The Identity Debate: What does it mean to be British?

It is the debate on everybody’s lips – just how British are we? Last week came plans for a British Day. Then Gordon Brown spoke of ‘British jobs for British people’. As a new study demands we celebrate ‘where we live’ to combat social division, is there any way to define a nation’s values? Report by Ned Temko, Jo Revill and Amelia Hill Luton yesterday morning was bathed in early summer sunshine. A Women’s Institute stall peddled home-made cakes outside the Arndale Shopping Centre. Giggling Asian schoolgirls in full veils, or niqabs, shared benches with African immigrants and eastern Europeans. It was, on the face of it, an advert for happy multi-culturalism. But it is precisely places like this ancient English market town, now more famous for its airport, which Gordon Brown and other politicians have in mind in their fevered efforts to bind an increasingly diverse nation together with some shared sense of ‘Britishness’. Luton, by all appearances a tranquil mix of its estimated 140 different nationalities, gained unwanted notoriety after the cars used by the British-born 7/7 suicide bombers turned up in a local car park. One recent African Muslim immigrant yesterday remarked: ‘Britishness is a hazy thing. Even if we want to adopt the culture of this country, the dictates of religion remain a far clearer and more precise identity. This isn’t immigrants’ fault. It doesn’t mean anything sinister about loyalty to Britain. It’s human nature.’

U.N. panel OKs measure on Islam

Islamic countries pushed through a resolution at the U.N. Human Rights Council on Friday urging a global prohibition on the public defamation of religion – a response largely to the furor last year over caricatures published in a Danish newspaper of the Muslim Prophet Muhammad. The statement proposed by the Organization of Islamic Conference addressed what it called a “campaign” against Muslim minorities and the Islamic religion around the world since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States. The resolution, which was opposed by a number of other non-Muslim countries, “expresses deep concern at attempts to identify Islam with terrorism, violence and human rights violations.” It makes no mention of any other religion besides Islam, but urges countries “to take resolute action to prohibit the dissemination of racist and xenophobic ideas and material aimed at any religion or its followers that constitute incitement and religious hatred, hostility, or violence.” The resolution was adopted by a 24-14 vote with nine abstentions. Canada, Japan and South Korea joined European countries in opposition, primarily citing its excessive focus on Islam and incompatibility with fundamental rights such as the freedoms of speech and thought. “The problem of religious intolerance is worldwide and not limited to certain religions,” said Brigitta Maria Siefker-Eberle of Germany, speaking on behalf of the 27-nation European Union. There are 17 Muslim countries in the 47-nation human rights council. Their alliance with China, Cuba, Russia and most of the African members means they can almost always achieve a majority. Human Rights Watch said the resolution could endanger the basic rights of individuals. The council, which last year replaced the discredited U.N. Human Rights Commission, has no power beyond drawing international attention to rights issues and scrutiny of abuses in certain countries. The move at the council was initiated last year after protests across the Islamic world drew attention to caricatures of Muhammad first printed in Danish paper Jyllands-Posten in September 2005.

EU starts Agency for Fundamental Rights

European Union officials on Thursday launched the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights – the 27-nation bloc’s latest effort to stamp out intolerance as it struggles to absorb an unprecedented crush of immigrants. Officials said the new agency would expand the work of the Vienna-based European Monitoring Center on Racism and Xenophobia to forge an EU-wide human rights culture that respects people of different genders, cultures and faiths. European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said the new agency reflected the EU’s “deep belief in the central worth and dignity of each individual.” Underscoring how racism, anti-Semitism and crimes against foreigners remain entrenched in Europe, the monitoring center warned in December that Europe’s Muslims routinely suffered acts ranging from physical attacks to discrimination in the job and housing markets. “We must continue to attack these diseases,” said Franco Frattini, the EU’s justice and home affairs commissioner. “There are those who would exploit our differences. Therefore, respecting different cultures is vital, but respect for fundamental individual rights must prevail,” said Frattini, adding that the new agency would complement the work of the Council of Europe, the bloc’s top human rights body. “Europe has changed and is changing – the promotion of fundamental rights could be our identity for the future,” he said. Amnesty International called the new agency a good start, but criticized its “minimalist mandate that contrasts sharply with the serious scale and nature of human rights problems in the EU.” In a statement, Amnesty expressed disappointment that the agency was steering clear of some thorny issues, including police abuse, violence against women and the interplay between counterterrorism laws and basic rights and freedoms. “The Fundamental Rights Agency, despite its name, is a missed opportunity,” Amnesty said. The Agency for Fundamental Rights is expected to become fully operational later this year. Like the monitoring center, the new organization will track and collect data on violence and discrimination, advise EU headquarters and member states, and raise public awareness of the problem. Its interim director will be Beate Winkler, who has been in charge of the monitoring center since 1998. In an interview earlier this week with The Associated Press, Winkler expressed hopes that the new agency would produce “a culture where people have the feeling they are respected – where they don’t have the fear of being attacked because they are Muslim or a Jew.” “The two most important challenges for the 21st century are how are we dealing with the Earth, and how are we dealing with the humans living on the Earth,” she said. The human rights arm of the region’s largest security group, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said Thursday it welcomed the new agency. “The creation of the Fundamental Rights Agency will further strengthen the EU’s role in effectively protecting human rights,” said Christian Strohal of the 56-nation OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights.

2006 Eid Assesment: ‘The CFCM hasn’t done anything!’ An Interview with Khaled Bouchama

Khaled Bouchama, a member of the Union of Islamic Organizations in France (UOIF), is also a member of the Ile-de-France Regional Council for the Muslim Religion, the CRCM Ile-de-France. Saphirnews.com: What problems have you run into with this year’s Eid? Khaled Bouchama : The problems are always the same. The lack of ritual slaughterhouses has been aggravated by the cosure of Mantes la Jolie which was not up to code. In Seine-Saint-Denis, there was not a single approved slaughterhouse… SN: The CFCM hasn’t done anything about these problems? KB : The CFCM has done nothing. It needs to own its responsibility in this business, because the job of the CFCM is to defend, in a correct and objective manner, the Muslim religion. The French Muslim community is part of the French nation. The state is responsible for this nation. The CFCM must put pressure on the state so that it facilitates the necessary conditions for the Eid sacrifices. For French Muslims, it is a local matter. But the local prefects can only execute the law. For the law to change, there must be a national political presence.

Mohamed Talbi: Islamic Free Thinker

For this historian, only just tolerated by the Tunisian regime, Islam is compatible with democracy, Muslims should free themselves from sharia, liberty is primary, and the pope therefore has the right to state his opinion. Benedict XVI has the right, “like everyone,” to express himself. Mohamed Talbi was furthermore not really surprised by the statements of the pope at Ratisbonne. {(continued below in French)} Pour cet historien tout juste tol_r_ par le r_gime tunisien, l’islam est compatible avec la d_mocratie, les musulmans doivent se d_livrer de la charia, la libert_ prime, et le pape a donc le droit de donner son opinion Beno_t XVI a le droit, ” comme tout le monde “, de s’exprimer. Mohamed Talbi n’a d’ailleurs pas _t_ vraiment surpris par les propos du pape _ Ratisbonne. ” Je connaissais les _crits de celui qui a _t_ le cardinal Ratzinger. Je savais que, pour lui, comme pour beaucoup d’Occidentaux, l’islam est synonyme de violence, et je le d_plore, dit-il tranquillement. Mais la libert_ ne se divise pas. Le pape a eu raison de donner son opinion sur l’islam, avec franchise et sinc_rit_. ” En mati_re de libert_, Mohamed Talbi ne fait pas dans la demi-mesure. A 85 ans, l’homme est un curieux m_lange d’intransigeance et de tol_rance. On le dit de plus en plus radical. Peut-_tre est-ce plut_t qu’il ne fait plus la moindre concession. L’historien a attendu d’_tre au soir de sa vie pour entrer en dissidence. ” Pas de politique ” a _t_ sa profession de foi pendant des ann_es. Mais comment respecter ce credo lorsqu’on est un homme de foi et de conviction ? Longtemps, cet agr_g_ d’arabe, sp_cialiste du Moyen Age au Maghreb, a cru pouvoir composer avec le pouvoir, au motif qu’il _tait un serviteur de l’Etat. En 1989, il chavire. Ce qu’il avait support_ d’Habib Bourguiba, le lib_rateur de la nation devenu un dictateur, Mohamed Talbi ne le supporte plus de son successeur, Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, pr_sident de la R_publique depuis 1987. Lorsqu’on lui refuse le droit de lancer une revue consacr_e _ une interpr_tation moderne de l’islam, puis qu’on interdit en Tunisie l’un de ses ouvrages, Iyal Allah (La Famille de Dieu), l’universitaire admet qu’il ne peut plus continuer _ dresser des barri_res entre son travail de chercheur et la vie de la cit_. En 1993, il abandonne la derni_re des fonctions officielles qu’il d_tenait encore, celle de pr_sident du Comit_ culturel national. ” J’ai vir_ et on m’a vir_ “, r_sume-t-il, assis dans son salon aux murs couverts de livres, dans le quartier du Bardo, _ Tunis. En 1995, il entre au Conseil national pour les libert_s en Tunisie (CNLT, non reconnu). Une association, pas un parti. ” Je n’ai jamais adh_r_ _ un parti, dit-il. La libert_ est la dimension structurante de ma pens_e. ” Mohamed Talbi va alors consacrer sa vie aux libert_s, sans renoncer _ sa sp_cificit_ : la r_novation de la pens_e musulmane. Si le pouvoir tunisien l’a dans le collimateur, il ne le harc_le pas. L’historien est surveill_, mais il n’est ni jet_ en prison ni rudoy_ par la police. On se contente d’_touffer sa voix et d’interdire ceux de ses livres qui paraissent trop audacieux, comme Penseur libre en Islam (Albin Michel, 2002), analyse de l’_chec de la d_mocratie dans le monde arabe et d_nonciation du r_gime Ben Ali. Beaucoup, en Tunisie, d_plorent que des r_formateurs tels que lui, Hichem Ja_t, Abdelmajid Charfi, ou encore H’Mida En-Nayfer, soient _cart_s par le pouvoir. Plut_t que de mener, depuis maintenant plus de quinze ans, la chasse aux islamistes, pourquoi ne pas tenter un travail en profondeur avec ces partisans de l’islam des Lumi_res ? ” Parce que les autorit_s tunisiennes se m_fient de personnalit_s aussi autonomes “, r_pond l’universitaire Sana Ben Achour. En Europe, ce pionnier du dialogue interreligieux a _t_ tr_s en vue dans les ann_es 1970 avant de tomber dans l’oubli. Ses positions ont fini par indisposer. Il _tait de plus en plus pol_mique _ l’_gard des chr_tiens, auxquels il reproche de ne pas pousser assez loin leur r_flexion sur l’islam. ” Je comprends les r_actions de Talbi, m_me si je ne les partage pas toujours. Son sens de la justice et sa qu_te de la v_rit_ le conduisent parfois _ des jugements excessifs. Mais c’est un homme sinc_re, fondamentalement croyant et profond_ment attach_ au message du Coran “, souligne l’un de ses amis, le P_re Michel Lelong. Mohamed Talbi est aujourd’hui ignor_ du grand public, en France comme en Tunisie. Seul ou presque, l’hebdomadaire Jeune Afrique n’a de cesse de faire conna_tre ses id_es. Lui finit en ce moment m_me de r_diger ce qui sera un peu son testament spirituel. Dans cet ouvrage de 400 pages, il clame une fois encore que ” l’islam est libert_ ” et qu’il est ” tout _ fait compatible ” avec la d_mocratie et la modernit_. La charia (loi islamique) est une ” production humaine ” qui n’a ” rien _ voir ” avec l’islam, mart_le-t-il. Les musulmans doivent ” se d_livrer ” de ces textes juridiques apparus deux si_cles apr_s le Proph_te et qui donnent de leur religion une image d’_pouvante. Jamais le Livre saint n’a recommand_ de couper la main des voleurs ou de lapider les femmes adult_res ! ” Seul, le Coran oblige “, r_p_te-t-il inlassablement. Si l’islamologue tunisien s’oppose avec force _ toutes les interpr_tations pass_istes de l’islam – le salafisme, le wahhabisme, en particulier -, il combat avec autant d’_nergie la d_sacralisation du Coran. R_nover la pens_e musulmane, ce n’est pas pr_ner ” un islam la_que, un islam sans Dieu “, insiste-t-il. Mohamed Talbi n’est pas tendre envers ces ” d_sislamis_s ” qui pr_nent ” un islam commode “, purement identitaire. ” La religion n’est ni une identit_, ni une culture, ni une nation. C’est une relation personnelle _ Dieu, une voie vers lui. On peut _tre musulman et de culture hollandaise, fran_aise ou chinoise “, explique-t-il avec force. A ses c_t_s, une femme longue et blonde, aux yeux bleus, l’_coute avec attention. C’est Irmgard, sa femme, d’origine allemande, rencontr_e _ Paris ily a tout juste cinquante ans. Irmgard ne s’est convertie _ l’islam qu’en 1996, au terme d’un long cheminement. Ils ont deux fils et deux petits-enfants. Ceux-ci suivent-ils le chemin de leur p_re et grand-p_re ? M. Talbi sourit. ” Je ne sais pas. Je ne leur pose pas la question et je ne leur offre m_me pas mes livres. Si je le faisais, cela reviendrait _ dire : “Lisez-moi”. Je m’y refuse. ” C’est dans le m_me esprit que Mohamed Talbi reconna_t aux caricaturistes le droit de brocarder le proph_te Mahomet et _ Michel Houellebecq – ” un gar_on sympathique ” – le droit de dire et d’_crire que l’islam est la religion ” la plus con du monde “. La religion, quelle qu’elle soit, ne doit pas _tre une contrainte. ” Je veux d_crisper les gens, et je veux le faire au nom du Coran. La foi est un choix, souffle-t-il de sa voix _ la fois fluette et ferme. Je ne cesserai jamais de dire que l’islam nous donne la libert_, y compris celle d’insulter Dieu… “

Denmark: Danes Apologize for Cartoons Instead of Rasmussen

Danish citizens have apologized on behalf of the nation instead of Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen for the insulting cartoons of Prophet Mohammed that were published in the newspaper, Jyllands-Posten. While the Danish prime minister continues to defend the cartoons are a freedom of expression and refuses to offer an apology, Danes set up Internet sites and apologized to Muslims.

Protests Over Cartoons In Pakistan Turn Deadly

LAHORE, Pakistan – Thousands of protesters rampaged through two cities Tuesday, storming into a diplomatic district and torching Western businesses and a provincial assembly in Pakistan’s worst violence against the Prophet Muhammad drawings, officials said. At least two people were killed and 11 injured. Security forces fired into the air as they struggled to contain the unrest in the eastern city of Lahore, where protesters burned down four buildings housing a hotel, two banks, a KFC restaurant and the office of a Norwegian cell phone company, Telenor. U.S. and British embassy staffers were confined to their compounds until police dispersed the protesters, some of whom chanted, “Death to America!” Witnesses said rioters also damaged more than 200 cars, dozens of shops and a large portrait of President Gen. Pervez Musharraf. Vandals broke the windows of a Holiday Inn, Pizza Hut and McDonald’s. Two movie theaters were torched, and clouds of tear gas and black smoke from burning vehicles outside Citibank and Metropolitan Bank branches drifted through streets in the city center. A security guard shot and killed two protesters trying to force their way into a bank, Interior Minister Aftab Khan Sherpao said, adding that paramilitary forces were deployed to restore order. Mohammed Tariq, a doctor at the state-run Mayo Hospital, said three people were being treated for serious bullet wounds, and eight more suffered injuries during clashes with police. The protest was organized by a little-known religious group supported by local trade associations and one of the main Islamic schools in the city. Intelligence officials, however, suspected that members of outlawed Islamic radical groups may have incited the violence. Raja Mohammed Basharat, law minister for Punjab province, of which Lahore is the capital, said the organizers promised Monday that the demonstration would be peaceful. No one has been arrested for the violence, but those responsible would be punished, he said. The unrest began Tuesday in the nation’s capital, Islamabad, about 180 miles northwest of Lahore, when between 1,000 and 1,500 people, mostly students, marched into a fenced-off diplomatic enclave through the main gate, as about a dozen police looked on. The stick-wielding crowd charged about a half-mile down the road to the British High Commission, or embassy, where the students rallied briefly until police fired tear gas. Outside the enclave, protesters smashed street lights and burned tires while chanting “Death to America!” and other slogans. Police rounded up about 50 protesters and put them in pickup trucks. Another protest in Islamabad drew about 4,000 people. Separately, about 50 lawmakers from religious and moderate parties marched from Parliament to the diplomatic enclave, where they stood silently for five minutes before dispersing. Hard-line cleric Hafiz Hussain Ahmad, senior leader of an opposition coalition of six religious parties, said, “We have come to the doors of the embassies to take our voice to the ambassadors. There is anger in the Islamic world. If they do not listen, their problems will increase.” People in this conservative Muslim nation have been enraged by the publications of the drawings, which first appeared in a Danish newspaper in September. Papers in other countries, mostly Europe but including some in the United States, reprinted them. One of the caricatures depicts Muhammad wearing a turban shaped as a bomb with an ignited detonator string. Islam widely holds that representations of Muhammad are banned for fear they could lead to idolatry. In Copenhagen, Denmark, Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the uproar posed the biggest foreign policy challenge to his nation since World War II. Fogh Rasmussen said it would take time to defuse the crisis, which he called “a very considerable task.” “We don’t see the solution around the corner,” he said. “We find ourselves in the biggest foreign policy challenge Denmark has faced since World War II.” The Danish government has said it cannot apologize for the actions of an independent newspaper. A Danish Muslim leader said his group would accept part of the blame for the international protests, but he insisted the group took its complaints to the Middle East because Denmark’s government would not listen. Ahmad Akkari, 28, told The Associated Press his network was willing to accept one-third of the responsibility for the firestorm, if the government and the Danish paper that first published the drawings shared the rest. “Let’s say we bear one-third of the responsibility. Could the other two parts not take their responsibility?” Akkari said in an interview at a mosque in northern Copenhagen. There have been a series of mostly peaceful protests across Pakistan against the cartoons, and last week Parliament adopted resolutions condemning the drawing. Lawmakers also called for a nationwide strike on March 3. But Aitzaz Ahsan, a lawmaker with the opposition Pakistan Peoples Party, said he will propose that the government call off the March 3 protest strike because of the prospect of further violence. “It’s really gotten out of hand,” Ahsan said. “The violence is spiraling out of control.”

Denmark: Rage Over Cartoons Perplexes Denmark; Reaction To Drawings Of Muhammad Forces The Nation To Examine Its Self-Image Of Tolerance.

By Jeffrey Fleishman COPENHAGEN – This diminutive nation with an offbeat sense of humor and a strong self-image of cultural tolerance is not accustomed to having its flag burned, embassies stormed and coat of arms pelted with eggs. But Denmark has become a target for the Muslim world’s outrage at cartoons lampooning the prophet Muhammad. The scope and intensity of the violence ignited by the caricatures, first printed in September by the country’s right-leaning Jyllands-Posten newspaper and reprinted more recently in other Western publications, have left this country bewildered. “A lot of Danes have problems understanding what is going on and why people in those countries reacted this way,” said Morton Rixen, a philosophy student, looking out his window at a city awhirl in angst and snow. “We’re used to seeing American flags and pictures of George Bush being burned, but we’ve always seen ourselves as a more tolerant nation. We’re in shock to now be in the center of this.” On Wednesday, four people were killed and at least 20 wounded in a fresh round of protests in southern Afghanistan, and demonstrators in the West Bank city of Hebron attacked the offices of international observers, forcing their evacuation. President Bush spoke out about the protest for the first time, saying, “We reject violence as a way to express discontent with what may be printed in a free press.” Danes suspect that the furor over the cartoons has been co-opted by the wider anti-Western agenda of Middle East extremism. Yet they believe the media images of fury over the drawings have cracked the veneer of their nation and exacerbated a debate about immigration, freedom of expression, religious tolerance and a vaunted perception of racial harmony often disputed by immigrants. Denmark is a small portrait of Europe’s struggle to integrate a Muslim population that has doubled since the late-1980s and dotted the continent with head scarves and back-alley mosques. The cartoons were sketched in an atmosphere of rising Muslim discontent, a surge in strength for the anti-immigration Danish People’s Party, a commitment to keeping Danish troops in Iraq and the arrests here of suspected militants with reported ties to Al Qaeda. Some worry that anti-immigrant political parties are exploiting the burning of Danish embassies in Lebanon, Syria and Iran to promote a xenophobic agenda. “Racism is suddenly popping up in this country,” said Merete Ronnow, a nurse who worked in Danish relief efforts in Lebanon and Afghanistan. “I’m stunned by this. It’s like now Danes can express exactly what they feel. My colleagues are saying, ‘Look, this is how a Muslim acts. This is what a Muslim does.’ ” Recent polls reveal a country of torn emotions and doubt. The Danish People’s Party has gained 3 percentage points, but so has its nemesis, the Radical Left Party. A newspaper headline this week blamed President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair for not supporting Denmark through the ordeal. And nearly 80% of Danes believe a terrorist attack looms. “I don’t know what to do. It’s amazing to see the Danish flag being burned,” said Michael Hansen, an engineer. “It’s not fear, it’s more anxiety. There have been terror attacks in the U.S., Spain and in Britain. We are the logical fourth. If they forgot about us, they’ve remembered now.” Hansen’s roommate, Martin Yhlen, said: “The whole cartoon thing was a ridiculous provocation. The newspaper knew before they published it that people would be extremely upset. You do have freedom of speech, but with that comes a moral obligation. It doesn’t benefit integration in Europe. It widens the divide.” Even Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen seems baffled. “We’re seeing ourselves characterized as intolerant people or as enemies of Islam as a religion. That picture is false,” he said Tuesday during a news conference. “We’re facing a growing global crisis that has the potential to escalate beyond the control of governments and other authorities,” he said. “Extremists and radicals who seek a clash of cultures are spreading it.” […]