An Islam of the Internet

Salman Rushdie’s Attacker likely knows little of the religion in whose name he acted

When I met Salman Rushdie, in Paris, not long after the death sentence pronounced against him by the dictator of Iran, the Ayatollah Khomeini, in 1989, his reaction surprised me. I will never forget it. Far from being frightened by this “fatwa,” which called on any good Muslim to assassinate him, with paradise as a reward, Rushdie told me that he would henceforth have to redouble his consumption of champagne, spend his evenings in nightclubs, and chase after tall blonds. In sum, partying seemed to him the most appropriate response to the obscene obscurantism of the ayatollahs. He more or less kept his word, up until the recent assassination attempt in Chautauqua, New York, by a young American of Lebanese origin and Shiite religion. That’s Rushdie for you: a player, in life as in literature. His books are funny and impertinent; in any case, neither Khomeini nor the would-be assassin has ever read a word of Rushdie. The fatwa befell Rushdie because of this very impertinence toward all authority, spiritual or temporal.

What is the relationship between Rushdie, Khomeini’s fatwa, and the recent attack? None, or little. For Rushdie, the life of Muhammad and the Koran are sources of literary inspiration, along with the Gospels, Buddhism, and Don Quixote—so many characters with which his work plays, without the slightest concern for realism, or for judgment, or for preaching. Khomeini had no idea what literature is, or what a novelist is. The Lebanese-American assassin is no less ignorant, having no other source of knowledge than Facebook and other social networks.

Was Khomeini’s motivation religious? There is reason to doubt it, given his ignorance of the text that was the basis of the fatwa. His action was, in reality, political. He was hoping at that time to establish himself as the undisputed leader of the reconstituted Persian empire and, beyond that, of Islam as a whole. From the perspective of this concern for power, Rushdie was the ideal target: he was of Muslim origin, but Sunni, not Shiite, and an atheist adulated in the West. The title of the incriminating work, The Satanic Verses, was scandalous enough to stir popular hysteria. The fatwa must thus be understood within the context of the double war for influence: the Muslim world versus the West, and Shia versus Sunni Islam—a twofold religious war, more political than spiritual, with Rushdie caught between the pincers, a circumstantial target.

We in the West have fallen into Khomeini’s trap by paying insufficient attention to the battles internal to the Muslim world, granting the fatwa a value that it did not deserve and promoting the ayatollah to a preeminence that he had not at the time attained. The publicity that the West accorded this fatwa contributed enormously to the growing misunderstanding between the West and Islam: today, for most in the West, Islam is a religion of hatred and intolerance. This prejudice has been reinforced by subsequent attacks committed “in the name of Islam.”


Christians in Nigeria feel under attack: why it’s a complicated story

Nigeria has a long history of religious tensions against which the current spate of violence against Christians must be seen.

There are a number of factors that have heightened religious tensions in Nigeria.

The first is the competition for space between the two main religions of Islam and Christianity. Secondly, there is the perception that Nigerian leaders use the state to promote their religion or faith at the expense of others. Thirdly, there’s a culture of insensitivity to the feelings of minorities.

The root of Islam in northern Nigeria can be traced to the 11th century, when it first appeared in Borno. The northern region of Nigeria has a majority Muslim population. Southern Nigeria has a majority Christian population. Christian missionary work in southern Nigeria effectively began in Yorubaland around 1842.

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Christianity also provided a platform for the establishment of western education in western Nigeria. This failed in several areas in northern Nigeria, where western education was equated with Christianity.

Both religions significantly affected the culture, education, politics and many other facets of people’s social lives. Since religion tends to be a central part of people’s identity, any perceived threat to one’s religious beliefs is seen as a threat to one’s whole being.

Given this history and context, it is no surprise that the latest incidents have been read as a campaign against Christians.

Recent attacks on Christians

The International Christian Concern, in a report on 15 May 2022, described Nigeria as the world’s scariest country in which to be a Christian.

The report argued that:

Christian communities in the Middle Belt of Nigeria have effectively suffered a twenty-year long genocide.

Attacks appear to be escalating. In early June 40 worshippers were killed in a church attack in Owo, Ondo state, south-west Nigeria.

The BBC reported that by the middle of this year there had already been 23 attacks on church premises and people linked to them. This was compared with 31 attacks in 2021 and 18 in 2020.

Some US senators recently wrote to the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, faulting the decision of the American government to remove Nigeria’s designation as a Country of Particular Concern. This designation refers to countries whose governments have “engaged in or tolerated ‘particularly severe violations of religious freedom’.”

The American senators saw the Owo attack as another evidence of the persecution of Christians in Nigeria. They said more than 4,650 Nigerian Christians had been killed for their faith in 2021.


An interfaith discussion on the role of religion in mental health

Religious leaders often try to support the people they serve during challenging times. This supportive role was especially important during the past few years as the nation dealt with a pandemic, social distancing and the loss of more than a million lives.

In a recent discussion sponsored by the Global Religion Journalism Initiative, academics and religious leaders discussed faith-based mental health counseling, including its benefits and limitations.

Natasha Mikles, an assistant professor at Texas State University, moderated the discussion.

Academic panelists included Thema Bryant, a trauma psychologist, ordained minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church and professor at Pepperdine University and Rabbi Seth Winberg, senior chaplain at Brandeis Hillel at Brandeis University. Publisher and author David Morris also took part.

Below are some highlights from the discussion. Answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Natasha Mikles: Are there times when religion can actually be a source of stress rather than comfort for someone who’s going through a difficult time?

Thema Bryant: Yes, religion can be used for healing and empowerment, and it also can be used to oppress, marginalize and shame. In psychology, there’s something called positive religious coping and negative religious coping. Positive religious coping is believing that God is loving and ultimately wants to help, and that’s associated with positive mental health outcomes. Fundamentally believing that God is harsh and trying to penalize me is associated with more negative religious outcomes, and more negative mental health outcomes.

Seth Winberg: Yes, depending on the person and the circumstances, the faith, traditions and the community that one is living in, faith can certainly be a burden, or a strain, or a source of trauma. But for many people, faith provides a community, a social network, a sense of shared values, a rhythm to life and a common culture that I think is very powerful.


Muslim leaders in Michigan condemn attack on Salman Rushdie, killings in New Mexico

Muslim leaders in metro Detroit are condemning recent attacks against writer Salman Rushdie in New York and four Muslim men in New Mexico, holding discussions and meetings over the past week on ways to promote unity and discourage extremism. 

At the same time, some of them are also criticizing Rushdie, saying attacks against Islam are unacceptable. There are differing opinions about the killings in New Mexico, with some Muslim leaders saying they are an illustration of anti-Shia hatred while others downplay the idea that sectarian tensions were involved. 

Sunni and Shia leaders in metro Detroit held a meeting Wednesday to discuss the attacks in New Mexico and to reaffirm a unity agreement they signed in 2007 during previous tensions between the two communities after some vandalism at local mosques.

The two recent cases have generated debate in Michigan’s Muslim population, which is among the largest in the U.S. The president of the mosque in New Mexico that some of the victims in New Mexico attended is a native of Dearborn,  and others in metro Detroit or with ties to the region have spoken out. The suspect arrested in the stabbing of Rushdie is Hadi Matar, a 24-year-old Shia Muslim man born to immigrants from Lebanon who has pleaded not guilty. He said in a New York Post interview this week that Rushdie is “someone who attacked Islam, he attacked their beliefs, the belief systems.”


Oz’s Senate bid could be a Muslim first but is ‘complicated’

(AP) – Dr. Mehmet Oz, who calls himself a “secular Muslim,” would be the first of his faith to ever serve in the U.S. Senate chamber if elected this fall.

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — If Dr. Mehmet Oz is elected to the U.S. Senate this fall, he’ll be the first Muslim ever to serve in the chamber. It’s something he hardly brings up while campaigning, his Democratic opponent isn’t raising it and it’s barely a topic of conversation in Pennsylvania’s Muslim community.

Even if Muslims know that Oz — the celebrity heart surgeon best known as the host of daytime TV’s “The Dr. Oz Show” — is a fellow Muslim, many may not identify with him culturally or politically.

And in any case, Muslims aren’t monolithic and won’t necessarily vote for a candidate just because they share a religion, Muslims across the state say — he’ll have to win them over on the issues just as with all voters.

Oz, whose parents emigrated from Turkey, calls himself a “secular Muslim” and has said that the spiritual side of Islam resonates with him more than the religious law side of it.

He is also part of a Republican Party that is a political minority among Muslims and is endorsed by former President Donald Trump, who earned the enmity of some Muslims for enacting a 2017 ban on travelers coming to the United States from five predominantly Muslim countries.

For a Republican Party more accustomed to electing white Christians, Oz’s religion is a strange bedfellow. Some Muslims say they have felt an animosity from the party in the past and Muslim candidates themselves have faced attacks from GOP rivals.

In a brief interview, Oz said it is good for the United States’ leadership to show that it can elect Muslims, and it is good for Muslims to see one of their own elected to the U.S. Senate.

That kind of success would reinforce the message that “if you work hard in America, no matter what your heritage we treasure you,” Oz said.

Oz won the GOP’s seven-way May primary in a contest so narrow it triggered a statewide recount and he now faces Democrat John Fetterman, Pennsylvania’s lieutenant governor, in the Nov. 8 election. The contest in the presidential battleground state could help determine partisan control of the Senate next year.


3 scholars gather for a female-led interfaith conference in the NC mountains

Three scholars, a Jew, a Christian and a Muslim, will gather to discuss breath and the way it connects body and soul.

(RNS) — Summers have long been a time for camp meetings and religious revivals, a week of preaching, singing and soul-saving in the great outdoors.

That tradition has faded some over the years, but a form of it still exists on a western North Carolina mountain off the Blue Ridge Parkway. Wildacres, a scenic retreat at an elevation of 3,300 feet, has always combined a bit of rustic Appalachia with a progressive religious streak.

This year it is breaking ground again as its Interfaith Institute, a 40-year-old summer tradition, convenes a three-day meeting beginning Monday (Aug. 1), led entirely by female scholars — a Christian, a Jew and a Muslim.

The Interfaith Institute, which has long been hosted by the Greater Carolinas Association of Rabbis, was initially intended as a summer retreat where rabbis, ministers and priests could learn more about other traditions in a relaxed setting.

Increasingly, it is attracting lay people and this year is scrapping the traditional lecture format for a more relaxed conversational workshop in which scholars interact with participants.

RELATED: Interfaith Trolley offers inspiration and a whirlwind tour of religion in America

Wildacres Retreat, located near the Blue Ridge Parkway in Little Switzerland, North Carolina. Photo courtesy of Wildacres Retreat

The theme this year is breath, and the three scholars will explore it beginning with the Genesis creation story where “God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.” (The Quran includes two related passages.)

“When we gathered on Zoom to plan it, one participant said, ‘I just want time to catch my breath,’” said Amy Laura Hall, associate professor of Christian ethics at Duke Divinity School and this year’s program director for the Interfaith Institute. “We kept gravitating back toward that as a theme.”


Interfaith summit dreams of America as a potluck, not a battlefield

Hundreds of interfaith campus leaders gathered in Chicago to reimagine America as a potluck, where everyone is welcome — rather than a melting pot.

CHICAGO (RNS) — Amaris DeLeon grew up in a religious home but no longer identifies with any particular faith, calling herself “spiritual but not religious.” But she recognizes that religion can still play a role in bringing people together, especially in times of tension and conflict.

“People are desperate for a place to talk about things like politics where it’s not going to get too aggressive,” said DeLeon, a student at the University of North Florida, where she works with the school’s interfaith office. “Everyone has morals, everyone has these codes of value. And I think there’s so much more similarity than difference. We just have to look for it and be intentional about it.”

DeLeon was one of about 360 students and educators from 90 colleges and universities who gathered in Chicago over the weekend (Aug. 12-14) for Interfaith America’s annual leadership summit. Held in person for the first time in three years due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the event was a chance to connect with other interfaith leaders and receive training on how to help students from different backgrounds work together.


Muslim Killings in Albuquerque Stir Sectarian Ghosts

An Afghan family struggled for a foothold in a new home in the U.S. Now one of them is charged with killing fellow Muslims.

By Simon RomeroMiriam JordanAva Sasani and Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs

  • Aug. 15, 2022

ALBUQUERQUE — Five years ago, Muhammad Syed was eyeing a new life with his family in a new land. They had fled war-torn Afghanistan and resettled as refugees into a small duplex near the airport in Albuquerque. Mr. Syed found work as a truck driver. But then the troubles began.

Coming from a culture where women largely stayed at home, he grew enraged with his wife as she was learning how to drive, grabbing her hair and kicking her out of the car, according to one of several reports of domestic violence the police were called to investigate. A security camera showed him slashing the tires of another woman’s car outside Albuquerque’s largest mosque, and he was banned from coming back to their place of worship.

When his daughter enrolled in college, he tried to force her to bring her brother to class as a chaperone. And when she became romantically involved with an Afghan man from a different branch of Islam — a Shiite, while Mr. Syed and his family were Sunni — he attacked the young man and threatened to kill him, the man later told the police.

“Syed was explosive, violent, always seeking revenge,” said Sharif Ahmadi Hadi, an Afghan immigrant who, together with his brother, opened a halal market serving Albuquerque’s growing Muslim community and knew the Syed family. “We left Afghanistan to get away from people like him. But they followed us here.”

Altaf Hussain Samadi at the grave of Aftab Hussein, his brother, on Friday.
Altaf Hussain Samadi at the grave of Aftab Hussein, his brother, on Friday.Credit…Chancey Bush/The Albuquerque Journal, via Associated Press

Now Mr. Syed has been identified as the leading suspect in the harrowing string of murders of four men, including Mr. Hadi’s younger brother, three of them Shiite Muslims, and the authorities said on Monday that Mr. Syed’s son, Shaheen Syed, purchased weapons with his father and may have helped him surveil one of the victims before his death.


White House appoints Va. mosque leader to religious freedom commission

Imam Mohamed Magid, the executive religious director of a Northern Virginia mosque and a leader in interfaith relations, has been appointed to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
Magid said he received word from the White House that his appointment was official as of Wednesday.

“I’m looking forward to work with the wonderful members of the commission and the staff of international religious freedom commission to advance religious freedom around the globe and to be the voice of the voiceless,” he said this week.

The bipartisan commission, an independent watchdog, issues an annual report on global religious liberty and deterioration of human rights. Its members take fact-finding trips and make recommendations to the State Department about which countries are the worst religious freedom violators.


Opinion: Reflecting the true message and values of Islam

The Muslim Association of Canada ‘has never permitted a speaker who espouses hatred to use its platform,’ writes a member of its executive

Since its inception in 1997, the Muslim Association of Canada (MAC) has worked tirelessly to provide educational and religious programs to Muslims across the country. From Vancouver to Quebec City, MAC now operates over 50 mosques and schools, provides volunteer opportunities for thousands of Canadians, and serves over 150,000 Canadian Muslims through local chapters.

In a recent National Post column, Terry Glavin raised concern about a MAC convention featuring speeches by prominent Muslim scholars who have allegedly made hateful statements in the past. In light of this, he criticized the Liberals for providing the association with grants.

First of all, MAC has used the government funding it has received over the years to secure its mosques from hate crimes and vandalism, provide students with summer jobs, empower women, and combat Islamophobia through education.

Secondly, MAC has never permitted a speaker who espouses hatred to use its platform. Glavin’s column raised concern about three specific speakers and statements they were alleged to have made in places unrelated to MAC. Two of the allegations were unsubstantiated, and one was based on an Islamophobic source.

But more importantly, MAC has robust policies around speeches delivered at its centres and conferences that ensures they reflect the true message and universal values of Islam and the Muslim community such as justice, mercy, peace, respect, security, equity, dignity and equality.

MAC’s recent convention in Toronto was organized in collaboration with over 30 Canadian and international organizations specializing in Islam, family, youth, mental health, relief and humanity, civic involvement, environmental awareness, disability rights, and other subjects. Thousands of Muslim Canadians attended the convention at the Enercare Centre to learn from a global community of academics, authors, philosophers, influencers, activists and professionals. Panelists discussed, among other things, tackling rising Islamophobia in Canada, youth leadership, shaping public policy, Islamic finance, and Islamic perspectives on justice, equity and diversity.