Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Burning the Qur'an -- the American response

Many American just don't get it; they keep on insisting that the burning of the Qur'an in Afghanistan was an "accident" or a "mistake." This would not be catastrophic if those who said this were only ordinary people who had heard about this event and its bloody aftermath. Even the anger of Americans against those who killed US troops might be justified in their own eyes, since many know little about Islam and few have regular contact with Muslims. Moreover, their secularized worldview blinds them to any appreciation of why Muslims protested the burning, as well as confirming them in their dismissal of religion as the source of violence and the rest of the world's problems.

The ignorance of many American about Islam is often abysmal, as is, more ominously, that of their leaders. That is what concerns me especially in view of what happened last week. This is why I am returning to the topic of burning the Qur'an again, this time examining American reactions and trying to understand why so many responded the way they did. Let me be clear: I am not anti-American, but I do want to speak the truth in love to a people who still play an influential role in the world today.

More than 30 people have been killed thus far in clashes since it emerged last week that copies of the Muslim holy book and other religious materials had been thrown into a fire pit used to burn garbage at Bagram Air Field, a large US base north of Kabul. On Sunday protesters angry over the Qur'an burnings by American troops lobbed grenades at a US base in northern Afghanistan and clashed with police and troops in a day of violence that left seven international troops wounded and two Afghans dead. Many of the dead were Afghans. These protests have now spread to many other countries.

Some of the charred Qur'ans on display

The Pentagon keeps repeating this mantra about  a "mistake," and thus it is not surprising that Americans echo what they have been told. The angry response of the military is also understandable,since they have lost soldiers who were probably innocent of any involvement in the burnings, and later happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Yet those officers who gave the orders must be held responsible for what they did. If no one gave those orders directly, then those who briefed the soldiers who did the actual burning about Islam were derelict in their duties, and should be disciplined as well.

President Obama quite properly apologized for the incident, but then made the apology virtually meaningless by once more calling it a "mistake." A more sincere apology in which the president took full responsibility for what happened and promised to discipline those who carried out the deed or gave the order to do so might have helped to defuse the situation. What the president said was too little too late. That was his "mistake."

It is very disturbing indeed when someone who has aspirations of becoming president of the United States repeats this line about the Qur'an burning being a "mistake." Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum not only criticized President Barack Obama's apology for the burning of Qurans in Afghanistan but added that Afghanistan should apologize to the US for the deaths of four US soldiers during six days of violence sparked by the incident. 

Rick Santorum

The GOP presidential front-runner told a crowd that the burning of the Quran in Afghanistan by US troops was a “mistake” and people should not be upset over it. He also said that apologizing only encourages and “incites” those “evil” doers. He explained: “Our country respects all religions. Treats all religions with dignity and religious freedom. Unlike the people who are out killing our people in protests…” He characterizes the people of Afghanistan as “evil” and claims they have “no respect for life.”

Santorum, like many Americans, totally misconstrues the situation and assigns blame to Muslims exclusively:
"There was nothing deliberately done wrong here," he said Sunday on ABC television's "This Week." ''This was something that happened as a mistake. Killing Americans in uniform is not a mistake. It was something that deliberate."

"The response needs to be apologized for by (President Hamid) Karzai and the Afghan people for attacking and killing our men and women in uniform and overreacting to this inadvertent mistake," Santorum explained further on NBC's "Meet the Press". "That is the real crime here, not what our soldiers did. The president's apology suggests that there is blame and that the US did something wrong in the sense of doing a deliberate act."

Santorum adds that rather than saying he was sorry, Obama should have only acknowledged that burning copies of Islam's holiest book in a trash pit was wrong and taken responsibility for the incident, "but to apologize, I think, lends credibility that somehow or another that it was more than that."

Note the headline about the GOP candidates being united in their criticism of Obama

Santorum is merely the latest Republican presidential candidate to criticize the president for apologizing for burning the religious materials. Despite repeated apologies from many US officials for what they said was a "mistake," their regrets have not quelled the anger of Afghans, who viewed the Qur'an burnings not only as a sacrilege but also as an act of disrespect for their culture and religion. 

For Muslims the Qur'an is the Word of God and must never be desecrated in any way. That is sacrilegious.
For Christians the best parallel is Jesus Christ, whose name should not be misused, although that happens regularly, even by many Christians. Yet Christians do not typically respond negatively when this happens, except perhaps to (very) mildly criticize those who take Christ's name in vain. And they would probably not get upset at all if someone would burn a Bible; their response might be, "So what!"

Most American Christians therefore cannot understand the reactions of Afghans after this incident. Hence their anger at the violence and especially the many killings, which they perceive of as murder, especially when US troops are involved. They do not understand the sacrilege, regarding it simply as "a mistake," as has been repeated in numerous apologies. Whether Muslims are correct in their belief is not the point, this is what they believe. Hence the accusation of sacrilege and the demands for punishment.

Non-Muslims should respect their belief and act accordingly, by treating the Qur'an properly. Muslims have many rules regarding the Qur'an: e.g. no other book should be placed above it, and it must be properly disposed when no longer useful, preferably by burial. That may seem extreme to non-Muslims, but those are the rules. 

Muslims view this disrespect for the Qur'an as symptomatic of a wider disrespect for Muslims and their culture. They are rightfully proud of their history and culture and want others to recognize and acknowledge their culture. Why do Americans in particular find this so hard to accept?

Muslims do not separate their faith from the rest of life, thus such rules are very important for them. Religion is not a private matter but belongs in the public sphere. You may disagree, but that does not change their basic belief or their rules. Their plea for the role of religion in public life is not popular, as the controversy around Baroness Warsi, who is a Muslim, proves (see: http://hellemanworld.blogspot.com/2012/02/religion-and-public-sphere.html?spref=fb), but it not only deserves a fair hearing it is also the correct position in my opinion.

This plea should not be confused with the cries of some Muslim extremists who advocate theocracy or of those Muslims who want to see sharia implemented everywhere. These are "red herrings," issues have nothing to so with the plea for a proper role for religion in the public sphere. 

Many Christians, in my opinion, have been so influenced by secularism that they no longer acknowledge the role that religion should play in public life. This is the position that prevailed in Europe for centuries until the Enlightenment. Instead, they have adopted a dualistic view of life in which the worship of God is reserved for Sundays or other private moments, while the rest of the week belongs to the public sphere where other, more worldly, rules apply. If I had more time, I would elaborate my argument further.

As long as Americans (and other Westerners) hold to this secular worldview, they will be incapable of understanding the beliefs and actions of Muslims, and they will continue to excuse the burning of the Qur'an as merely a "mistake." And they will continue to label religion as the source of the world's problems, and thus the solution is to eradicate religion or at least restrict religion to the private sphere, where it belongs in their opinion. Their refusal to understand Islam is consistent with their view on religion.

I do not condone the violence in Afghanistan. In fact, I am a proponent of active non-violence, the same belief that motivated Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. There is no excuse for the killings that followed the burning of the Qur'an. Those who committed these crimes must be punished, but so should those who are responsible in any way for the burning of these books. What they did is equally reprehensible, since they provided the spark that started the fire. Unfortunately, no court of human justice will ever be able to assign the appropriate punishments to all those involved. That we must leave in other hands.

I hope that the Americans may have learned a valuable lesson as a result of the burning of the Qur'an and its bloody aftermath, but somehow I doubt it. Rick Santorum clearly has not and many Americans probably did not either. How sad! Not only may the end of the war in Afghanistan have been delayed by this incident, but the Muslim world now has new evidence, if more were needed, that the West is waging a war against Islam. That may be the greatest tragedy of all. 
"When will they ever learn?" Pete Seegers asked more than fifty year ago in his anti-war protest song, "Where have all the flowers gone?" These words are as relevant today as when they were first composed. Americans should now be asking themselves, when will we ever learn?

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Burning the Qur'an -- how stupid!

When I first heard about the burning of the Qur'an at the Bagram Airbase in Afghanistan, my first reaction was: How stupid! What I learned later confirms me in my harsh judgment. The daily protests and the multiple deaths thus far testify to the reaction of Afghans to the desecration of the Muslim holy book -- an action that is best described as stupid; any other judgment might be even worse.

President Barack Obama has apologized to Afghans for the ignorance of the two US soldiers who burned several copies of the Qur'an at this US airbase near the Afghan capital. It was the second abject American apology since the religious books were put in an incinerator at the airbase dump. The incident has rightfully infuriated Afghans, who are widely regarded across the Islamic world as among the most pious of Muslims.

Protesters throw stones at NATO soldiers

According to Afghan workers who witnessed the events, around 10 or 11 p.m. on Monday a dump truck escorted by a military vehicle drove up to the landfill at Bagram Air Base, where 20 or so Afghans work. Two uniformed NATO personnel, a man and a woman, began unloading bags of books from the back of the truck and throwing them into a pit for incineration. The Afghan workers described the pair as Americans.

Accounts from some of the workers at the landfill suggested that the two people were oblivious to the significance of what they were doing. They made no attempt to hide the books, instead appearing to be routinely carrying out their duties.“When we saw these soldiers burning books, we moved closer to see what was going on, and one of the boys said, ‘It is Holy Qur'an,’ ” said one of the laborers. Another of the laborers, said he and two friends had shouted at the two people: “Don’t burn our holy book! We will give it to our mullahs!” The two NATO personnel drew back, but two bags of books they had already thrown into the pit had begun to burn.

Protests began hours later, as Afghan workers who had seen the burning emerged from the base, one or two of them carrying damaged Qur'ans hidden in their clothes. Protests swelled through the morning and became violent as hundreds of infuriated Afghans set tires on fire and burned an external checkpoint at one of the entrances to the air base. Shouting “Death to America” and “We don’t want them anymore,” they closed the district government building and stopped people trying to go to the center of the town, witnesses said. Some in the crowd sang Taliban songs.

Protesters burn effigy of President Obama

An article in the Montreal Gazette asks the most pertinent question: "How can it possibly be, 124 months after invading Afghanistan and after at least 250,000 U.S. troops have rotated through Afghanistan and half a million more have rotated through Iraq, with many on their third and fourth tours, that there are still soldiers who have no clue as to the significance of the Qur'an to Muslims?"

The article observes further that there is no point saying that Afghans overreact to such incidents. The reality is that they do react this way. And there is no question that treating religious materials in such a manner is highly offensive and disrespectful, with inevitable consequences in a country as volatile as Afghanistan. Nor does it help that this follows a recent incident in which US Marines shot a video of themselves urinating on the corpses of several Taliban fighters.

The article continues by pointing out that, while fingers were pointed mostly at the two hapless soldiers at Bagram who dumped the Qurans in the fire, they are hardly the only ones to blame. The Americans who run Bagram's notorious detention center are certainly more culpable. They had collected the Qurans and sent them off to be burned because they were no longer needed as the number of Afghans and Pakistanis being held at the base has been declining. They should have consulted their army of Afghan interpreters on proper ways to dispose of Qurans, including burial in a Muslim cemetery.Clearly the easiest thing to have done if the Qurans were no longer required at the detention centre, would have been to give them to local mullahs who would have been duty bound to accept them and protect them. But the greatest fault lies with the men and women who devise and run the training programs that troops attend before deploying to Afghanistan.

One wonders why the US troops involved were not properly briefed before beginning their Afghan tours, briefings that should have included information about cultural and religious sensitivities as well as taboos and how to avoid running afoul of them. Either there were no such briefings before they left the US, which I find difficult to comprehend, or they should have been properly briefed upon their arrival in the country.

The actions of the troops involved, especially the officers, since they gave the orders, are not only insensitive, they are stupid. The mounting death toll, including that of two US soldiers, proves the point. The task of the remaining NATO troops in Afghanistan has been made immeasurably more difficult. How could anyone with even a smidgen of brains do anything so stupid?

After ten years of the war in Afghanistan, it is not surprising that Afghans, or everyone else for that matter, find it hard to understand why any member of the foreign forces in that country would not know how offensive desecrating the Qur'an could be, or recognize the potential for violence it could unleash in a country where news of the burning of a single copy of the Muslim holy book, by a preacher in Florida, provoked mobs to ransack a UN office and kill twelve people in April. Are these foreign troops so out of touch with reality?

The potential scope of the fallout from the burning of copies of the Quar'an by American military personnel became chillingly clear later in the week as a man in an Afghan Army uniform shot and killed two American soldiers. And seven Afghans were killed in three provinces and many more were injured, most in skirmishes with Afghan security forces. More deaths followed on Saturday when two American officers were shot dead inside the Interior Ministry building. NATO responded by immediately pulling all military advisers out of Afghan ministries in Kabul. Many more deaths are expected before these protests run their course.

The ISAF commander apologizing for the Qur'an burning

President Barack Obama had earlier sent a letter to President Karzai apologising for the "unintentional" burning of the Qur'ans. But this apology was not enough to satisfy many Muslims who consider the Qur'an to be the literal word of God and treat each copy with deep reverence. Desecration is considered one of the worst forms of blasphemy and needs to be punished.

Afghanistan wants NATO to put those responsible on public trial. One Afghan commander said in a TV interview that those who burned Qur'ans should be hung. In neighboring Pakistan, about 400 members of a hardline Islamist group staged protests and shouted, "If you burn the Qur'an, we will burn you."

Ahmed Khatami

Many did not accept Obama's apology. Iranian cleric Ahmad Khatami said the US had purposely burned the Qur'ans. "These apologies are fake. The world should know that America is against Islam," he said in a speech broadcast live on state radio. "It (the Qur'an burning) was not a mistake. It was an intentional move, done on purpose."

I doubt that the burning of the Qur'an was done on purpose in order to provoke riots . That would be more than stupid, it would be suicidal for the NATO coalition that wants to withdraw from Afghanistan as soon as possible. As I am writing this, the end of the protests and the ensuing bloodshed is not yet in sight. No doubt the soldiers who were involved have become aware by now of the consequences of their stupid action. Those who issued the order, however, are most responsible. They certainly need to be disciplined.

Even if these troops are never put on trial, they will have to live with the memory that many people, both Afghans and Americans, have died as a result. We all do stupid things, but the consequences are not always as enormous or as deadly. May God forgive them!


Monday, February 20, 2012

Religion and the public sphere

Baroness Warsi has thrown fresh fuel on a fire that has raged furiously for decades in many countries by arguing loudly for the role of religion in public life. If you have not heard her name before, you will hear it more often, at least in the UK, where she has become a very controversial figure.

Sayeeda Hussain Warsi (born 28 March 1971) is a British solicitor and politician of Pakistani origin who was created a life peeress in 2007. Recently she became the co-Chairman, with Lord Feldman, of the Conservative Party, and was appointed a Minister without Portfolio in David Cameron's Cabinet. She is the third Muslim minister, following Shahid Malik and Sadiq Khan, and the first female Muslim to serve as a minister in the UK.
Official photo of Baroness Warsi

The minister wrote in The Telegraph: “My fear today is that a militant secularisation is taking hold of our societies. We see it in any number of things: when signs of religion cannot be displayed or worn in government buildings; and where religion is sidelined, marginalised and downgraded in the public sphere. 

“For me, one of the most worrying aspects about this militant secularisation is that at its core and in its instincts it is deeply intolerant. It demonstrates similar traits to totalitarian regimes – denying people the right to a religious identity because they were frightened of the concept of multiple identities.” 

She added that to create a “more just society” Britons must “feel stronger in their religious identities.”

Her comments came as a report conducted for the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science (UK) suggested that almost three quarters (74 per cent) of Christians polled agreed that religion should not influence public policy, while only about one in eight (12 per cent) thought it should, the survey found. It also found that 92 per cent of Christians agreed the law should apply to everyone equally, regardless of their personal religious beliefs. 

Just over a quarter (26 per cent) said they completely believed in the power of prayer, with more than one in five (21 per cent) saying they either did not really believe in it or did not believe in it at all. And almost half (49 per cent) admitted that they had not attended a church service in the previous 12 months, apart from on occasions such as weddings, funerals and baptisms.

For more details on the poll results of the Dawkins Foundation you may consult the following web site: http://richarddawkins.net/articles/644942-rdfrs-uk-ipsos-mori-poll-2-uk-christians-oppose-special-influence-for-religion-in-public-policy. The earlier poll on the views of British Christians on religion can be found here as well as their views on its influence on public policy which is the focus of the second poll..

Baroness Warsi and the Pope

Baroness Warsi lashed out at "secular fundamentalists" as she met the Pope and concluded an historic visit of British ministers to the Vatican, including Jeremy Hunt, the Culture Secretary, Michael Moore, the Scottish Secretary and Alan Duncan, the Minister for International Development. She expanded on the speech she gave earlier in Rome and in a newspaper article that British society was under threat from a rising tide of "militant secularisation" and that Europe needs to be "more confident in its Christianity".

She explained: "Secular fundamentalists are saying that people of faith shouldn't have a voice in the public sphere. I'm saying faith should be one of many voices, it should be part of the debate."  

She also criticized the arguments of Richard Dawkins, the outspoken atheist, as "false". Asked if she was swimming against the tide in a country where faith appears to be diminishing every year, Baroness Warsi explained: "The fact that people don't go to church doesn't necessarily make them secular."

Evan Harris

The reaction to her comments was largely predictable and not entirely fair. The remarks of Evan Harris, the vice-president of the British Humanist Association and an honorary associate of the National Secular Society, are one example of such a reaction: "Baroness Warsi is wrong on every count. Secular liberal democracy, which involves the separation of Church and State and an end to religious privilege, is the best guarantor of religious liberty and free expression. The last thing the world needs is more theocracies or governments giving special status to religious laws. To talk of militant secularism is self-serving paranoia. What a pity that ministers are going to a totalitarian theocracy - the Vatican State - with a poor record on gay rights, women's rights and children's rights, to criticise those who peacefully campaign against sharia (law), sectarianism and homophobia as 'militant'."

Even the Queen intervened to defend the Church of England's role in Britain. Prime Minister David Cameron supported Baroness Warsi by stating that faith can make a positive contribution to society and affirmed that she has consistently made the case for a deeper understanding of faith in the British Parliament.

Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins, whose survey about Christianity in the UK helped to ignite the row, defends his position on secularism, faith and tolerance. Dawkins is the author of The God Delusion and an emeritus fellow of New College, Oxford. Some of his observations include:

''In recent years Christian campaign groups have become increasingly vocal. Whether demanding special rights for Christians to be exempted from equalities legislation, strenuously opposing all attempts to review the law on assisted suicide, or campaigning against further social advances such as equal rights for gay people to marry, it is now clear that they are completely out of step not just with the population as a whole, but also with a significant majority of Christians."

''Britain is a secular society, with secular, humane values. There is overwhelming support for these values, even among those who think of themselves as Christian. Just as importantly, there is also deep opposition to the state promoting religion in our society. When even Christians overwhelmingly oppose the intermingling of religion and state policy, it is clearly time for the Government to stop 'doing God'.''

Poll results, he explains, have shown that religion was ''largely irrelevant even to those who still label themselves Christian.'' He added, ''When it comes to belief, practice or even the most elementary knowledge of the Bible, it is clear that faith is a spent force in the UK, and it is time our policy-makers woke up to that reality and stopped trying to impose beliefs on society that society itself has largely rejected."

Doug Saunders

Doug Saunder's article in Canada's Globe and Mail, which first alerted me to Baroness Warsi's comments on the role of religion in public life, argues that the problem in public life isn’t Islam, but religion itself. He explains that in the West we are witnessing a showdown between two competing definitions of “freedom of religion.” In one definition, the public sphere is a wide-open space where, according to him "citizens are free to try to impose religion, to invoke their gods in legislation, to wear whatever symbols they like. It’s a marketplace of beliefs, and may the strongest prevail."

In the other definition, he argues that the public sphere is a neutral space: where "religion is private and public places are unencumbered by competitions for divine supremacy. This definition recognizes that freedom of religion depends on a strongly defended freedom from religion. And freedom from religion is just as important for non-believers, who don’t want public life to be corrupted with spiritualism, as it is for devout believers, who don’t want their sacred beliefs to be sullied by the vicissitudes of politics."

Nevertheless, Baroness Warsi’s intervention is a positive development for both sides, Saunders claims. "On the religious free-for-all side, she has shown that Muslims can join the other two Abrahamic religions in pressing for privileges without being accused of engaging in a 'clash of civilizations.' At the same time, she helps people realize that the problem in public life isn’t Islam but religion itself."

Baroness Warsi's comments make a lot more sense to me than that of her opponents, whose secularism blinds them to the positive role that religion can and should play in the public sphere. In this post I cannot refute the various arguments that have been presented thus far. Such a debate would probably be futile, since the gulf that separates the two views of religion that Saunders describes is so great that it is almost unbridgeable. The two universes of discourse are too far apart. In spite of this gulf, attempts at dialogue must continue. That will not be easy, as the comments in various British and Canadian newspapers make clear.

Religion does belong in the public sphere. Religion is not as dangerous as many secularists claim, but it is source of inspiration and hope for billions of people all over the world. It can also be a strong force for unity, as long as fundamentalists of whatever stripe are not allowed to set the agenda. 

A militant atheist is perhaps more dangerous than as portrayed here

Friday, February 17, 2012

Obama and birth control: How NOT to introduce such a measure

A perfect storm has been raging in the US for several weeks over a provision of Obamacare that compels the nation’s many Catholic hospitals, universities and other institutions to fund contraceptives and morning-after pills for their employees, despite these being contrary to fundamental Catholic doctrine on abortion and life.

In spite of this storm, which the White House should have seen coming, a strong majority of Americans continue to support the decision of the Obama administration. Sixty-five percent of registered voters said that they supported the administration’s birth control mandate, according to a New York Times/CBS News poll. This support, however, was not enough to save the measure as first proposed by the administration.

Many polls seem to indicate support for the administration's measure, except among evangelicals

Under fierce election-year fire, President Obama abruptly abandoned his stand that religious organizations must pay for free birth control for workers, scrambling to end a furor raging from the Catholic Church to Congress to his re-election foes. He demanded that insurance companies step in to provide the coverage instead. Obama's compromise means ultimately that women would still get birth control without having to pay for it, no matter where they work.

Conceding he wanted a resolution, Obama ordered advisers to find a middle ground in days, not within a year as had been the plan before the uproar. He said he spoke as a Christian who cherishes religious freedom and as a president unwilling to give up on free contraceptive care. "I've been confident from the start that we could work out a sensible approach here, just as I promised," he stated. "I understand some folks in Washington may want to treat this as another political wedge issue, but it shouldn't be. I certainly never saw it that way."

Obama clearly identifies himself as a Christian, yet as president he has to make decisions that benefit all Americans, even those who do not share his faith. I appreciate his honesty. Nevertheless, I question the way he introduced the measure in the first place, and then had to compromise in order to appease the opposition.

The original rule mandated that employers provide health insurance plans that include coverage for birth control, with an exemption for religious employers but not for religiously affiliated institutions like Catholic colleges or hospitals. The administration’s decision sparked a backlash from the Catholic Church that is almost unprecedented in its ferocity.

Not surprisingly, the Health and Human Services Department issued an altered rule that puts the onus on health insurance providers to pay for the cost of birth control. In spite of this change, the Conference of Catholic Bishops and other religious leaders continue to oppose the measure.

This compromise was--under these circumstances--a wise decision, if wise here is understood as politically sensitive. Politics is often defined as the art of the possible. This was therefore an example of politically-motivated wisdom. Having introduced this measure, Obama did the only thing he could do--compromise.

The administration's initial measure awakened the moral fervor of the institutional Catholic Church and its bishops.As opposed to the usual euphemisms that sometimes issue from the Catholic hierarchy, on this issue the bishops were clear and defiant: “[Obama] is denying to Catholics our nation’s first and most fundamental freedom — that of religious liberty. We cannot — we will not — comply with this unjust law.” There is not the slightest note of equivocation in this statement.

Archbishop Timothy Dolan, who wrote a letter to his fellow bishops blasting Obama's compromise

"The past three weeks have witnessed a remarkable unity of Americans from all religions, or none at all, worried about the erosion of religious freedom and government intrusion into issues of faith and morals," said Archbishop Timothy Dolan, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The bishops wrapped themselves in the flag of religious freedom, but is their stance fair to Catholic women who want to have the freedom to choose a method of birth control that the Catholic Church does not approve of? That many Catholic women have already chosen to disregard Catholic teaching on this matter proves that they have already made a clear choice, the bishops notwithstanding. 

Nevertheless, it is astounding that the president did not anticipate the results of this controversial measure. Had the White House been more involved in the details of the enormous health care bill, it is hard to believe that someone on his staff would not have red flagged this potential disaster. The Catholic bishops' decision to reject the president's compromise should also have been anticipated. After all, the issue is not who pays for the process or where it takes place, it is the process itself that runs counter to church policy and was thus rejected. The compromise would never be enough for the bishops.

Obama should have known that virtually all Catholic women in the US ignore the church’s edicts when it comes to contraception when he introduced the measure initially. In fact, 98% of Catholic women practice some form of birth control. Then why should the federal government, as represented by the president, get involved in such a no-win issue? Why attack the Catholic Church with its entrenched view on contraception?

Obama's support for birth control has earned him the support of many pro-choice women's groups. This compromise will not diminish their support for the administration. Some Catholics support the compromise  totoo : "Very pleased," was how Sister Carol Keehan, president of the Catholic Health Association, reacted in a statement distributed by the White House. Her trade group represents Catholic hospitals that had fought against the birth control requirement, and Keehan said the new arrangement addresses the concerns it had.

The religious right in the US reacted predictably in joining the Catholic bishops in their rejection of the compromise. The Republican candidates for the presidency have added their voices to the growing chorus of dissent. Mitt Romney's position is especially murky, dating back to when when he was the governor of Massachusetts  Thus he should not accuse the president of an "attack on religion." That is hypocrisy.

Obama has made a blunder by introducing this measure the way he did, but he may yet recover before the election. After all there are more Catholic women voters than there are bishops. In spite of this, I hope that he has learned an important lesson and will not introduce any more measures the way he did this one.

It is easy for me (or anyone else) to second-guess the president. His must be the most difficult and thankless job in the world. He has umpteen advisers and countless back-seat drivers who will steer him in the direction they prefer, but ultimately the decisions are his, and he receives either the credit or the blame.

Pundits have for the most part attacked him mercilessly on this issue, often echoing the bishops' line on religious freedom. I do not want my name associated with such conservative pundits, but I do question the wisdom of the president in introducing this measure in the first place. Especially in an election year, he should have left it well enough alone. He will not lose the votes of many women, even Catholic women, but he will lose many evangelical voters. He should not have offered the Republicans additional ammunition to use against him and evangelicals more reasons to despise him than they already do.

During Obama's election campaign in 2008, I admit that I too was caught up in Obama-mania. But for the last year or two I have become disillusioned by his lack of leadership at both the national and international levels. In this case too he has not demonstrated the political acumen that one might expect of the president.

As a leader, Obama may have clay feet, but then what politician does not. However, all the Republican candidates that I have seen thus far are much more dangerous. The US does not need any more wars overseas, as some candidates seem to be urging against Iran. The current culture war is bad enough. Yet if I were an American, I would vote for Obama, in spite of the poor way he handled this issue. The alternatives are even worse.

Friday, February 10, 2012

A milestone for women in West Africa: the consecration of a new bishop in the Gambia

The Right Reverend Hannah Faal-Heim

(Note: I am republishing this post from another blog that I have, although I have revised it somewhat and given it a slightly different focus.)

It is not every day that a bishop is consecrated, and certainly not in the Gambia, a small West-African country with a population less than two million. Earlier this week I had the rare privilege of witnessing the consecration of Hannah Caroline Faal-Heim as the Presiding Bishop of the Methodist Church in the Gambia.

The Right Reverend Hannah Faal-Heim, to give her proper title, is only the second Gambian to become a bishop in the Gambia and the first woman bishop in West Africa. The former is a major accomplishment already. The first Gambian to do so was the Reverend Dr. Tilewa Johnson, who has been the Anglican Bishop of the Gambia for more than twenty years. 

During that time, his two counterparts from the Roman Catholic and Methodist Churches were non-Gambians. But that has now changed dramatically. With a new Bishop for the Methodist Church, only the Catholics have yet to choose a Gambian national to head their church in this country, which has been independent for almost fifty years. It is high time that Gambians occupy all these senior ecclesiastical posts.

She is also the first woman bishop in West Africa. This represents a enormous milestone for women in this part of the world. Although women clergy are not unknown in this reagion, no woman has until now been elected to such a senior post. In Africa, as elsewhere, women are not always accorded the recognition and honor that they deserve. (This is one of the reasons why I have republished this post in this blog.)

She was baptized and confirmed in the very same church building where she was also consecrated. After beginning her career in teaching in the Gambia, she moved to Great Britain where she became a nurse and a midwife. Later she taught midwifery in London. During one of her return visits to the Gambia she became convinced of her call to the ministry. After some thirteen years experience in lay ministry, and further training in theology, she finished her preparatory work with an MA in pastoral theology, while continuing to minister in various parishes in the UK.

Her colleagues in the Methodist church of the Gambia elected her formally as their new bishop only two days before her consecration. The service in Wesley Cathedral was packed--more than a thousand people attended. Because there was also Holy Communion, it lasted more than four hours.

The newly consecrated bishop

The outgoing bishop, the Right Reverend Professor Peter Stephens, officiated at the service. He was accompanied by the Reverend the Lord Griffiths (he is a member of the House of Lords in England), who was Hannah's pastor in the UK, and preached an inspiring sermon for the occasion. In attendance were several other Methodist bishops from the Congo and Ghana, as well as the Methodist prelate of Nigeria. The Anglican Bishop of the Gambia also participated in the service, which as truly ecumenical in nature. The Roman Catholic Bishop was in Rome and thus could not attend.

The new bishop and her husband flanked by her predecessors

We were happy to attend this celebration not only because we witnessed the very joyful ceremony of the consecration. As the Bishop of the Methodist Church, Bishop Hannah takes over from Bishop Stephens the position of chairing the Gambia Christian Council, the body which has been appointed by the Gambian government to oversee the Christian Studies program at the University of the Gambia. The Vice-Chancellor of the university has asked us to head up this new program. This program is why we are currently in this country, although we are also teaching courses at the Gambia Theological Institute, which trains pastors and lay leaders for the churches here.

During the dinner we briefly spoke with her and her husband (the Reverend Dr. Kurt Heim, a noted Old Testament scholar in the UK), and arranged to meet with them in the near future. We look forward to working together with her in order to make the new program in Christian Studies at the university a reality.

But we also want to extend our congratulations again to Bishop Hannah for reaching this important milestone in the the history of the Christian Church in West Africa. We also wish her God's blessing as she takes up the enormous challenge involved.

The new bishop blessing the people      

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Does food aid feed conflict?

Does food aid feed conflict? That may seem like a strange question. I would have thought so too until I read an article recently in Canada's Globe and Mail.  The question as it is phrased here is mine. I will discuss why food aid feeds conflict, and I would like to suggest one way in which such aid does not have to do that.

Humanitarian workers are stopped at roadblocks and forced to give up vital food aid as a “tax” for safe passage. Aid vehicles are commandeered by armed factions, then sold or used in battle. And supplies stolen from refugee camps are used to buy weapons for rebel armies. These are a few examples mentioned in this article that explains how foreign aid, food aid in particular, inadvertently can promote conflict in some parts of the world.

The article cites a new study from the London-based Centre for Economic and Policy Research which argues that the issue represents a systemic problem. Specifically, "an increase in US food aid increases the incidence, onset and duration of civil conflicts in recipient countries," is the claim that economists Nathan Nunn of Harvard University and Nancy Qian of Yale University make.

In a previous study, according to the Globe and Mail, Profs. Qian and Nunn had found that the flow of US food aid tends to increase because of surpluses in American markets, rather than because of any inherent need in recipient countries. Through a price support program for American farmers, the US government purchases surplus wheat, then ships it to needy countries as part of its massive food support program.

Nunn and Qian set out to determine in their recent study whether those surplus shipments of wheat had a consistent effect on armed conflicts in developing countries. After controlling for a variety of factors including shifts in US foreign policy, they compared 35 years of data on aid from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization with statistics on war from the Armed Conflict Dataset at Sweden’s Uppsala University.

Their finding was that following high production years in the US, regular recipients of aid experienced a jump in both the onset and duration of violent conflict within their borders. An increase in US food aid of 1,000 tonnes boosted the incidence of civil conflict by 0.38 percentage points. The same shipment also decreased the probability of an existing civil war ending in a single year by between 0.48 and 0.61 percentage points.

In other words, if a country is already experiencing conflict, the extra wheat shipped by the US in response to a bumper crop makes it more likely the conflict will continue, said Qian. "And if there isn’t already a conflict, the U.S. production shock makes it more likely a new conflict will begin," she added.

GIs distributing food aid

The effect was most pronounced in cases of small-scale civil conflicts involving governments. Aid made little difference to wars and large conflicts involving more than 1000 combat deaths a year. Interestingly, countries with limited road networks tended to fare the worst, supporting accounts from aid workers about food aid being seized at roadblocks, according to Qian.

The Globe and Mail notes that the study stopped short of offering policy suggestions. Its message is not that “aid is bad." Qian explains: "These are problems no one intended. But policy makers should know that we don’t want to be just randomly giving out aid. It should be targeted. It has to be."

I have no way of verifying this study, nor it that necessary. Prof. Qian's concluding remark is important, and it is where I want to add by two cents. Food aid may indeed feed conflict, under the conditions mentioned in this study, but food aid should not be terminated for that reason. 

Prof. Qian

As she points out, food aid needs to be targeted appropriately. It should not be handed in a random fashion. And, I would add, it should not be given out for political reasons. Instead, it should be distributed through NGOs, which are often much better qualified to see that the food gets into the right hands and can avoid that politicization.

Especially in areas where there is conflict, NGO's are better suited to distribute aid, especially food, than are governments-related organizations. The likelihood of misuse that is made of such aid is much higher in the latter case. American aid is often used for propaganda purposes by the US government, while rebel groups are more easily tempted to steal that which the "Great Satan," or whatever other epithet is used locally, has provided. 

Undoubtedly, NGO's can be victimized as well. As a foreigner, I have been stopped on many occasions even when I was not carrying food. When stopped, the rule I was taught in Nigeria was to wait as long as it takes; it is a game to see who blinks first. Admittedly, that is more difficult when one is driving a truck laden with tons of food, but even then one does not represent a government that is often widely seen as siding with the oppressors in many countries.

There are other, better ways to distribute surplus food than the way the US government has chosen to do. Let me use the example of Canada. No doubt there are many other examples as well.

Canadians can donate surplus crops to the Canadian Foodgrains Bank, which is a partnership of Canadian churches and church-based agencies working to end hunger in developing countries by increasing and deepening the involvement of Canadians in efforts to end hunger.

On behalf of its fifteen member agencies, the Foodgrains Bank, according to its webpage, collects grain and cash donations, provides funds and expert advice for projects submitted by member agencies and their partners, manages the procurement and supply of food commodities, and engages in public policy and education activities related to hunger and food security.

Each church group has partners in countries that require food aid. If a region requires food aid a partner there will contact a Foodgrains Bank member and assistance will be arranged. Where appropriate, grain will be shipped from Canada. More often the grain grown here will be sold and the money used to help in each unique situation. 

For example, where rice is the staple of the diet there is no point in sending corn, but this corn can be sold and the money used to purchase rice locally, which helps the local economy in two ways. The Foodgrains Bank also encourages local development programs with food for work programs. This is another way to stimulate the local economy.

On Wednesday, October 5, 2011, 160 acres of soybeans were harvested by 120 combines in almost twelve hours. Thousands of people gathered to witness the event at a farm north of Monkton, Ontario. In all over $250,000 was donated to the Foodgrains Bank!

Church-based agencies that distribute this food internationally can do so much more effectively that any government-related organization. And, equally important, there is less chance that it will be misused the way this recent study indicates. While there still may be occasions when humanitarian workers are stopped at roadblocks and forced to give up vital food aid, these will be much less than when that aid is distributed directly by a government.

The study dealt with gross examples of injustice perpetuated on both sides. In striking contrast, the Canadian Foodgrains Bank and its member agencies seek to promote justice wherever the work of distributing food is being done. The goal clearly must be justice. The Foodgrains Bank is not perfect, but it is much better than the alternative sketched by this study.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The threat of Boko Haram and how best to tackle it

The Nigerian militant group Boko Haram conducted a series of bombing attacks and armed assaults January 20 in the northern city of Kano, the capital of Kano state and second-largest city in Nigeria. The attacks, which reportedly included the employment of at least two suicide vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs), targeted a series of police facilities in Kano. These included the regional police headquarters, which directs police operations in Kano, Katsina and Jigawa states, as well as the State Security Service office and the Nigerian Immigration Service office. At least 211 people died in the Kano attacks, according to media reports.

The group carried out a second wave of attacks in Bauchi state on January 22, bombing two unoccupied churches in the Bauchi metropolitan area and attacking a police station in the Tafawa Balewa local government area. Militants reportedly also tried to rob a bank in Tafawa Balewa the same day. Though security forces thwarted the robbery attempt, 10 people reportedly died in the clash, including two soldiers and a deputy police superintendent.

In a third attack, Boko Haram militants attacked a police sub-station in Kano on January 24 with small arms and improvised hand grenades. This armed assault stands out tactically from the January 20 suicide attacks against police stations in Kano. The operation could have been an attempt to liberate some of the Boko Haram militants the government arrested following the January 20 and 22 attacks.

Boko Haram, Hausa for "Western Education is Sinful," is an Islamist militant group established in 2002 in Maiduguri, the capital of Nigeria's Borno state. It has since spread to several other northern and central Nigerian states. It is officially known as "Jama'atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda'awati wal-Jihad," which is Arabic for "Group Committed to Propagating the Prophet's Teachings and Jihad."

At first, Boko Haram was involved mostly in fomenting sectarian violence. Its adherents participated in simple attacks on Christians using clubs, machetes and small arms. Boko Haram came to international attention following serious outbreaks of inter-communal violence in 2008 and 2009 that resulted in thousands of deaths.

By late 2010, Boko Haram had added Molotov cocktails and simple improvised explosive devices (IEDs) to its tactical repertoire. This tactical advancement was reflected in the series of small IEDs deployed against Christian targets in Jos, Plateau state, on Christmas Eve 2010.

This attack paradigm was shattered June 16, 2011, when Boko Haram launched a suicide VBIED attack against the headquarters of the Nigerian national police in Abuja. Though not overly spectacular (security measures kept the device away from the headquarters building and it exploded in a parking lot), the successful deployment of a large VBIED and a suicide operative represented a dramatic leap in Boko Haram's capability. That it skipped a step prompts experts to believe reports of Boko Haram members receiving training from al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in northern Africa or from al Shabaab in Somalia.

The Foreign Minister of Niger, Mohamed Bazoum, confirmed these reports. "There is no doubt that there is confirmed information that shows a link between Boko Haram and AQIM (al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb), and it consists primarily of the training given to elements of Boko Haram," Bazoum said at a regional security summit in Mauritania's capital. "One group has been received in AQIM bases here in the Sahel and another group got training, based on information we've gotten, with the Shabaabs in Somalia," he added.

The group apparently has split into three factions, according to a diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity. One faction remains moderate and welcomes an end to the violence, while another wants a peace agreement with rewards similar to those offered to a different militant group in 2009. The third faction, though, refuses to negotiate and remains the most radical. This is the faction that is in contact with al-Qaida's North Africa branch and with the Somalia-based terror group al-Shabaab.

If what this diplomat says is true, this is the faction that continues to conduct bombings in many parts of the country, although largely in the north-eastern states, although it has also bombed the national capital.

Boko Haram conducted its second suicide VBIED attack in Abuja on Aug. 26, 2011, this time targeting a U.N. compound in the city's diplomatic district. This attack proved far more deadly because the driver was able to enter the compound and reach a parking garage before detonating his device near the building's entrance. The attack against the U.N. compound also marked a break from Boko Haram's traditional target set of government and Christian facilities.

These recent attacks tell us that before the group can become a real threat to the Nigerian government -- or a legitimate transnational threat -- it will need to develop the ability to deploy its IEDs and suicide operatives to the point that it successfully can attack hardened targets. It will also need to develop the ability to work beyond its traditional areas of operation. Until it can master those skills (and display an intent to use such skills), it will remain a regional, albeit deadly, threat. That is the good news.

The bad news is that these increasing waves  of Boko Haram attacks are causing disquiet among politicians, especially those from the North. There is growing fear of attack. "Nobody seems safe with these attacks. I am really scared of this twist of events," said a politician who has had to tackle more than his fair share of security challenges in the recent past. "My worry is that right under our nose the situation is slipping out of control and it appears no one yet can solve this problem," the politician explained.

"The level of insecurity is alarming, and having soldiers and policemen out on the streets isn’t making it any better," adds Angela Olofu-Adeoye, assistant lecturer at the Centre for Conflict Management and Peace Studies at the University of Jos. Instead, she advises the government to invest in intelligence gathering, and get better insights in the modus operandi of Boko Haram. "Nobody really knows what Boko Haram wants. They talk about implementing Sharia law in the north, but details are unclear. Also, one would expect that after receiving N100 million in compensation money for the death of their leader Yusuf, Boko Haram would keep quiet for a while. But the violence has only increased. There’s no logical reasoning to be found."

"A lot of prominent people have already condemned Boko Haram’s actions. Nigeria is a secular state and will remain that way," she adds. "But now, we’re living in a state of fear. Nobody knows when the next bomb will detonate. However, I believe this current violence is just a phase. It came, and it will pass again as well. How and when though, I don’t know."

A prominent politician has accused politicians, especially immediate past governors of some northern states, of preparing the fertile ground for this sort of unfortunate insurgency as they encouraged their security outfits which terrorised people in their various states. Some have also bought off attacks by Boko Haram by paying them substantial sums. Their maladministration created the room or metamorphosed into the insurgency now rocking the country, the politician said.

Though media reports said serving and incumbent security chiefs are putting their heads together with a view to facing this challenge, there are fears among some politicians that even the presidency appears helpless or unable to tackle the problem .But officials say the presidency appears to be working on the strategy which will emphasize dialogue rather than violence. What is certain is that the nation is facing an unusual security challenge now.

"I think we have been lying to ourselves in this country for years;the politicians the media and all, everybody kept avoiding the truth.People would tell lies to get into power. Now we are all in trouble," a politician who expressed concern over Boko Haram said under the condition of anonymity. What appears certain now is that just like the Niger Delta crisis, a tactically reassuring strategy perhaps emphasizing constructive engagement with the group is needed in order to stem the tide of sorrow, bloodletting and death emanating from the growing Boko Haram attacks.

More than 35,000 Nigerians reportedly have left their homes to avoid the Boko Haram violence. With thousands of Christians leaving their homes in northern Nigeria, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Abuja has called upon the government to initiate talks with the Boko Haram terrorist group.

"Sooner or later someone will have to talk to the Boko Haram,” said Archbishop John Onaiyekan, “and I think those who can talk to them are those who share their own expectations, but not their methods.” The archbishop said that it is unrealistic to think that the government can provide adequate security to protect all citizens against active terrorism, and that a political solution is required to end the Boko Haram attacks.

The archbishop said that the Nigerian government must take a more active role, rather than making half-hearted responses to the terrorist threats. He observed that the majority of Nigeria’s people do not support the campaign for an Islamic state, and hinted that the government should be more forthright in confronting the militant threat.

A military solution is not possible. Violence only breeds more violence. It becomes a snake swallowing its own tail. Diplomacy and negotiations are the only way to achieve peace with Boko Haram. Nigerians for the most part want security, but they realize that the army and the police are incapable of protecting each and every Nigerian adequately. 

The Secretary-General, Nigerian Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs (NSCIA), Dr AbdulLateef Adegbite, has said the Federal Government must adopt a carrot-and-stick policy to resolve the Boko Haram challenge. He explained: "The moderates among them can be accepted as the constitution and the law may permit. Those hard-line Boko Haram elements that are bent on pursuing violent agenda should be sought out and dealt with according to the law."

"The scourge of violence as perpetrated by Boko Haram has become dreadful and frightening and seemingly uncontrollable. The need has obviously arisen to seek divine intervention. We call on peace -loving Nigerian Muslims to collaborate with their Christian counterparts in embracing peace and dialogue to enhance national security." 

"Religious leaders should educate their followers against negative preaching, practices and behaviour. Religious education should focus on authentic texts of every faith devoid of exaggeration that feed extremism," Adegbite added.

He concluded: "It is now crystal clear that these hard–faced rebels have declared war on all Nigerians. This is why it is misguided for some Christian leaders to call for reprisal against Muslims just because Boko Haram targeted a church near Abuja on Christmas Day last year, irresponsibly killing many worshippers. Is it not now evident that with the sad massacre in Kano, and killings elsewhere in the North, an over whelming number of Muslims have been wasted by Boko Haram?"

Adegbite puts his finger precisely on the greatest threat to Boko Haram's continued existence: their killing of fellow Muslims. As long as Boko Haram focussed almost exclusively on attacking Christians, most Muslims ignored them, but now every Muslim, at least in the North, feels personally threatened. 

One illustration of the weakness of Boko Haram is that the recent spate of bombing were concentrated in the North, and more specifically, the North-East. Other regions of the country have largely been spared. The Muslim spiritual leader of Nigeria, the Emir of Sokoto, has arrested members of Boko Haram, and they in turn have threatened to attack Sokoto, which is in the North-West of Nigeria.

As Adegbite  and others have noted, Muslims must join the negotiations that will ultimately lead to peace in Nigeria. I would add that Muslims must take the lead in such negotiations, since they are better able to understand their co-religionists. 

Christians and Muslims who want peace must work together so that this goal may be achieved. Boko Haram must not be allowed to tear Nigeria apart. As Nigeria goes, so does the rest of Africa. This saying is as true now as when it was first uttered.

Pray for peace in Nigeria. I have written several times already about Nigeria, since even though I no longer live there that large and important nation remains close to my heart. Also, I abhor violence and want to promote non-violence wherever I am.

(Note: Because of the length of this post, I have not included as many pictures in relation to the text as I often do. Also the horrific nature of the destruction wrought by Boko Haram made it difficult to choose appropriate photos. Thus I have selected several photos of some of the people that I quote.)