Ethics-religion debate: Berlin referendum fails at the polls

Berliners voted Sunday on whether students can take religion instead of compulsory ethics classes. In the end, the referendum failed to attract either enough voters or a majority of those who did vote. Now the proposal’s backers are saying Berlin’s mayor hasn’t been playing fair. It was a referendum that dominated discussion in Berlin for weeks: Should school students have a choice between ethics and religion classes, or should ethics continue to be compulsory and religion an optional extra course?

But after the streets had been plastered with posters and the radio waves full of ads, after all the workshops, discussion panels and street-level campaigning, after all the special newspaper sections and all the lining-up of supporters drawn from the world of politics, sports and television, in the end, not enough people showed up at the polls to push the referendum through. “I’d been hoping for a different result,” said Christoph Lehmann, the lawyer who led the “Pro Reli” campaign, which was backed by the Chancellor Angela Merkel and her ruling center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party, the business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP) and the churches. Archbishop Robert Zollitch, the head of the Catholic German Bishops Conference, viewed it as a “painful outcome.”

If passed, the proposal would have allowed students to choose between ethics and religion courses, which would have seen Islam, Catholicism and Protestantism taught separately. In the end, only 14.2 percent of all eligible voters in Berlin cast their ballots on Sunday in support of the “Pro Reli” proposal, which was well short of the 25 percent — or 611,422 votes — needed to effect the change. A total of 713,228 (29.2 percent) of Berlin’s 2.45 million eligible voters cast their ballot, 51.3 percent of which opposed and 48.5 percent of which supported the proposal. Berlin has a long secular tradition, and 60 percent of Berliners are not members of any church. In 2006, ethics classes became a compulsory subject for Berlin students between grade 7 and grade 10, with religion being an optional extra class, after the “honor killing” of a Turkish woman murdered by her brother. The proposal was opposed by Berlin’s ruling left-wing parties, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the Left Party. The city-state’s government argues that all students, regardless of their cultural or ethnic background, should learn a common set of values. Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit pronounced himself pleased with the results of the referendum, telling Reuters: “This shows that those in ‘Pro Reli’ who were portraying this as a ‘freedom’ issue — as if the Russians were about to invade — are out of touch with the real situation in Berlin.”

Oxford imam Hargey challenges barred Dutch politician Wilders to a debate

A prominent Oxford Muslim has challenged controversial Dutch politician Geert Wilders to meet him for a public debate over Islam. Dr. Taj Hargey, Imam of the Summertown Islamic congregation, and leader of the Muslim Education Centre of Oxford, has invited Wilders — barred from Britain in February because of his anti-Muslim views — to meet at a neutral venue, saying his ideas need to be challenged publicly rather than boycotted.

Dr. Hargey has himself courted controversy in the Muslim community. He invited a woman to lead a congregation of men and women for Friday prayers, and offered financial support to a Buckinghamshire school after it refused to allow a female Muslim pupil to wear a full-face veil. Dr. Hargey said he was totally opposed to Wilders’ views on Islam, but insisted that made it all the more important for them to be questioned in a public way. “By banning him, Wilders became a bigger hero to the anti-Muslim brigade”, he said.

Dr. Hargey added: “If he does not accept the invitation, his criticism of Islam has no foundation.” Meanwhile Dr. Hargey received a call from Wilders’s office saying they had received the invitation for a public discourse but that the MP was currently travelling and would not be able to respond until next week.

al-Qaeda group demands release of Abu Qatada or British hostage will be killed

al-Qaeda’s North African wing has threatened to kill a British tourist taken hostage in the Sahara unless the radical cleric and terrorism suspect Abu Qatada is released within 20 days. The kidnapped man was among four European tourists seized in January after their convoy was ambushed near the border of Niger and Mali, where they had been after attending a Tuareg festival.

Abu Qatada, once described by a Spanish judge as “Osama bin Laden’s righthand man in Europe”, is being held in Britain pending deportation to his native Jordan, where in 1999 he was convicted in his absence of conspiracy to cause explosions and sentenced to life imprisonment. The charges related to bombings at the American school and the Jerusalem hotel in Jordan. He was convicted a second time in 2000 over a plot to bomb tourists. Abu Qatada is one of the highest profile terror suspects held in Britain today, and when Jacqui Smith, the home secretary, signed his deportation order on 18 February she said: “I am keen to deport this dangerous individual as soon as I can.”

“We demand that Britain release Sheikh Abu Qatada, who is unjustly [held], for the release of its British citizen. We give it 20 days as of the issuance of this statement,” the group al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) said in a posting on an Islamist website yesterday. “When this period expires, the Mujahideen will kill the British hostage.”

The issue highlights the difficulty how to deal with dangerous Islamist prisoners and with al-Qaeda threats from outside Europe, while maintaining security in the UK and without endangering any hostages.

Canadian diplomats freed from al-Qaeda captors in Mali

Freed Canadian diplomats Robert Fowler and Louis Guay left Mali yesterday aboard a Canadian government plane bound for Germany this weekend to be reunited with their families. The two men were freed by their al-Qaeda-linked captors after four months of captivity.

Two Europeans separately captured by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) were simultaneously let go. Reports from Algeria suggest that an unnamed European government paid AQIM factions a multimillion-dollar ransom. While this transaction has not been officially confirmed, countries such as Germany and Austria have been reported to have made similar payments in parallel cases.

Before the release, the Canadian government had been mounting a massive diplomatic effort and rescue operation in West Africa. Officials in Ottawa said Canada paid no ransom.

Orange headscarves for Dutch Muslims in Haarlem

Muslim women in Haarlem will celebrate Queen’s Day in Dutch style this year. A group of students plan to hand out 5,000 orange headscarves on April 30th, to promote tolerance in the Netherlands. The orange headscarves allow Muslim women to express their loyalty to their faith, as well as to the queen. Two students initiated the action, and were annoyed by the rabble rousing in politics and society over the garment, and suggested finding a common symbol to merge together.

New food and restaurant laws draw concern that preservation of culture negatively targets immigrants and minorities

Thousands, if not more, are dissenting a regional law passed this week that regulates how fast-food restaurants and takeout shops may sell the food they produce. The law, which applies to any food or bar establishment, says that selling anything other than what they themselves produce on site, is not allowed to be sold to customers.

Many who protested the law say that the measure is an anti-immigrant and anti-foreigner law disguised as food regulation, and that the law was aimed at fast-food restaurants run by immigrants.

The measure was approved Tuesday by the center-right majority, but was championed by the conservative Northern League, as a means to preserve the traditional identity of Italian cities. “In its original form the law was more racist — it was specifically geared to get kebab shops out of the city center,” said Giuseppe Civati, a regional lawmaker.

The idea of “gastronomic contamination” is a façade for racial, cultural, and ethnic contamination that is feared in Italy’s growing concerns with culture. Supporters of the law say that it finally regulates a sector that had existed in a confused legislative status for years.

Vatican: Accord promotes dialogue with Arab League

The Vatican has signed a memorandum of understanding with the Arab League, in a bid to strengthen political and cultural understanding. The Vatican memorandum was signed by senior Vatican official Dominique Mamberti, and Amr Moussa, secretary general of the Arab League. “The agreement further consolidates the existing ties of collaboration between the Holy See and the League of Arab States, especially at a political and cultural level, in favor of peace, security and stability, both regionally and internationally,” said a statement. The agreement comes as Catholic bishops across Europe prepare to meet Muslim leaders to promote dialogue at a conference to be held in the French city of Bordeaux.

American Muslim Chamber of Commerce established in Washington, DC

The American Muslim Chamber of Commerce (AMCC) was recently established by a committed group of American Muslim business professionals and individuals in response to the pressing need to create an organization that would respond to the growing needs of the American Muslim business community. The AMCC will become a vehicle that serves as a voice before government entities, providing strong advocacy for services and develops policies that will stimulate economic growth through business development in the Muslim American community. Washington DC resident Khalid Ahmed has been selected as the President and CEO of the AMCC, and currently serves as the managing director of US Reconstruction and Development Corporation.

According to the CCIF, there were 80 Islamophobic acts in France in 2008

According to the CCIF (The Collective Against Islamophobia in France or the Collectif contre l’islamophobie en France), there were 80 Islamophobic acts recorded in the Republic in 2008, 59 against specific persons and 21 focused on specific locations (like mosques and cemeteries). 67 percent of acts against specific persons took place in Ile-de-France. The CCIF was created five years ago with the aim of lessening Islamophobia and racism.

CAIR prepares delegation to Iran seeking journalist’s release

The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) is preparing to send a delegation to Iran to seek the release of American journalist Roxana Saberi, who was recently sentenced by an Iranian court to eight years in prison.

In an April 17 letter to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, CAIR Board Chairman State Senator Larry Shaw (NC) and CAIR Executive Director Nihad Awad requested that the Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization “be allowed to travel to Iran to discuss with you and other officials the case of Roxana Saberi and how it may be resolved in a way that helps improve relations and benefits the cause of international peace and stability.”

Earlier this April, CAIR called on Iran to release Saberi as a “gesture of reconciliation” to help improve relations between Iran and America.