Avicenna Scholarship for Muslim students

Talented Muslims students are given the opportunity to finance their studies through the Avicenna-Studienwerk, which was established in March 2012. Two students called Matthias Meyer (University of Konstanz) and Beschir Hussain (WHU and Columbia University) had the initial idea to create a foundation for Muslim students. The association was founded in March 2012 by researchers and students in Osnabrück. The director of the Institute for Islamic Theology Bülent Ucar spoke about a historical step towards recognition and equality of Muslims in Germany.

Selected undergraduate students receive 670 Euros per month and doctoral students receive 1050 Euros per month. The Mercator foundation is supporting the Avicenna-Studienwerk with 1 Mio. Euros for the duration of five years. The Ministry for Education and Science will support the Avicenna-Studienwerk with another 7 Mio. Euros.

The average rate of Muslims in Germany is about 4.6% to 5.2%. However the Muslim representation rate is just below 3% at German Universities.  The aim of the Avicenna-Studienwerk is to create equal opportunities for talented Muslims to participate and engage in German society.

Celebrating Darwin: Religion And Science Are Closer Than You Think

The MIT Survey on Science, Religion and Origins, which we’re officially publishing today in honor of Charles Darwin’s 204th birthday. We found that only 11 percent of Americans belong to religions openly rejecting evolution or our Big Bang. So if someone you know has the same stressful predicament as my student, chances are that they can relax as well. To find out for sure, check out this infographic.

So is there a conflict between science and religion? The religious organizations representing most Americans clearly don’t think so. Interestingly, the science organizations representing most American scientists don’t think so either: For example, the American Association for the Advancement of Science states that science and religion “live together quite comfortably, including in the minds of many scientists.” This shows that the main divide in the U.S. origins debate isn’t between science and religion, but between a small fundamentalist minority and mainstream religious communities who embrace science.

So is there a conflict between science and religion? The religious organizations representing most Americans clearly don’t think so. Interestingly, the science organizations representing most American scientists don’t think so either: For example, the American Association for the Advancement of Science states that science and religion “live together quite comfortably, including in the minds of many scientists.” This shows that the main divide in the U.S. origins debate isn’t between science and religion, but between a small fundamentalist minority and mainstream religious communities who embrace science.

Saladin Ahmed’s ”Throne of the Crescent Moon” An Arab-American Fantasy Epic

Saladin Ahmed’s fantasy novel “Throne of the Crescent Moon” is inspired by One Thousand and One Nights. In his review, Richard Marcus says the epic adds much needed diversity to the fantasy genre

Being a fan of a particular genre of work doesn’t blind you to its flaws. So being an unabashed admirer of both Science Fiction and Fantasy hasn’t prevented me from seeing how, aside from a few notable exceptions, lily white and Euro-centric both genres happen to be. While apologists can probably make a case for writers like Tolkien describing his villains as either “swarthy” or “svart” while his heroes are universally pale-skinned by employing the well-worn “product of his times” argument, those writing in the latter decades of the twentieth century can’t be offered the same out.

In fact one would have hoped those in the business of writing about the future would have taken that opportunity to create worlds reflecting the social changes that occurred during the years they were writing. At the very least it would have been nice to see a few darker skinned characters created without the adjective exotic tagged onto their description.

When you consider the wealth of material from around the world that could spark an author’s imagination, or the fact that you can’t walk down a street in any major Western city without seeing an exciting mix of ethnicities among the populace, it is a little disconcerting to be reading freshly published books perpetuating old stereotypes of dark villains threatening the virtue of some pale-skinned lovely.

A “White Anglo-Saxon Protestant only” club

Part of the explanation could lie in the fact that when you look at photos taken at gatherings of fantasy writers, you’ll notice quite a difference from what you’d see on the street. It’s awfully reminiscent of shots taken at what used to be referred to as exclusive or restricted clubs, i.e. White Anglo-Saxon Protestant only.

This isn’t a deliberate thing, nor is racism implied, but it is a fact, and one that doesn’t look like its changing with any speed. For in spite of the subject matter, science fiction and fantasy publishers are just as conservative, if not more so, than their mainstream counterparts. All of which goes a long way in explaining my interest in Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed.

The combination of the book’s title and the author’s name led me to correctly assume the book wouldn’t be drawing upon the usual European cultural pool for its inspiration. Even the little I know about the rich tradition of myths and legends in the Islamic world is sufficient to know there’s a rich vein of material waiting to be mined by the right fantasy writer. Ahmed has a solid history as a short story writer, even being a finalist for a couple of awards, however this is his first full-length novel, and it’s not always a smooth transition from one format to another. While I was happy to see an author looking to other traditions for inspiration, what really matters is how well he or she is able to handle the basics of storytelling.

In this case the answer to that question is as good as, if not better than, anyone else out there writing fantasy today. Ahmed has created a vibrant and exciting world where his characters both live and have the adventures which form the basis of the story. Like many fantasy writers, he has chosen to base his world on a version of our past.

In this case he has looked to the ancient east African city states of the Islamic world. The majority of the tale takes place within the walls of the great city Dhamsawaat with the characters making only occasional forays beyond its walls into the countryside surrounding it. While there are five main characters involved in telling us the story, the city becomes another character who lives and breathes alongside everybody else. Ahmed’s descriptions of the city are so vivid she takes on the type of distinct personality we ascribe to the places we are most familiar with.

Fighting ghuls and demons

Doctor Adoulla Makhslood is feeling every one of his three score and ten years these days. A good many of those years have been spent keeping the people of his beloved Dhamsawaat safe from the monsters sent to plague mankind by the Traitorous Angel. While it’s true the doctor has been doing the work of the Blessed God, he’s as profane as any street urchin trying to spot a pocket ripe for the picking. In order to be able to perform the magic necessary to dispatch the ghuls and assorted demons he faces in his work, the Doctor has had to make sacrifices, chief among them not being able to marry and raise a family.

As this story commences he’s forcibly reminded of this prohibition when he’s asked to investigate reports of a ghul attack by the woman who has been the love of his live for decades. Only his calling has prevented him from marrying her. While in the past he’d been able to make peace with this trade-off, recently he’s began to feel the beginning of resentment towards having been denied the simple pleasures of a normal life.

Unlike the good Doctor his young assistant, Raseed bas Raseed, a warrior in the holy order of dervishes, is pious to the point of being inflexible in his judgements of others and himself. You either live according to the dictates of the Traditions or you’re morally lacking. However he finds himself sorely tested when he and the Doctor meet a young tribeswomen, Zamia Badawi, during their pursuit of the ghuls responsible for the most recent attack.

The fact that she is blessed by the angels with the ability to assume the shape of a lioness armed with silver claws and teeth and saves both men’s lives is only part of the problem. For the first time in his life Raseed finds himself beset with feelings that have nothing to do with his sacred calling and everything to do with Zamia.

Unfortunately he’s picked the worst time possible to be plagued with doubts and distractions, for it turns out this new attack isn’t just some minor magic user, but something far more ancient and evil. These days most spell casters are only able to raise one or two ghuls and have to keep them in site in order to control them. However the creatures the Doctor, Raseed and Zamia defeated outside the city were on their own and far stronger than anything Makhslood has faced in decades.

Then upon their return to the city they are attacked in the Doctor’s home by more ghuls and something even more deadly. A creature made of shadow, part man, part jackal, who can’t be harmed by normal weapons, only by those made of silver. It’s only through the timely intervention of his close friends and neighbours, Dawoud Son-of-Wajeed, a magus, and his wife Litaz, the alchemist, they survive the attack. For while Zamia’s silver claws were able to wound the thing that called itself Mouw Awa, it also gave her a horrible festering wound which untreated would have gradually eaten her soul. Only the combined workings of Dawoud and Litaz were able to save her.

Finding out who is behind the attacks is only the first hurdle the Doctor and his allies face. The shadow creature had mentioned something about its “blessed friend” sitting on the Cobra Throne and thus gaining the power needed to rule and create armies of monsters. If that wasn’t bad enough the city is also in the midst of a power struggle on the mortal plane.

The current Khalif is a brutal and greedy man who makes life miserable for most of his citizens through crippling taxes and his cruel version of justice. A bandit calling himself the Falcon Prince has been carrying out a covert war against the Khalif for a while now, and judging by his actions he looks to be preparing his final push against the throne. Is it merely a coincidence the Falcon Prince’s uprising is coming to a head at the same time as the mysterious ghul attacks are increasing? Or is there some insidious connection between the two seemingly unrelated events?

Effortlessly convincing

In Throne of the Crescent Moon Ahmed does a wonderful job of not only spinning a fascinating story that will hold a reader’s attention from beginning to end, but of bringing an environment most of his audience won’t be familiar with to life. While some authors might have over-explained and filled the story with unnecessary details, supplying background information about the culture his world is based on, he is able to paint his picture solely through the deeds and thoughts of his characters.

Whether it’s something simple like describing the type of tea the Doctor prefers to start his morning with or a little more involved such as Raseed quoting scripture as he lambastes himself for his failings, by the end of the book you’ll be as comfortable reading in this environment as you would one based on a culture and society you’re more knowledgeable about.

However, don’t read this book because it’s different. Read it because its well written. The fact that it adds some much needed diversity to the genre is a bonus. Even better is the promise of more stories set in this world the sub-title, Book One of The Crescent Moon Kingdoms, offers. Now that’s something to look forward to.

Multiculturalism in Europe

The recent victory of socialist François Hollande in France’s 2012 presidential election was certainly a turning point for the social and economic politics of France. Unfortunately, this is less true when it comes to immigration, race, and culture, evidenced by Hollande saying he would firmly support France’s ban on niqabs, or face-covering Islamic veils, and his stance against Turkish accession to the EU.

François Hollande has made clear that he will address the material conditions and worries of French citizens. But he has been quite silent on questions pertaining to cultural diversity and social cohesion, for the simple reason that he shares with Sarkozy the same conception of French national identity, defined as an abstract community of citizens bound together by principles of equality and liberty. In these conditions, the cultural and religious background of citizens is not part and should not interfere with civic solidarity and public life.

However, such an ideal has been increasingly difficult to uphold when Muslims, among other cultural and regional groups, are claiming their right to express their specificity in public space, which has in turn raised the anxiety and fears of a lot of French citizens. These fears have been the main reason for the long-standing political success of the National Front, from its founder Jean-Marie Le Pen to his daughter Marine, the current leader of the party . At the same time, Muslims of all colors and stripes keep asserting that there is no contradiction between being French and being a Muslim.

Nations or groups need to exist in opposition to an ‘Other,’ and in today’s national imagination, Islam plays that role. It may be impossible for societies to completely rid themselves of this polarizing rhetoric.

That said, societies differ in how much their political imaginations are subjected to open critical discussion. Accordingly, it is necessary for French politicians across the political spectrum to explicitly reject economic and social issues being linked to cultural issues or the ‘Islamization’ of Europe. It is also imperative for policymakers to change the dominant narrative of French national identity by including Islamic culture and history.

Such a change would involve a new education project where, from history to arts and culture, Muslims are not described as the Other. It means acknowledging the cross pollination of philosophical and scientific ideas as well as the multiple encounters of artists, merchants, clerics, and migrants from medieval times to the immigration waves after WWII. Most Muslims already acknowledge France as their home and have made numerous artistic and cultural contributions to the French ‘patrimoine.’ The challenge is to reshape French imagination so Muslims can be seen as legitimate fellow citizens.

 

Jocelyne Cesari, Research Fellow in Political Science and Director, Islam in the West Program, Harvard University

Religion in Prisons: A 50-State Survey of Prison Chaplains

From the perspective of the nation’s professional prison chaplains, America’s state penitentiaries are a bustle of religious activity. More than seven-in-ten (73%) state prison chaplains say that efforts by inmates to proselytize or convert other inmates are either very common (31%) or somewhat common (43%). About three-quarters of the chaplains say that a lot (26%) or some (51%) religious switching occurs among inmates in the prisons where they work. Many chaplains report growth from religious switching in the numbers of Muslims and Protestant Christians, in particular.

Overwhelmingly, state prison chaplains consider religious counseling and other religion-based programming an important aspect of rehabilitating prisoners. Nearly three-quarters of the chaplains (73%), for example, say they consider access to religion-related programs in prison to be “absolutely critical” to successful rehabilitation of inmates. And 78% say they consider support from religious groups after inmates are released from prison to be absolutely critical to inmates’ successful rehabilitation and re-entry into society. Among chaplains working in prisons that have religion-related rehabilitation or re-entry programs, more than half (57%) say the quality of such programs has improved over the last three years and six-in-ten (61%) say participation in such programs has gone up.

At the same time, a sizable minority of chaplains say that religious extremism is either very common (12%) or somewhat common (29%) among inmates. Religious extremism is reported by the chaplains as especially common among Muslim inmates (including followers of the Nation of Islam and the Moorish Science Temple of America) and, to a substantial but lesser degree, among followers of pagan or earth-based religions such as Odinism and various forms of Wicca. (See Glossary.) An overwhelming majority of chaplains, however, report that religious extremism seldom poses a threat to the security of the facility in which they work, with only 4% of chaplains saying religious extremism among inmates “almost always” poses a threat to prison security and an additional 19% saying it “sometimes” poses a threat.

Religious Pluralism in Swiss Prisons

A recent study by the Swiss National Sciences Foundation has found that religious pluralism in Swiss prisons does not lead to the same kind of conflicts that occur in French and British prisons. Catholic and Protestant prison chaplains have long been integrated into the Swiss institutional framework; however, given that the number of Muslim prisoners has risen significantly over the last years, prisons have been facing increasingly diversified challenges to respond to Muslim concerns.
Certain practices have led to more difficulties than others: halal meat (sometimes only provided if the prisoners can pay for it themselves); fasting during the month of Ramadan; appropriate spaces for daily prayers; and the organization of regular religious services. In the latter case, in a number of prisons imams do come to deliver sermons, however they are not integrated into the prison system. For example, in one prison in the canton of Vaud, one third of the prisoners are Muslims and two imams come to deliver sermons on Fridays. However, neither of them is officially recognized and their work is entirely voluntary.
Furthermore, the study found that although religious diversity might not lead to interfaith conflicts, Muslims remain stigmatized. This was found to be the case especially among the prison personnel, who would frequently bring up stereotypes concerning Islam and Muslims without having been explicitly asked a question on the subject.
The study concludes by recommending greater religious understanding on the part of the personnel; an adaptation of the legal framework to better reflect the current demographic reality; and finally conceptualizing the role of prison chaplains so as to encourage more interreligious capacities. The latter would benefit greatly from encouraging special prison chaplain courses of study at universities, such as the Master’s program that exists at the University of Bern.
Swiss National Science Foundation – National Research Program 58:
Communiqué
Report on the Sociological Challenges of Religious Plurality in Swiss Prisons (French)

Deradicalisation Programme Successful in Saving Young Muslims from Extremism, Study Finds

11 April 2011

A study by the Universities Police Science Institute of Cardiff University has found that counterterrorism strategies have shown positive effects. In particular, it is reported that 1,000 young Muslims, who were at risk of being wooed by al-Qaida, have been monitored under a deradicalisation programme, the “Channel Programme”, which caused the number to decline by 50 per cent. The study also highlights that “Muslim communities have a higher level of trust and confidence in the police than the general population”, and paints a positive picture of the counterterrorism Prevent strategy.

Imam Education at German Universities: A Public Task?

21 April 2001

From the new academic year, three German universities will offer courses to train imams. It is a novelty in Germany, if not Europe, and aims at integrating Islam into society via secular state institutions. The German Science Council had initially proposed this plan, and it was highly welcomed by the media and also the Churches. This article now explores the question of whether it is actually the state’s task to be involved in the training of religious leaders.

Five years since the Ontario Sharia Debate

The Toronto Star – September 11, 2010
Harvey Simmons, Professor Emeritus of the Department of Political Science at York University, has written this short piece reflecting on the Sharia debate which transpired five years ago in the province of Ontario. He claims that it is still not clear why Premier McGuinty dumped religious arbitration. Some felt the premier foresaw his whole legislative agenda being derailed by endless fighting over religious arbitration. Others felt he agreed with the anti-tribunal forces over the putative threat to women’s rights.
Once taken, the decision was greeted by anti-tribunal groups as an example of how multicultural societies draw lines around the illiberal activities and beliefs of minority communities and say, “this far and no farther.” The pro-tribunal groups, however, saw it as proof of Islamophobia and as a violation of religious freedom. He concludes that five years on, there is simply no way to pass judgment on the premier’s fateful decision.

Islamic theology in Germany poses great challenges to universities

13 August 2010
Calls for an Islamic theology in Germany are growing ever louder. But the challenge that this represents is underestimated not only by politics, but also by Christian theologians and cultural scholars, writes theologian Klaus von Stosch. Ever since the German Science Council published its recommendations for “Islamic Studies” at German universities, the desire to see a German Islamic theology appears to have become a common cause for all the major political parties in our country. Islamic theology and its attendant infrastructure for the education of Islamic religious teachers and imams is apparently viewed by many as the magic formula for the integration of Muslims living in Germany.
But the institutions are not necessarily prepared for this major project. The author claims that it will not be easy for German universities to overcome the challenges. They will only succeed if a competition of various academic institutions can be organised in the medium-term, thereby allowing for the possibility of trying out a number of different models. In this context attention must be paid in the first instance to the promotion of young blood in the field of Islamic theology, because at present there are virtually no eligible German-speaking Islamic theologians for the study field to be established.