students of Islamic sciences faculties at some of Iraq’s public universities. There are plans to expand the course to media and journalism students, too.


Why Istanbul’s historic Hagia Sophia could be in a fight against time

Opinion by Asli Aydintasbas June 24, 2020 at 11:05 a.m. EDTAdd to list

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople lowered his voice in exasperation. “What can I say as a Christian clergyman and the Greek patriarch in Istanbul? Instead of uniting, a 1,500-year-old heritage is dividing us. I am saddened and shaken.”

The 80-year-old spiritual leader of 300 million Orthodox Christians worldwide was referring to the Turkish government’s plans to convert Hagia Sophia, a 6th-century Byzantine cathedral and one of the most precious architectural wonders of the world, into a mosque. For centuries, the terra-cotta-colored building served as the largest church in the Christian world. When Ottomans conquered Istanbul in 1453, they carefully covered the mosaics and turned it into a mosque. In 1934, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the modern Turkish state, turned it into a museum — both as a testament to the country’s new secular principles, but also as a signal of its desire to be anchored to the Western world.

Not surprisingly, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan now wants to turn it back into a mosque and has instructed aides to find a legal formula. Hagia Sophia has long been a coveted symbol for Islamists who resented Ataturk’s desire for a West-leaning and secular society, but no Turkish government had so far touched his legacy. Erdogan’s move this time is partly driven by a populist desire to consolidate conservative Muslims at a time of declining votes for his party.

But what is particularly troubling about the Hagia Sophia debate is the toxic language, which echoes centuries of religious rivalry in this part of the world. In late May, Erdogan participated by video in a Koranic reading of the “Conquest” verse (“surah”) at Hagia Sophia, “We will leave behind a Turkey befitting of our ancestor Fatih [the Conqueror],” referring to the Ottoman sultan who captured Istanbul in 1453.

Under Erdogan’s resurgent Turkey, “conquest” is a useful theme to rally nationalist sentiments. Before each incursion into Syria by the Turkish military, Turkey’s Directorate of Religious Affairs instructs mosques to read the “conquest” verse from the Koran. The ministry of culture and Istanbul municipality have been celebrating the “conquest of Istanbul” each May 30, with greater and greater ferocity over the past decade. Erdogan’s nationalist ally, Devlet Bahceli, has called the opening of Hagia Sophia as a mosque “the gain of the sword.”

“But who is this conquest against?” asked a Greek Orthodox friend of mine from Istanbul. Turks have been running Istanbul for nearly six centuries, and the handful of Christians left in the country pose neither a cultural nor a political challenge to anyone. Out of a population of 82 million, there are less than 90,000 non-Muslims living in Turkey at the moment — including Armenians, Jews, Assyrians and a few thousand Greeks — and in the words of Hrant Dink, a journalist of Armenian descent assassinated by a nationalist in 2007, most live “with the trepidations of a dove.


2,500 rare texts from Islamic world to go online for free

National Library of Israel is digitising collection of manuscripts and books dating back to ninth century

More than 2,500 rare manuscripts and books from the Islamic world covering a period of more than a thousand years are to be made freely available online.

The National Library of Israel (NLI) in Jerusalem is digitising its world-class collection of items in Arabic, Persian, and Turkish, dating from the ninth to the 20th centuries, including spectacularly beautiful Qur’ans and literary works decorated with gold leaf and lapis lazuli.

The NLI’s treasures include an exquisite Iranian copy of Gift to the Noble (Tuhfat al-Ahrar), created barely three years after the completion of a 1484 collection of verse on religious and moral themes by the great Persian mystical poet Nur al-Din Jami.

Each page is illuminated in gold leaf, with illustrations that include a polo game and a garden scene featuring beautiful medieval calligraphy.

Dr Raquel Ukeles, curator of the NLI’s Islam and Middle East collection, said: “It’s exquisite. Each border is decorated in gold leaf [and] very delicate paintings. Every page is different. You’ll have pictures of gazelles, flowers or plants.”


From Islam to Buddhism, faiths have long encouraged stewardship of nature

In most major religions there is scripture encouraging the protection and care of nature.  From Buddhism to Christianity, Hinduism to Islam, faiths recognize the need for environmental stewardship and urge followers to be caretakers of the planet and its biodiversity.

Spiritual leaders play an important role in sharing religious practices and passages so that followers can live a more sustainable lifestyle respecting the 8 million species we share our planet with.

That message was echoed by World Environment Day 2020, which fell on 5 June. The celebration cast a spotlight on the services nature provides us—from food to medicine—and highlighted that, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, life on earth would not be possible without nature’s bounty.

Here are how seven faiths remind us how we are connected to nature.

The Baha’i writings are replete with statements on the importance of the harmony between human life and the natural world. Bahá’u’lláh’s writings are imbued with a deep respect for nature and the interconnectedness of all things, seeing especially in nature a reflection of the divine:

Nature in its essence is the embodiment of My Name, the Maker, the Creator. Its manifestations are diversified by varying causes, and in this diversity, there are signs for men of discernment.

Buddhism inspires ecological mindfulness to address the loss of biodiversity. It seeks wisdom through adherence to the Five Precepts, the pursuit of the Noble Eightfold Path, and the understanding of karma. Buddhists find themselves in harmony with nature by acknowledging the interdependence of all forms of life.

At the core of Brahma Kumaris’ work is the understanding of the connection between our consciousness, thoughts and actions, and their impact on the world. It is seen that long-lasting change in any social or environmental system starts with a profound shift in the minds and hearts of people. The current loss of biodiversity is therefore a clear call to transform our awareness and lifestyle, and start caring for all living forms on the planet.

“Our capacity to change ecosystems is proportional to our capacity to change our own consciousness” – Brahma Kumaris

For Christians, biodiversity conservation is a role that is at the heart of their daily lives. In the spirit of St. Francis of Assisi, Christians are called to experience the world as a joyful mystery to be contemplated with gladness and praise, as St. Francis does in the words of the Canticle of Creation:

“Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs.”


The Hajj Pilgrimage Is Canceled, and Grief Rocks the Muslim World

The coronavirus pandemic upended the plans of millions of Muslims, for whom the once-in-a-lifetime trip is a sacred milestone.

Ben Hubbard
Declan Walsh

By Ben Hubbard and Declan Walsh

  • June 23, 2020

BEIRUT, Lebanon — For much of his life, Abdul-Halim al-Akoum stashed away cash in hopes of one day traveling from his Lebanese mountain village to perform the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca that all Muslims who can are obliged to make once in their lives.He was all set to go this year until the coronavirus pandemic forced Saudi Arabia to effectively cancel the hajj for what some scholars say may be the first time in history.

“It is the dream of every Muslim believer to visit Mecca and do the hajj,” said Mr. al-Akoum, 61, a village official. “But the pandemic came with no warning and took away that dream.”

The Saudi announcement sent shock waves of sadness and disappointment across the Muslim world, upending the plans of millions of believers to make a trip that many look forward to their whole lives and which, for many, marks a profound spiritual awakening.

A 72-year-old retired port worker in Pakistan will stay home, despite his six children having pooled their money to finance his trip. A mother in Kenya will forgo visiting sites she has long dreamed of seeing. An Egyptian school administrator named Zeinab Ibrahim burst into tears.

“It was my only wish,” Ms. Ibrahim said. “To cancel it completely is such a shame. May God relieve us of this burden.”


Must Islam and the West Fight? Religion and Politics Class Tackles Sensitive Topics

Course pairs students with religious groups to expand their learning

The two things you’re not supposed to talk about in polite company are religion and politics. And that’s what this class is about.”—Timothy Longman

The titular twin taboos in Timothy Longman’s Religion and Politics class certainly coaxed language heated enough to upend a genteel dinner party during a recent Zoomed session. Longman, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of political science, lectured about the Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, an influential article and 1996 book by the late Harvard scholar Samuel Huntington, who posited an irreconcilable cultural battle between supposedly rational Western democracies on one hand, and Islam, with its inherent “violent propensity,” on the other. 

Lillian Ilsley-Greene (CAS’20) succinctly sums up her peers’ reaction: “God, this is like bonkers racist.”

Huntington published his book 20 years before the election of a president who imposed a controversial travel ban on several Muslim-majority nations. Ilsley-Greene found it “terrifying,” she says, that Huntington’s thesis echoes today from advocates who don’t realize the effects of their words on the non-Western world. 

Steven Rubin (CAS’22) scoffs at Huntington’s division of the world into eight major civilizations as simplistic, lumping together what Rubin called a ginormous sprawl of Muslim nations with disparate cultures. “How many times will Westerners take a map of the world and try to draw lines all over it?” he asks.


What Happened in the Tennessean’s Newsroom After That “Indefensible” Anti-Muslim Ad

“I was feeling in myself, ‘Can I even come back to this place?’ ”

Subscribers of the Tennessean opened their Sunday papers last weekend to discover a full-page ad that warned a “nuclear device” would detonate in Nashville on July 18,. The ad said it would be set off by “Islam”—not by Muslims, not by a terrorist group, just by “Islam.” The ad, created by a fringe post-apocalyptic Christian organization called the ministry of Future for America, set off an immediate furor as it traveled online. The Tennessean itself called it “utterly indefensible” and rushed to find out how it had made it into print. By Monday, a sales manager had been fired.Alex Martin Smith@asmiff

This morning, the Nashville @Tennessean — the largest newspaper in the state — published a full-page ad from a far-right client warning “Islam is going to detonate a nuclear device in Nashville, Tennessee.” It’s accompanied by photos of Donald Trump and Pope Francis.

View image on Twitter
View image on Twitter

On Sunday, David Plazas, the opinion and engagement director at the Tennessean and the USA Today newsrooms in Tennessee, had started a furlough, like many of his colleagues, because of the coronavirus economic slowdown. He was immediately called back to address the crisis. We spoke on Tuesday about how the ad came to be, the paper’s firm response, and the impossible work of local journalism right now. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Aymann Ismail: When did you first see the ad?

David Plazas: I’m a print reader. I get the print newspaper to my home every day, and I was just as shocked an anybody, because I saw the ad at the same time that the majority of our leadership did. It was extremely upsetting. I was angry. I’ll be honest with you: I was feeling in myself, “Can I even come back to this place when I finish my furlough?” That was the initial raw emotion I had. But then I also said, I have the responsibility and the duty to do what I can to try to make this right. Because I have the capacity to do so.


Saudi Arabia: Hajj will see at most ‘thousands’ due to virus

DUBAI – A Saudi official said Tuesday that the hajj pilgrimage, which usually draws up to 2.5 million Muslims from all over the world, will only see at the most a few thousand pilgrims next month due to concerns over the spread of the coronavirus.

The kingdom’s Hajj Minister Muhammad Benten said a “small and very limited” number of people — even as low as just 1,000 from inside the kingdom — will be allowed to perform the pilgrimage to ensure social distancing and crowd control amid the global virus outbreak.

“The number, God willing, may be in the thousands. We are in the process of reviewing so it could be 1,000 or less, or a little more,” Benten said in a virtual press conference.

While the decision to drastically curb this year’s hajj was largely expected, it remains unprecedented in Saudi Arabia’s nearly 90-year history and effectively bars all Muslims from outside the kingdom from travelling there to performing the pilgrimage.

The Saudi government waited until just five weeks before the hajj to announce its decision. The timing indicates the sensitivity around major decisions concerning the hajj that affect Muslims around the world.

“This is a very sensitive operation and we are working with experts at the Health Ministry,” Benten said, stressing the importance of protecting the lives and health of pilgrims.


Newspaper apologizes for ‘horrific’ ad that claims ‘Islam’ was going to bomb Nashville

“The ad is horrific and is utterly indefensible in all circumstances,” The Tennessean’s editor said.

By Tim Stelloh

Executives at a newspaper in Nashville, Tennessee, apologized Sunday for publishing what a top editor called a “horrific” full-page advertisement that said “Islam” was going to detonate a nuclear device in the city next month.

The ad in The Tennessean, which also said President Donald Trump “typified many biblical leaders,” was from a religious group that the newspaper described in a non-bylined story as “fringe.”

Kevin Gentzel, the chief revenue officer at Gannett, which owns The Tennessean, said the company was launching an investigation to determine how the ad was published.

“We strongly condemn the message and apologize to our readers,” he tweeted.

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The editor of the paper, Michael Anastasi, was quoted in The Tennessean as saying there had “clearly” been a breakdown in how the newspaper’s ads are scrutinized.

“The ad is horrific and is utterly indefensible in all circumstances,” he said, according to the paper. “It is wrong, period, and should have never been published.”

The story said the advertisement had been pulled from future editions.


Black Lives Matter in Indonesia, Too

American protests are inspiring Indonesians to tackle racism against Papuans.

Papuan students take part in a rally in Surabaya, East Java, on June 16, 2020 demanding the Indonesian government to free seven Papuan protesters, charged with treason for their involvement in anti-racism protests in 2019, ahead of their verdicts on June 17. (Photo by JUNI KRISWANTO / AFP) (Photo by JUNI KRISWANTO/AFP via Getty Images)

n the indelible photograph of Obby Kogoya, the black Indonesian university student is flat on his stomach on the road; a policeman’s hand claws at his nostrils and another cups his chin while he screams in obvious pain. He is framed by a dense tangle of arms and legs of police who have ganged up to arrest him for participating in a peaceful protest. Even if you have never been to Indonesia, let alone the university town of Yogyakarta in Central Java where Kogoya went to school, the image of craven police brutality against a young black man will be familiar.

The echoes with the plight of African Americans is not lost on Indonesians from Papua and West Papua, the country’s two easternmost provinces, which are populated mainly by dark-skinned Melanesians and home to a long-standing separatist struggle. Recently, Papuans have been juxtaposing the photo of Kogoya, who was arrested in 2016 at age 21, with George Floyd, the 46-year-old black man killed by Minneapolis police in late May.Trending Articles

“In Papua, we have a lot of names like George Floyd,” said Elvira Rumkabu, a Papuan international relations lecturer who lives in the regional capital of Jayapura. “It’s interesting to see just how much Papuans are relating to #BlackLivesMatter. Papuans share the anger of black Americans … and we are demanding now that people around the world, but especially Indonesians, realize we have same suffering here.”

That Black Lives Matter is proving so resonant halfway around the world should be no surprise. Over the past two weeks, countries from New Zealand to the U.K. have seen protests in solidarity with Floyd. But the case of Indonesia, and of Papua, is one of the movement’s most powerful ripple effects. Seven years after it started in the United States, Black Lives Matter’s framework for understanding systemic racism and violence against black people is providing a novel way to understand a little-known, little-reported, heavily militarized and racialized conflict in the world’s fourth-most populous country.