Wednesday, October 24, 2007

New original columns from Common Ground News Service

Title: The right to change one's religion
Author: Shaykh Abdallah Adhami
Source: The Common Ground News Service, 23 October 2007
Word Count: 888

Title: Groundbreaking event in Muslim-Christian solidarity
Author: Claude Salhani
Source: The Common Ground News Service, 23 October 2007
Word Count: 874

Title: Re-narration of Muslim-Western experiences
Author: Audifax
Source: The Common Ground News Service, 23 October 2007
Word Count: 821

Title: Indonesia: Is secularism a choice?
Author: Ali Noer Zaman
Source: The Common Ground News Service, 23 October 2007
Word Count: 824

Title: ~Youth Views~ Comics bridge cultural gaps
Author: Michael Chou and Youssef Morshedy
Source: The Common Ground News Service, 23 October 2007
Word Count: 738

We also include articles sourced from other publications that have granted us permission to distribute, which you may also find of interest:

Each article is available in Arabic, French, English, Indonesian and Urdu; just ask and I'd be happy to send you any translation. Please feel free to republish the article(s) and, if possible, let me know by sending an email to:

With regards,
Andrew Kessinger
Common Ground News Service


The right to change one's religion
Shaykh Abdallah Adhami

New York, New York - From the Code of Hammurabi to the Code of Maimonides, most major systems of law have affirmed that apostasy must be punished.

In the renowned code of the Roman emperor Justinian (483-565 CE), corpus juris civilis — the basis of all Roman canon law and of modern civil law — apostasy was "to be punished by death" and there was "no toleration of dissent".

The Biblical codes stipulate that the "one who doubts or ridicules one word of the Torah — or of the rabbinical authors — is a 'heretic' in the fullest sense, an infidel ... and there is no hope for him." The laws concerning such an unbeliever are very strict: "he may be killed directly". Or as Maimonides, the 13th century Andalucian rabbi and philosopher, advised regarding the abeyance of apostasy law in his era, "his death may be caused indirectly."

Islamic law, (shari'a), likewise stipulated killing in cases of established public apostasy. Though there is little literature on the emergence and application of apostasy law in the early periods of Muslim history, its actual application usually depended upon whether its declaration was public or private. Within the Islamic state, what minorities — religious and otherwise — did in their private lives was left to their own discretion, even if it may have been technically termed "deviant" or against Islamic teaching.

Shari'a, like all religious law, governs rites of worship and codes of individual and communal conduct and ethics. Contrary to stereotypical notions of religion, the earthly realm within shari'a is in fact pragmatically understood to be essentially secular.

From the point of view of religion, the fundamental nature of the human being is to yearn to worship God unencumbered. The private realm of apostasy had thus always reflected more complex dimensions that make ultimate human judgment impossible. The mysteries of the heart and mind are as beyond theology as they are barely fathomable to neuroscience.

It is our creative encounter with earthly, secular life that reveals our capacity for usefulness to others, and it is the premier instrument by which our own spiritual station is elevated. Authentic, sincere worship ultimately becomes the daily barometer of our spiritual state.

Free, rational debate had always been accommodated within the religious context of shari'a. This was a uniquely Islamic phenomenon, as true in European Cordoba as it was in Arabian Baghdad. Neither the theological abstraction of the Mu'tazilites, a 9th century group of philosophers, nor the unmitigated foreign dialectics by the secretive 10th century group, Brethren of Purity, for example, was ever grounds for removing one from the fold of Islam.

The most salient evidence for not punishing "private" apostasy in Islam is the perennial existence of the so-called hypocrites amidst Medinan society despite grave Qur'anic passages against them. Moreover, private "heretical" thought was neither censured nor censored; as long is it was not publicly preached, it was not condemned as such, nor were there articulations of a need to suppress it.

Outward or visible stability in the earthly domain is what allows the institutions of civil society to continue.

The non-violent resistance of the Prophet Muhammad in Mecca and his diplomacy during the Treaty of Hudaybiyah taught his companions a similar lesson. Under this Treaty, the Prophet allowed people to emigrate without any reprisal, despite the fact that they were abandoning Islam in the process (some having only adopted the new religion for reasons of self-interest).

No prophet was ever given the license to pass judgment over the faith of a human being — as the Qur'an repeatedly reiterates, judgment is ultimately with God alone. Hence, constructive service of our sacred traditions lies in showing their relevance as a vehicle of infinite creativity, not in demoting them to preoccupation with judgment of contemporary culture.

We need to acknowledge and affirm that diversity and difference are part of the divine intent for creation — that we were made as nations and tribes so that we may "learn about and be enriched by the ways of each other" (Qur'an, 49:13). Provincialism and relativism will always challenge diversity — especially when the latter is disguised as tolerance; and not because people are inherently incapable of living together, either.

We need a renewed devotion to the truth, and to seeking it freely through our established non-sectarian, scholarly institutions. Thomas Jefferson exhorted: "Truth is ... the proper and sufficient antagonist to error." It is only through respectful free argument and debate that ideologies can be judged and challenged on their own merits.

The reformation that is direly needed — across the entire globe — is the honest reassessment of the original sources of all our oppressive cultural myths and tyrannical modes of thinking.

As Muslims, we need to establish a higher barometer for what constitutes competence in the service of the scholarly disciplines of shari'a. This would equip us with greater clarity and confidence and prevent us from thoughtlessly demonstrating in passionate protest every time a passing wind seems to challenge our faith.

As religious leaders of all faiths, we need to acknowledge our responsibility for much alienation and estrangement among the faithful around the world. This would begin to re-establish the credibility of our institutions, which would eventually re-ignite the religious imagination of the masses.

Lastly, we need a renewed commitment to focus on an ethos of compassionate, selfless service as a public trust; and this is certainly more becoming of the example of the Blessed Messengers that we claim loyalty to.


* Shaykh Abdallah Adhami is an Arab-American imam and a leading scholar of Islam. He is currently working on an exploration of the linguistic implications of apparently problematic verses in the Qur'an. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 23 October 2007,
Copyright permission has been obtained for publication.


Groundbreaking event in Muslim-Christian solidarity
Claude Salhani

Washington, DC - "The future of the world depends on peace between Muslims and Christians." An open letter carrying this message was sent by 138 of the world's most senior Muslim leaders to the heads of all Christian churches — including Pope Benedict XVI, addressing Christians around the world on the eve of Eid ul Fitr, the Muslim holy day marking the end of Ramadan.

This letter, a welcome high-profile olive branch extended to all Christians, is described as a truly historic event and was even more significant in that among the signatories of the document, one could find the names of several prominent leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood.

"Everybody thinks this is a historic event," said John L. Esposito, a professor at Georgetown University and director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding: "…if you look at the history of Islam and the Muslim world, this is really the first time that we have an initiative where Muslims have collectively come together and agreed to what binds them to Christians," said Esposito.

Indeed, this initiative by Muslim leaders from around the world to reach out to all Christians is a first, and it comes not a minute too late as relations between the two communities are particularly strained.

The tensions came to a boil beginning with the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, DC, in which close to 3,000 people were killed. These terrorist attacks by self-declared Muslims were followed by a series of similarly murderous ones on Western targets such as London, Madrid and other cities. The controversy over the offensive caricature of the Prophet Muhammad in a Danish newspaper, which resulted in anti-Western riots from London to Islamabad, added fuel to the fire only to be followed by reportedly damaging statements from the Pope about Islam and violence not long afterward.

The schism between the West and Muslims only seemed to be widening.

The invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan — two Muslim countries — spearheaded by the United States and mostly Western coalition forces have done nothing to abate that tension. The situation was aggravated when President George W. Bush spoke of a "crusade" at the outset of the Iraq war, which is how many Muslims perceive the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

Emerging as it does from the turmoil and tension between the West and Islam, this document is truly "a dramatic and groundbreaking display of international solidarity," as the letter was described in a communiqué issued on behalf of Muslim leaders.

Esposito, an expert on Islam, emphasised that Muslims and Christians share the same principles of love of one God and love of the neighbour. The Georgetown scholar pointed to a number of similarities between the Holy Qur'an and the Holy Bible.

Despite language differences between the Hebrew Old Testament, the original word of Jesus Christ in Aramaic, and the actual transmitted Greek of the New Testament, the three versions have the same command: to love God fully with one's heart and soul and to be fully devoted to Him. The Muslim holy book, the Qur'an, carries the same message.

"Everyone is interested in political and economic contentions, difficulties, struggles, wars," said Seyyed Hossein Nasr, professor of Islamic studies at George Washington University, during a press conference in Washington marking the event.

The differences between Christians and Muslims, say the theological experts, is a difference of theology rather than of politics.

"Without a theological solution, without a certain sense of accepting the other…all other solutions are expediency and sooner or later they wither away," said Nasr.

"Post 9/11, a common question is: where are the moderate Muslim voices?" said Esposito. "This historic document is a crystal clear message of peace and tolerance from 138 Muslim leaders from across the Islamic world," said Esposito.

The authors of the letter believe that with over half of the world's population consisting of Muslims and Christians, meaningful world peace can only come from peace and justice between those two faiths.

The signatories of the document, who include some of the world's most influential Islamic leaders and thinkers, are calling for tolerance, understanding and moderation. The uniqueness of this approach lies not only in the fact that Muslims have extended and opened their arms to Christians, but it also marks "an historic achievement in terms of Islamic unity," according to Esposito.

What is significant in this case is that this initiative groups Muslims from right across the spectrum, uniting Sunnis and Shiites and individuals ascribing to different schools of thought within those two branches of Islam.

The driving force behind this letter, and a previous one to the Pope by a smaller group of 38 scholars a year ago, has been the Royal Academy of Jordan, an international and non-governmental Islamic institute headquartered in Amman.

While the 138 signatures on this historic document are those of recognised Muslim leaders, for this initiative to succeed it needs the support of the masses. This letter is undoubtedly an encouraging step, but as one cynical commentator put it, prominent as they may be, these are still only 138 names out of 1.6 billion.

Indeed, the task facing mainstream Muslim leaders — of reclaiming Muslim and Western attention away from the radical minority — is as monumental as the difference between 138 and 1.6 billion. But as the saying goes, faith can move mountains.


* Claude Salhani is editor of the Middle East Times. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 23 October 2007,
Copyright permission has been obtained for publication.


Re-narration of Muslim-Western experiences

Surabaya, East Java – A lack of trust exists between the Muslim world and the West despite various attempts to bridge these two civilisations. Since the tragedy of 9/11, each side has become even more suspicious of the other. Consider the demonstrations and violence that occurred in response to the Pope's speech in September 2006, or the banning of the hijab (headscarf) in France. It seems that this kind of sensitivity will exist as long as the roots of the problem are not addressed, and the potential for disharmony will continue despite the various attempts to build bridges between the Muslim world and the West.

One root of the Muslim-Western polemic may lie in the collective subconscious. There is something that lies latent but has the power to dominate our conscious behaviour. Carl Jung, the famous psychoanalyst, explained that the "shadow" is the deepest layer of our personality and contains personal and collective psychological qualities that we are ashamed of. These relatively autonomous elements become a part of our psychological makeup and are capable of influencing actual behaviour.

This shadow, on a global level, clouds the relationship between the Muslim world and the West. Elements of the shadow are created from past events and leave scars on both sides. The Crusades, for example, occurred long ago in the Middle Ages, but they left an indelible scar in the collective subconscious of both Muslims and the West. The events of 9/11 also have the potential to leave scars. Such scars are "remembered" in both Muslim and Western socio-cultural institutions, persisting in the collective memory.

The persistence of these scars reinforces certain stereotypes, causing some Westerners to say, "Muslims are hostile toward democracy, women, homosexuals and other religions", while some Muslims will say, "The West wants only to dominate us and demonise Islam".

Perceptions such as these create barriers between individuals and groups and reduce the likelihood that one will engage with the other.

As a result, even though peace accords are signed and public statements of good will and collaboration are made, genuine contact between Muslims and those in the West must also occur. However, lasting scars create the fiction that the stranger is threatening and frightening, and as a result, some people are deceived by the shadow that lies in the collective subconscious telling them that Westerners are infidels or that Muslims spread their doctrine by the sword. These stereotypes induce fear and reduce the opportunity for harmonious relations.

Re-narration, a psychoanalytical technique for dealing with past experiences, attempts to deal with the trauma of historical scars, deconstructing those narratives that promote mistrust and prejudice.

Re-narration causes people to transform the way they see traumatic events from threatening and personal, to neutral and objective. When traumatic events are looked at through this lens, the sadness, wounds, scars and tears become superficial, neutralising the hurt.

Kingdom of Heaven, Ridley Scott's 2005 epic movie, is an example of the re-narration of stubborn scars related to Muslim-Western relations. Loosely based on the life of Balian of Ibelin, an important nobleman in the crusader kingdom of Jerusalem in the 12th century, the movie demonstrates that Christians, Muslims and Jews can live together in harmony — so long as fanaticism is kept at bay. It encourages audiences to look beyond "who is wrong and who is right".

This is demonstrated by Balian's words: "The wall? The Mosque? The Sepulchre? Who has claim? No one has claim. All have claim! We defend this city not to protect these stones, but the people living within these walls." The dialogue portrays the war, not as one of religious identity, but as an artistic work. Kingdom of Heaven transforms the scars, allowing the shadow to leave the subconscious, tearing down the walls that prevent honest engagement with others.

The Hijabi Monologues is another example of re-narration. The performance by two University of Chicago graduate students creates a space where Muslim American women can tell their personal stories in their own words. Through the power of re-narration, claims are challenged and generalisations confronted. Listeners gain access to shared human experiences and an enriched understanding of the lives of these women, which transcend superficial judgments based on their appearance.

Through re-narration, traumatic past experiences are more readily accepted. Individuals do not need to mourn at every memorial along their path. This willingness to accept the past does not necessarily mean completely forgetting traumatic events, instead it is an openness, an acceptance of an incident that has occurred in the past. And in this openness there is unconditional forgiveness for the other that does not demand compensation, because it is does not involve financial or physical exchange.

Re-narration can take place through many mediums: photography, art, theatre, dance, literature, sitcom, even news. Only with true storytelling, listening and understanding can the shadow that is locked in the subconscious of both Muslims and Westerners — including Muslim Westerners — be released. Only then can bridging and reconciliation attempts yield successful results.


* Audifax is a psychologist and author of "The Myth of Harry Potter" (2005) and "Imagining Lara Croft" (2006). This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 23 October 2007,
Copyright permission has been obtained for publication.


Indonesia: Is secularism a choice?
Ali Noer Zaman

Jakarta - During his one-month visit to Indonesia between July and August 2007, Professor Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na'im, a Sudanese Muslim intellectual who now teaches at Emory School of Law in the United States, campaigned for Muslim countries to adopt a secular system of governance. In this system, the state is not based on specific religious teachings, whose interpretations, he argues, are monopolised by the authority. The state would also not intervene in the religious beliefs and practices of its subjects, with the possible exception of donating aid to religious institutions.

An-Na'im disagrees with the efforts of those political and social organisations that champion for the adoption of shari'a, a political system based on Islamic principles. He believes that shari'a is based on time-bound religious interpretations from scholars of previous eras. These antiquated interpretations have many shortcomings, such as the relegation of women and non-Muslims to the role of second-class citizens in society.

Indeed, the debate over secular versus Islamic states in the Muslim world is not a new one, and has raged on since the abolishment of the Ottoman caliphate in 1924. In Egypt, the Islamic scholar Ali Abdul al-Raziq provoked controversy with his book Islam wa Ushul al Hukm (Islam and the Fundamentals of Government), in which he stated that the main message of the Prophet Muhammad has to do only with religious matters, while mundane affairs are relegated to the ummah (Muslim community). He rejected the unification of religious and administrative affairs under the control of a caliph who serves as a successor to the Prophet.

It is likely not by chance that An-Naim chose to make this speech in Indonesia, a country with a long history of secular nationalism that still struggles with calls for the implementation of a state governed by religious laws.

Sukarno (1901-1970), the first president of the Republic of Indonesia and a secular nationalist, was the first Indonesian Muslim leader who triggered the discourse on the separation of religion from politics, rejecting Islam as political ideology, and preferring secular democracy as a foundation for the country's government. For him, Islam within a secular state would not be marginalised, but would instead function as the moral force of the Muslim community.

In response, Muhammad Natsir (1908-1993), an Indonesian scholar known for his Islamist orientation, believed that Islam and the state are inextricably linked; the first being an ideology of the second. In practice, the state has to be controlled by the Muslim authority because it is a medium through which to implement Islamic orders, such as those regulating zakat (alms), religious marriage and the banning of alcohol and adultery.

As Suharto's New Order administration (1967-1998) reinforced modernisation, the Muslim community in general suspected it as having a hidden agenda to mitigate the role of Islam in socio-political life. To get out of the deadlock, the young thinker Nurcholish Madjid (1939-2005) made a breakthrough by proposing the idea that Islamic values could be realised through spiritual and cultural development. Categorising Islam as a political ideology would only trap the religion in political interest conflicts. In his words: Islam, yes; Islamic political parties, no.

Indonesia in the post-Suharto era has maintained the Pancasila, a political ideology comprised of the belief in one God, humanity, the unity of Indonesia, democracy and social justice. However, demands for the implementation of shari'a remain audible as many Muslim social organisations seek to integrate facets of shari'a by hiding them within an amendment to chapter 29 of the 1945 constitution, which says that the Muslim community should practice its religion fully and through local regulations.

In a 2002 national survey conducted by the Centre for Research of Islam and Community at Syarif Hidayatullah State University, Indonesia's Muslim community also demonstrated growing interest in an Islamic state. In this study, for example, 71% of respondents supported the implementation of shari'a in Indonesia. However, it is worth noting that only 33% agreed with cutting off a thief's hand as punishment for stealing, which some would argue is a quintessential example of shari'a at work. These findings indicate that though the majority of respondents diverge in their understanding of what shari'a, would look like.

In addition, the result of the democratic elections of 1999 and 2004 suggest that the majority of Indonesians are still loyal to nationalist secular parties such as the Golkar Party, also known as the Party of the Functional Groups, and the Indonesian Democratic Party of the Struggle, instead of Islamic-based parties such as the United Development Party and the Prosperous Justice Party.

Also, a national poll conducted by the Indonesian Survey Institute earlier in October revealed decreased support for Islamic radical organisations such as the Jamaat Islamiah, Defenders Front for Islam, Indonesian Hizbut Tahrir and the Indonesian Martyrs Council for a variety of reasons, including the lack of financial resources and the incapability to translate Islamic values into socio-political movements.

If these polling results are any indication, Indonesia is unlikely to become an Islamic state anytime in the near future.


*Ali Noer Zaman is a writer on socio-religious issues. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 23 October 2007,
Copyright permission has been obtained for publication.


~Youth Views~ Comics bridge cultural gaps
Michael Chou and Youssef Morshedy

Washington, DC/ Maadi, Egypt - One way of looking at the tensions between the Muslim world and the West is as a "war of ideas", with each side attempting to influence the other's "hearts and minds". This paradigm suggests that at the heart of this tension lies misunderstandings and stereotypes when it comes to the other's culture, values and ideology. Arguably, then, innovative public diplomacy initiatives that address these root causes may be effective means of improving in Muslim-Western relations.

To this end, governments and other organisations are devoting more attention to the cultural aspects of their diplomacy efforts through initiatives such as international film festivals and book fairs that introduce foreign populations to different cultures and values.

Of course, any good relationship must be a two-way street. A bridging of the tensions between cultures requires both sides be receptive to learning about the other. More importantly, both sides must take an initiative in communicating their values to enhance intercultural understanding.

Surprisingly, effective communication and exchange of Muslim and Western ideas, values and perspectives can take place through the world of comics and animation.

Over the past decade, the comic-publishing and animation industries have developed into a multi-billion dollar market, seemingly dominated by Japanese firms. The ascension of the Japanese comics and animation industry is a recent phenomenon though. In the last 20 years, Japanese comics and animation series have gained immense popularity around the globe. By surreptitiously serving as Japanese cultural products, it seems reasonable to speculate that as the current generation of children matures, anti-Japanese sentiments that persist from World War II in countries such as China may be tempered by these new interactions with Japanese culture.

From this perspective, comics and animation appear to be innocuous vehicles through which societal values can be communicated to children. Indeed, children seem particularly receptive to the creative mix of visuals and sounds in animation, which arguably enhances the quality of communication as well. By targeting children — the future leaders of the planet, the seeds for intercultural understanding are sown.

For adults, too, it seems that the cultural and counter-cultural elements in comics and animation have resulted in the mobilisation of global communities through their appeal to transnational audiences. In 2006, the world witnessed the mobilisation of Muslim communities following the publication of cartoon panels depicting the Prophet Muhammad by a Danish newspaper. During the same year, the Asia-Europe Foundation brought together Asian and European comic artists in Singapore to develop a common publication. These collective reactions are examples of the extraordinary power of comics and animation.

From this perspective, it would be foolish for governments and private organisations interested in arts and cultural policy not to utilise the potential of published and animated comics as a conduit for cultural transmission.

Muslim comic books such as The 99 by Teshkeel Comics have already made a promising start. Taking place during the fall of Baghdad in 1258, and the fall of Granada in 1492, The 99 revolves around 99 heroes from 99 different countries, each possessing a "Noor Stone" which bestows special powers to the 99 different characters.

According to Dr. Naif Al-Mutawa, founder and CEO of the Teshkeel Media Group, "The 99 meshes history with fiction and teaches global human values implicit in the 99 attributes of God — values like generosity, strength, wisdom, foresight and dozens of others that unfortunately are not used to describe Islam in the media today. So not only are 99 values being communicated, but 99 different ways of conflict resolution to boot."

In fact, the key to the success of The 99, and in turn its effectiveness as a medium of cross cultural exchange, seems to be its infusion of these Islamic values with a predominantly Western style of comic drawing and presentation. Muslim audiences are exposed to Western aesthetics while Western audiences are provided with an informal but interesting guide to certain Islamic values.

Comics and animation may also be used in creative public diplomacy initiatives on a more formal intergovernmental level. Public diplomacy initiatives may aim at facilitating cooperation amongst interested representatives from Islamic and Western governments for a co-produced series of structured comics and animation through which cultural values may be communicated.

Global peace and stability requires, first and foremost, an understanding and respect for different cultures and perspectives. Comics and animation, as mediums for the exchange of cultural ideas and norms that facilitate understanding, seem to be fitting formats for innovative public diplomacy initiatives with this aim.


*Michael Chou and Youssef Morshedy both appreciate and enjoy comics and animation. Michael is completing a combined medicine and arts degree at the University of Melbourne. Youssef is studying journalism, mass communication and business administration at the American University in Cairo. They co-wrote this article as part of Soliya's intercultural dialogue program. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 23 October 2007,
Copyright permission has been obtained for publication.