Will Catholics and Muslims ignore Hasan Ali Work Together to Help the Neediest

PAS today demanded a full audit into the establishment of an RM30 million strategy unit by the Youth and Sports Ministry, which is said to be for financing 2,000 programmes for sacked PAS leader Hasan Ali.

In making the call, the Islamist party’s vice-president Mahfuz Omarsaid the sum for the Strategy Unit, placed under the Youth Development division, has been collected from other units in the ministry and it is “like an Umno branch” within the ministry to finance political programmes.

“I am made to understand that this unit will help fund Hasan’s activities to pull the youth to eventually support Umno and BN.

“It is like having Hasan’s Jati (the organisation set up by Hasan) inside the ministry,” he said

“Through our research, we know that 60 to 70 percent of the new voters, who are mostly youth, do not support Umno and BN.

“This unit is tasked with the mission of turning over the youth to support the ruling government.”

The PAS vice-president also claimed that the whole allocation, or at least a portion of the RM30 million, is allocated for Hasan’s programmes nationwide.

As a result of this, Mahfuz said, a full audit has to be conducted on the ministry to find out why such a unit, which is not listed in the ministry directory, is tasked with doing this for Umno, with the use of money from taxpayers.

 

The opportunity to use the word “Allah” in a non-Muslim context remains a struggle for Christian Malaysians as they mark 400 years since the Bible was first published in the Malay language.

Christian scholars are huddling at a seminary in Seremban today, on the 400th anniversary of the Alkitab, in a conference that could shore up the Catholic Church’s case after it won, in 2009, the right to use the Arabic word to refer to God in its newspaper, The Herald.

 

Thomas Jefferson, a deist of sorts, could write in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” On this point, the Founders believed, reason and revelation agreed. These truths might have been self-evident to the American Founders. It still took hundreds of years of Europeans being told that all men were created in God’s image for that truth to become the cornerstone of a nation. And even the Founders didn’t apply it consistently. But without the theological background, is there anything less obvious than that all human beings — no matter how smart, productive or attractive — are equal? In fact, most cultures in history have insisted on just the opposite. If our modern culture completely forgets its theological roots, how likely is it that we’ll retain our commitment to human equality? The Founders were also acutely aware of the reality of sin. So rather than pursuing utopian fantasies, they created a government with a separation of powers, each of which would check the ambitions of the other. And they were careful to protect the free exercise of religion while prohibiting a federally established religion. That way, separate religious institutions would hold each other in check, while believing citizens would reinforce and defend the public truths they shared and on which our nation is founded. Perhaps most perplexing to modern secularists is that the Founders could revere God in public, even officially, while still opposing a federally established church. That’s because they believed that God’s existence and the basic principles of morality were public truths that could be known by reason, and not just sectarian religious doctrines. As a result, faith has always had an honored place in the American public square, and doesn’t constitute an establishment of religion. Just a few years ago, a University of Chicago law professor put this point nicely:

[S]ecularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square. Frederick Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, Williams Jennings Bryan, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King — indeed, the majority of great reformers in American history — were not only motivated by faith, but repeatedly used religious language to argue for their cause. So to say that men and women should not inject their “personal morality” into public policy debates is a practical absurdity. Our law is by definition a codification of morality, much of it grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

The Malay version of the Bible embossed with the words ‘Christian Publication’ and a cross appeared from 2005 following a Home Ministry agreement with local distributors. — Picture by Choo Choy May

While Putrajaya has allowed churches nationwide to import the Malay-language Bible — first translated in 1612 — government lawyers refuse to withdraw their appeal against the Catholic Church’s suit.

 

With New York’s Archbishop Timothy Dolan’s elevation to Cardinal, Catholics and many who live alongside Catholics are hoping that the good works of the Church will grow. During the season of Lent, when Catholics deepen their connection with Jesus, and this lunar month when Muslims celebrate Prophet Muhammad’s birth, my own wish, as an American Muslim and a New Yorker, is that intergroup relations between Catholics and Muslims will deepen.

Written by leading Muslim scholars around the world to their Christian counterparts, A Common Word between Us and You, offers a way forward, focused on themes of loving God and loving your neighbor. It is necessary that Muslim and Catholic leaders of Dolan’s stature actively endorse and encourage such interfaith dialogue to permeate from scholars to the grassroots. Initiatives deserving special support are those which incorporate dialogue as well as opportunities to live out shared social justice values. By helping people who face poverty and other social and economic challenges, these collaborative projects can help reinforce individual faithfulness, create mutual empathy and also offer something bigger and beneficial to wider society. There is good reason to believe that we may be moving in that direction in New York City, since Archbishop Dolan has already stated his desire to build longer-term relationships with the City’s Muslim community.

Among the very good works of the 400 parishes and 200 Catholic schools in the Archdiocese has been the “Feeding Your Neighbors” campaign, whereby generous Catholics have donated more than 500,000 meals for needy New Yorkers. This abundance of food is in turn being used to stock the shelves of Catholic Church pantries. Non-Catholic institutions are also benefiting. Recently, Monsignor Sullivan, the Executive Director of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York supervised the transfer of 2,500 pounds of food to the Community Food Pantry at Highbridge, run by the Muslim Women’s Institute for Research and Development. The food was collected by seven Bronx parishes to help needy New Yorkers; the Highbridge Community Pantry serves at least 5,000 individuals a month, many of whom also have families. Highbridge is one of the poorest neighborhoods of New York City and the nation as a whole.

 

(Photo: Msgr. Sullivan, Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of NY with Dr. Amatullah, Muslim Women’s Institute) 

The relationship between Catholic Charities and Muslim Women’s Institute has evolved over two years, as part of a social service partnership program run by the Interfaith Center of New York and funded by the GHR Foundation. The initiative involves collaborations between pantries in the Bronx, mosques and parishes in Harlem and youth programs in Staten Island. Last year, the Mosque of Islamic Brotherhood in Harlem conducted a community food collection among congregants and donated the proceeds to a pantry at All Saints Church. Teens from the Staten Island Catholic Youth Organization and Miraj Islamic School conducted a joint food drive and together served food at a local soup kitchen.

The rationale behind this partnership is that both Islam and Catholicism share a deep commitment to service, and Catholics and Muslims can benefit the wider society by working together. Tom Price, the senior communications manager with Catholic Relief Services harkened back to Pope Benedict XVI’s 2005 encyclical “Deus Caritas Est,” wherein he stated that charity is for the Catholic Church “a part of her nature, an indispensable expression of her very being.” Similarly, Islam and Muslim institutions share a central commitment to caring for those in need, and Muslims are obligated as part of their ritual worship to give zakat, or charity. One of the favored sayings of Prophet Muhammad is, “God is generous and He loves generosity.”

In a city and nation that has been challenged by intergroup relations, particularly since the disaster of 9/11 and resulting fear of Islam, this partnership has brought together like-minded Catholics and Muslims who are social-service oriented. It has shown that even in fragile conditions, it is possible for people to work together to serve a larger cause. This is not to say that very serious challenges such as the rights of Christians as minorities in parts of the world with Muslim majorities or Muslims’ rights as minorities in non-Muslim contexts should be ignored. Securing civil rights and human rights is an ongoing process in Muslim countries, and also even in nations such as the United States where democracy is normative. Catholics and Muslims actually share this experience of marginalization, particularly in the American context, and it can create common ground for the two communities to stand together, as noted by Dolan himself. We can also be very grounded in Catholicism’s and Islam’s shared call to generosity and caring for humanity.

Organised by the Seminari Theoloji Malaysia (STM) and the Bible Society of Malaysia (BSM), the two-day conference kicked off this morning at 10 with an examination of the historical and theological perspectives on the translation of the Alkitab as well as the legal aspects concerning its print and distribution here.

The day-long closed-door conference will see speakers representing, among others, the BSM, local Christian think-tank Kairos Research Centre and the United Bible Societies, the world’s biggest Bible translator, publisher and distributor organisation with 146 members across 200 countries and territories.

Among the highlights of the conference is an exhibition of the Alkitab, first published in 1612 with the Malay translation of the Gospel of Matthew.

A similar public discussion will take place at the Trinity Methodist Church in Petaling Jaya tomorrow, STM spokesman Reverend Lim Kar Yong told The Malaysian Insider when contacted.

However, he stressed that the event was strictly for Christians.

Despite the Catholic Church winning a High Court decision on December 31, 2009 to publish the word “Allah”, its weekly paper The Herald has been blocked from doing so the past three years pending the Home Ministry’s appeal.

The case has been languishing in the Court of Appeal since.

But the controversy spilled over into the rights of Malaysia’s Christian population at large as shipments of Malay-language bibles catering to the Bahasa Malaysia-speaking Bumiputera Christians were also blocked or confiscated last year.

It was turned into election fodder in the run-up to last year’s Sarawak polls as Christians there make up nearly half of the state’s total population.

And despite Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s historic meeting with Pope Benedict XVI in Rome last July to establish diplomatic relations between Muslim-majority Malaysia and the Vatican, there has been little progress in resolving the “Allah” dispute.

Christians form 9.2 per cent of Malaysia’s 28.3 million-strong population.

The Christian and Muslim religious communities have been engaged in a tug-of-war over the word “Allah”, with the latter group arguing that its use should be exclusive to them on the grounds that Islam is monotheistic and the word “Allah” denotes the Muslim God.

Christians, however, have argued that “Allah” is an Arabic word that has been used by those of other religious beliefs, including the Jews, in reference to God in many other parts of the world, notably in Arab nations and Indonesia.

In the decade since 9/11, American Muslims and mosques have come under a close lens, from congressional hearings on radicalization to campaigns against mosque construction projects and anti-Sharia legislation proposals in dozens of states.

Despite such difficulties, a comprehensive survey of American mosque leaders released Wednesday reveals that the number of mosques in the country has grown tremendously, with more than 900 new centers being established since 2000. Another finding from the survey reveals that compared to the turn of the millennium, fewer Muslims see America as “hostile” to Islam today.

The nation’s largest Islamic groups, including the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the Islamic Society of North America and the Islamic Circle of America released the survey that asked hundreds of mosque leaders about the demographics and theological and political leanings of their congregation.

Researchers counted 2,106 mosques in the United States, mostly located in or around big cities, with New York state and California alone having 503 mosques. As more Americans have moved to the suburbs, so has the growth of new mosques. While many mosques have historically been established by South Asian immigrants, the study found that newer immigrant groups such as Somalis, Iraqis, West Africans and Bosnians have began to establish their own mosques since 2000.

“The continued growth of the community is amazing,” said Ihsan Bagby, a professor of Islamic studies at the University of Kentucky who was the primary researcher of the study. Bagby, who is Muslim, did similar surveys of mosques in 1994 and 2000. “It’s remarkable the amount of mosques that have been built in the last 10 years. It’s kind of counter-intuitive to factors working against them.”

Bagby, who worked with researchers from Hartford Seminary and the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, counted Sunni and Shiite mosques, which represent the two main Islamic denominations; leaving out smaller groups, such as the Nation of Islam, Moorish Science Temple, Isma’ili and Ahmadiyya centers. Many Muslim groups, such as those on university campuses, do not have permanent spaces, so only those with a physical building or permanent room that they control were counted. Mosques also had to hold services on Fridays, the main Islamic congregational prayer day, to be counted.

More than 98 percent of mosque leaders, which includes imams or heads of operating boards, said in the survey that Muslims should be involved in American society, while 91 percent said that Muslims should be involved in politics. The survey also found that 87 percent of mosque leaders disagree that radicalism is increasing among young Muslims. Six percent agreed that it was increasing.

Researchers also asked about how Muslim leaders approach their religion. The majority — 56 percent — said they believe in a flexible interpretation of the Quran and the Sunnah (the way the Islamic prophet Muhammad practiced the religion) that isn’t always literal and takes into account modern life.

On the more conservative end, 21 percent of mosque leaders said they look toward more traditional interpretations of Islam, and six percent said they are Salafi. Salafi is a conservative tradition that sees the early generations of Islam after the religion was established in the 7th century as the most authentic, and shares similarities with Wahhabism, another conservative tradition that is dominant Saudi Arabia.

Bagby’s previous survey, conducted a year before 9/11, found that a majority of mosque leaders — 54 percent — thought America was hostile toward Islam. Today, a quarter of those surveyed said they feel that way.

The survey was done via phone in English with a sample of more than 500 mosques from across the country and based on self-reporting from mosque leaders. The margin of error was plus or minus 5 percent. It’s the first of several surveys Bagby will release through the summer. The others will look at the role of women in mosques, the role of imam’s at mosques, and educational and social programs offered at mosques.

The survey results are meant for a broad audience, but Bagby says he hopes Muslims will gain insight from them, especially the upcoming surveys.

“The ultimate goal is to bring some introspection and understanding so mosque leaders can improve mosque life,” he said.

Bellow are some findings of “The American Mosque 2011: Basic Characteristics of the American Mosque, Attitudes of Mosque Leaders.”

  • The average number membership of an American mosque was 1,248 in 2011, which counts Muslims who at least pray for Eid-al-Fitr, one of two major holidays, at the mosque. That’s down from 1,625 in 2000 and is likely because of a growth in the number of mosques.The total number of mosque participants or “mosqued Muslims” has increased from 2 million in 2000 to over 2.6 million Muslims in 2011. In his study, Bagby writes that “if there are 2.6 million Muslims who pray the Eid prayer, then the total Muslim population should be closer to estimates of up to 7 million.” That contrasts with other surveys, such as a 2010 one by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, which said there were 2.6 million Muslims in the country. A Pew report from last year said there were 2.75 million Muslims.Seventy-six percent of mosques were established since 1980.Shiite mosques are growing. Around 44 percent of all Shiite mosques were established in the 1990s. Approximately 7 percent of mosques identified themselves as Shiite and 37 percent of those are in the West, especially California. Most Shiites at American mosques are South Asians, Arabs and Iranians.A minority of mosques (3 percent) have just one ethnic group that attends. South Asians, Arab-Americans and African-Americans are dominant ethnic groups among mosque members, but significant numbers of Somalis, West Africans and Iraqis now worship at mosques nationwide.The number of mosques in urban areas is decreasing, while the number of mosques in suburban areas is increasing. In 2011, 28 percent of mosques were located in suburbs, up from 16 percent in 2000.The conversion rate per mosque has remained steady over the past two decades. In 2011, the average number of converts per mosque was 15.3. In 2000 the average was 16.3 converts per mosque.The average Friday prayer attendance was 353 compared to 292 in 2000.
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