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Culture & Religion

Archive | Culture & Religion

Lack of Accountability in Myanmar

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Some 90,000 Rohingya now find themselves squeezed into camps near the state capital Sittwe, living in cramped barrack-type shelters. Photo: Mathias Eick

I recently read about yet another vicious attack on Myanmar’s persecuted Rohingya minority. This time, the venue was Du Chee Ya Tan village in the Rakhine state, close to Bangladesh.

Some 90,000 Rohingya now find themselves squeezed into camps near the state capital Sittwe, living in cramped barrack-type shelters. Photo: Mathias Eick

If you think that the rioters shamelessly justified their actions by claiming that the victims were illegal Bengalis trying to sneak into Myanmar, you are correct. For the past many years in Myanmar angry Buddhist mobs have attacked groups of Rohingya Muslims. The carnage follows: killing, raping and looting. This time, news sources claim that members of the Rohingya community had dared to protest against atrocities committed by local Rakhine officials. The protesters were rewarded with brutal acts of violence.

To make matters worse, each time there is an attack on the Rohingya community, the Burmese riot police and army are present in the vicinity, but they choose to be spectators. Of course, the state media claims that nothing happened, and that there were hardly any noticeable instances of violence. The United Nations has described the Rohingya as friendless. In 2012, sectarian violence killed hundreds of Rohingya men and women and has left over 140,000 homeless as entire neighborhoods were razed. According to Human Rights Watch, planned campaigns of ethnic cleansing were conducted. Because the aggressors were local political and religious warlords, the government has chosen to ignore these crimes.

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Much Stays the Same

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"Western Wall" in Jerusalem, Israel.  Photo: Minamie

During the last hundred years, Russia has undergone huge changes. At the beginning, it was ruled by the Czar, in an absolute monarchy with some democratic decorations, a “tyranny mitigated by inefficiency.”

“Western Wall” in Jerusalem, Israel. Photo: Minamie

After the downfall of the Czar, a liberal and equally inefficient regime ruled for a few months, when it was overthrown by the Bolshevik revolution. The “dictatorship of the proletariat” lasted for some 73 years, which means that three generations passed through the Soviet education system. That should have been enough to absorb the values of internationalism, socialism and human dignity, as taught by Karl Marx. The Soviet system imploded in 1991, leaving few political traces behind. After a few years of liberal anarchy under Boris Yeltsin, Vladimir Putin took over. He has proved himself to be an able statesman, making Russia into a world power again. He has also instituted a new autocratic system, clamping down on democracy and human rights.

When we view these events, spanning a century, we are obliged to conclude that after undergoing all these dramatic upheavals Russia is politically more or less where it started. The difference between the realm of Czar Nicholas II and President Putin is minimal. The national aspirations, the general outlook, the regime and the status of human rights are more or less the same. What does that teach us? For me it means that there is something like a national character, which does not change easily, if at all. Revolutions, wars, disasters come and go, and the basic character of a people remain as it was.

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A Look at Muslim-Christian Relations in Ethiopia

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Gathering of African heterodox Muslims in eastern Ethiopia. Photo: Swiatoslaw Wojtkowiak

The Muslim-Christian relationship in Ethiopia has a mixed historical background. Ethiopia is located on a religious fault line, although the relationship between the two religions has been reasonably cordial in recent decades.

Gathering of African heterodox Muslims in eastern Ethiopia. Photo: Swiatoslaw Wojtkowiak

Christian rule has prevailed in the Ethiopian highlands since the early 4th century. Early in the 7th century a group of Arab followers of Islam in danger of persecution by local authorities in Arabia took refuge in the Axumite Kingdom of the Ethiopian highlands. As a result of this generosity, the Prophet Mohammed concluded that Ethiopia should not be targeted for jihad. Not all Muslims took this message seriously and subsequent contact was less cordial. In the late 15th century, Islamic raids from the Somali port of Zeila plagued the Ethiopian highlands. In the first half of the 16th century, the Islamic threat became more serious when Ahmad ibn Ibrahim al Ghazi rallied a diverse group of Muslims in a jihad to end Christian power in the highlands. The Ethiopians finally defeated this threat by the middle of the 16th century.

Although Wahhabi missionaries from the Arabian Peninsula made efforts to penetrate Ethiopia beginning in the 19th century, they had little success until recent decades. During the first half of the 1800s, Egyptian/Ottoman power in neighboring Sudan made periodic incursions inside Ethiopia. In 1875, the khedive of Egypt tried unsuccessfully to conquer Ethiopia entering from the Red Sea. The last major organized threat from Islam occurred in 1888 when the forces of the Mahdi in the Sudan sacked the former Ethiopian capital of Gondar and burned many of its churches. Subsequently, both the Ethiopians and the Mahdists harbored rebels opposed to the other side, creating a tit-for-tat situation that has periodically continued to the present day.

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Meet Kamala Khan: Marvel’s Muslim Superhero

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Kamala Khan is a teenage Muslim girl living in Jersey City.  Source: Marvel Comics

Depending on your socio-political views, you may choose to agree or disagree with me when I say: Islamophobia is in the air. Be it the United States, United Kingdom or even Myanmar, there are a good number of people who view Muslims as a community that is troublesome and refuses to integrate.

Kamala Khan is a teenage Muslim girl living in Jersey City. Source: Marvel Comics

In the midst of all this, it was a pleasant experience to read that Marvel Comics has announced that the leading character in their new comic book series will be a Muslim girl.  Just like all other super-heroes, this one too has a story — Kamala Khan (a.k.a. Ms. Marvel) is an American teenager of Pakistani lineage who hails from New Jersey. Her superpower? Shape-shifting.  As per the comic series, Kamala comes from a conservative and orthodox family (possibly hinting at a crisis between her Muslim and American identities). She has a father who wants his daughter to become a doctor, a paranoid mother and a conservative brother.

While this ‘identity crisis’ talk does not seem refreshing, it surely is not stereotypical either. The name ‘Kamala’ rhymes with ‘Malala’ — again, it can either be a hint that all Muslim females need to be saved, or just a coincidence. It is a question that needs to be asked: will Kamala be portrayed as an independent Muslim female, or is she going to be viewed as just another Muslim girl who is dominated by the patriarchy?

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The Day Kennedy was Assassinated, Gondar, Ethiopia

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Richard Lyman photographed in Ebony magazine listening to President Kennedy address roughly 600 Peace Corps Volunteers, 1962. Just to the right of Kennedy

Fifty years ago today I was a 24 year old Peace Corps Volunteer serving my second year as a teacher at Haile Selassie I School in Gondar, Ethiopia.

Richard Lyman photographed in Ebony magazine listening to President Kennedy address roughly 600 Peace Corps Volunteers, 1962. Just to the right of Kennedy

I was awakened during the night of November 22nd by the sound of a loud radio which wafted through my louvered doors. I thought it curious that anyone would walk around at night with a radio playing. There was pounding on the front door. John Davis (a fellow Peace Corps Volunteer) was standing there and announced that “Kennedy is Dead”.

During our brief training session in the summer of 1962 at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. we were invited to visit the White House to meet President Kennedy. In its November 1962 issue, Ebony Magazine featured an article about our White House visit. In one of the photos my face conspicuously looms out of the audience. I know it is not analogous to the iconic photograph of Bill Clinton shaking JFK’s hand, but it is proof that I was there.

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Examining Armenian-Azerbaijani Territorial Relations and Self-Determination

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Nagorno-Karabakh Republic.  Photo: Sedrak Mkrtchyan

The prominent American astrophysicist, Carl Sagan, wrote in The Varieties of Scientific Experience, “When you look at it (Earth) from space, I think it is immediately clear that it is a fragile, tiny world exquisitely sensitive to the depredations of its inhabitants. There are no national boundaries visible. They have been put there by humans. The planet is real. The life on it is real, and political separations that have placed the planet in danger are of human manufacture.”

Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. Photo: Sedrak Mkrtchyan

Most of us, even politicians will not dispute Sagan’s conclusions. Privately, however, when the issue is presented in the social arena the reaction is more controversial. These patterns apply to a recent speech given by Armenian president, Serzh Sargsyan, in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe on October 2nd titled “Nagorno-Karabakh’s remaining part of Europe”.

Initially, these words would sound ambiguous, if an ordinary Armenian said them. Sargsyan’s speech sounded ambiguous. It is surprising that, on the one hand Armenia doesn’t recognize the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic as a sovereign state but on the other hand Armenia’s president makes a statement on behalf of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. The Armenian state contrives to send Armenian citizens for military service to Nagorno-Karabakh without any international legislative basis, which is rightly opposed by Armenians. Of course, Sargsyan concludes his speech by emphasizing the principle of self-determination.

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Tito’s Shield: Jovanka Broz and Yugoslavia’s Memory

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Jovanka Broz during a visit to Washington, with Josip Broz Tito, Richard Nixon, and Pat Nixon

Jovanka Broz is dead. Her legacy, like so much in the former Yugoslavia, was a troubled one. It is mournful, heavy with a blanket of nostalgia. “With Broz’s death,” cited Serbian Prime Minister Ivica Dačić, “we are left without one of the most reliable witnesses of our former country’s history.”

Jovanka Broz during a visit to Washington, with Josip Broz Tito, Richard Nixon, and Pat Nixon

He also acknowledged the other side of the matter: the vengeful “historical injustice” done to Broz. Broz was one of those extraordinary creatures made extraordinary by history. She was born Jovanka Budisavljević in December 1924 in Lika, Croatia. She joined the partisans at the age of 17, serving till the end of the Second World War in 1945. In 1952, she married Josip Broz, known in the annals as Tito, the mastermind of the modern Yugoslavian state, a key leader of the Non-aligned movement. She remained the state’s first lady for almost three decades, living a life of ostentation as her husband straddled the Cold War divide.

Broz suffered with the country she and her husband presided over. She became effectively stateless at the destruction of the Yugoslavian Socialist federation in the 1990s. She was instrumentally forgotten via state orchestrated amnesia. A veil of silence was drawn around her. Tito himself lost his heroic lustre as the bodies started piling up, with historical scores being settled in bloody fashion. “Brotherhood and unity” had to be replaced by the ethnic sloganeering and patriotic froth of seven new countries.

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The Far-Reaching Impact of Israel’s Religion and State Conflict

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Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men during a demonstration in Beit Shemesh on August 13, 2013. Yonatan Sindel/Flash90

Though many think that the Israeli government’s involvement in religious life is limited to the synagogue, the religion and state conflict has a far-reaching influence on the fabric of daily life for all Israelis. This is clearly seen in the battle waged in recent years over the elimination of women from advertisements and pictures, as well as physically excluding them from public areas. This tension additionally is played out over the debate of public transportation and availability of shopping and services on Shabbat.

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men during a demonstration in Beit Shemesh on August 13, 2013. Yonatan Sindel/Flash90

60% of Israelis support the Attorney General’s proposal to criminalize publicly excluding women publicly. This is a slight decrease in support from 2012, when support was at 64%. It could be due to the fact that the issue was taken off the Knesset’s agenda in the past year. 75% of Secular Israelis, 77% of immigrants, and 63% of the non-Haredi population support the criminalization of publicly excluding women. 73% of college graduates, but only 44% of those with high school diplomas and below support the Attorney General’s proposal. The Labor Party had the highest level of support for criminalization (89%) followed by the centrist and left-wing parties (Meretz, Hatnuah, and Kadima) with 73%.

Proposals for compromises between religious and secular Israelis regarding Shabbat usually include closing shopping centers outside of cities and allowing small grocery and convenience stores to remain open. Surprisingly, the support has become higher for allowing shopping centers outside of cities to remain open. Two-thirds of Israeli Jews (67%) support business hours on Shabbat for shopping centers located outside of cities. 94% of secular Israelis and 31% of Modern Orthodox Israelis also support this.

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Majority of Israelis Support Burden Sharing for Ultra-Orthodox Men

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Thousands of haredim holding a prayer rally in Jerusalem’s Shabbat Square in opposition of the government’s plan to start drafting yeshiva students into military service. Photo: Flash90

“Equality in sharing the national burden” is a cumbersome term that describes the one religion and state issue to make its way to the forefront of Israeli politics in the last few years. The media and policymakers often use this title to refer to drafting ultra-Orthodox men to the army, but the term includes integrating the ultra-Orthodox sector into Israeli society through education, employment and national service as well.

Thousands of haredim holding a prayer rally in Jerusalem’s Shabbat Square in opposition of the government’s plan to start drafting yeshiva students into military service. Photo: Flash90

In the 2013 Religion and State Index, the issues that fall into the category of equality in sharing the burden enjoyed widespread support from the Israeli public. However, the study also indicates that Israelis are divided over whether the government is indeed able to draft ultra-Orthodox men without creating a serious rift in Israeli society.

82% of Israeli Jews support national (army/civil) service for ultra-Orthodox men. This percentage consists of 51% support for army service (with or without exemption for a small amount of exemplary students) and 31% support for civilian national service. These results are almost identical to last year’s results (83% supported mandatory military or national civilian service).

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India’s Dowry Culture

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Indian women march to mourn the death of a gang rape victim in New Delhi, India, Jan. 2. Dar Yasin/AP Photo

In virtually every corner of the globe women are denied basic human rights, beaten, raped, and killed by men. This happened yesterday, it is happening right now, and it will happen tomorrow.

Indian women march to mourn the death of a gang rape victim in New Delhi, India, Jan. 2. Dar Yasin/AP Photo

In many regions of the world, longstanding customs put considerable pressure on women to accept abuse. Patriarchal oppression is seen all over the world, where a woman’s sole purpose in life is to serve her father, brothers, and husband for the entirety of her existence. These women are viewed as second-class citizens and controlled, dominated, and undervalued by modern-day society. This lifelong cycle of violence is a manifestation of the historically unequal power relations between women and men.

Violence against women has a long history in the world, but especially in India. The country’s extreme caste system, cultural customs and gender inequality have aided in the creation a male dominated society. This extreme gender inequality and the continuation of a “culture of silence” are the foremost reasons that violence in India has persisted.

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Pope Francis: Who Am I to Judge?

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The inauguration mass for Pope Francis.  Source: Vatican

Pope Francis has said gay people should not be marginalised but integrated into society. Speaking to reporters on a flight back from Brazil, he reaffirmed the Roman Catholic Church’s position that homosexual acts were sinful, but homosexual orientation was not.

The inauguration mass for Pope Francis. Source: Vatican

He was responding to questions about whether there was a gay lobby in the Vatican: “If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge them?” He also said he wanted a greater role for women in the Church, but insisted they could not be priests. The Pope arrived back in Rome on Monday after a week-long tour of Brazil - his first trip abroad as pontiff - which climaxed with a huge gathering on Rio de Janeiro’s Copacabana beach for a world Catholic youth festival. Festival organisers estimated it attracted more than three million people.

His remarks on gay people are being seen as much less judgemental than his predecessor’s position on the issue. Pope Benedict XVI signed a document in 2005 that said men with deep-rooted homosexual tendencies should not be priests. But Pope Francis said gay clergymen should be forgiven and their sins forgotten: “The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains this very well,” Pope Francis said in a wide-ranging 80-minute long interview with Vatican journalists. Francis went further: “It says they should not be marginalised because of this but that they must be integrated into society.” But he condemned what he described as lobbying by gay people.

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Growth and Challenges for Scientology

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Scientology headquarters in Clearwater, Florida

It’s difficult to tell what direction Scientology is heading in. While census data suggests that their numbers are dwindling, you would never know this judging by the money the church leaders spend, or from the calls for legal suppression coming from other religious groups who fear for the souls of their children.

Scientology headquarters in Clearwater, Florida

Multiple censuses across the world are finding that scientologists are on the decline. In a Swiss report, there has been a 65 percent decline in Scientology membership over 20 years, while Australians claim a 13.5 percent decline in the last five years. The American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) found a strong decline from 55,000 to 45,000 members between 1990 and 2001, but mysteriously their survey fails to report its findings on minor religions in its 2008 survey.

These figures do indicate that Scientology is probably on the decline. The issue becomes more difficult when you consider that some countries, namely Germany, fear Scientology as a threat to the state because it sees its ideas as totalitarian and fascistic. Scientologists and the German government both see each other as oppressive extremists to a degree.

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Cultural Cleansing: EXIT, Novi Sad and Serbian Culture

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Fatboy Slim performing at EXIT. Photo: Momcilo Grujic

It has become one of Europe’s biggest music festivals. The current issue of the inflight travel magazine on Serbia’s national airline JAT goes so far as to call it a global event. They are not the only ones. The name of this barnstorming event is Exit (July 10-14), the venue Novi Sad, Serbia’s second largest city, that beautiful Belgrade on Valium, to use an expression wedged in one of the tour guides. Held at the Austrian built fortress of Petrovaradin, it has become a tourist beacon, a noisy attraction if only for a few days.

Fatboy Slim performing at EXIT. Photo: Momcilo Grujic

Exit, for all its zany excitement, has another story. It’s that of carefully cultivated public relations. Serbia wants admission to the European Union, an inexplicable desire in the broader sense given the implosive potential that arrangement faces. The sense in Serbia is that dictate has followed dictate. Hand over the war criminals. Check. Modernise economic structures. Check. Have hearty festivals of noisy welcome. Check.

Such trumpeting, it is assumed, will get you far in the cultural stakes. And Serbia has been a victim as well as a villain of playing the culture game when it comes to gaining acceptance in the European community. Rogues one day become the fairy tale heroes the next. Roles shift; images dance and alter. The narrative of the brute has been replaced by the narrative of the party reveller.

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Peace Corps Diary: Ethiopia 1962-1964 Part 18

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Pictured: Ato Nefse, Aba Gebrameskel, Ato Ketema Kifle, Ato Maorei and Ato Beru

April 11, 1964 was the night of the big farewell party for our school director, Ato Ketema Kifle.

Pictured: Ato Nefse, Aba Gebrameskel, Ato Ketema Kifle, Ato Maorei and Ato Beru

Several times he made trips to Addis to lobby the Ministry of Education for a promotion and he finally received one and was appointed the director of a school in Harar. Mr. Ooman, the very efficient assistant director of our school took charge of planning the event. At first there was a great debate between those who wanted a sedate cookies and punch affair and those who wished to have an alcohol fueled event. The debate wasn’t even close and the latter event prevailed.

Mr. Ooman arranged for the party to be held in the back room of the electric company. The paparrazo from the Foto Vito Shop on the piazza was present so it was a very well documented event. The photographer would line up little groupings for numerous pictures just like in the society pages of a newspaper. As was my usual practice I dropped by his shop the next day to buy up all the embarrassing photos of myself. He had a stealthy way of operating so to this day I cannot recall what he looked like.

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The Death of Giulio Andreotti and Modern Italy

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Giulio Andreotti, the former prime minister of Italy, died last week at the age of 94

Giulio Andreotti was a creature of the Italian post-war scene, with its astonishing volatility and kaleidoscopic deals. Unlike his opponents, he proved astonishingly versatile. He seemingly occupied every notable position in Italian cabinets he could before his death at the age of 94.

Giulio Andreotti, the former prime minister of Italy, died last week at the age of 94

He was elected to parliament in 1946, and proved to be a masterful if ruthless architect in shaping Alcide de Gasperi’s Christian Democracy Party. During the Second World War, he proved busy cultivating the contacts among the Catholic establishment that would prove crucial in subsequent decades. The odd feature of this behaviour was that he always seemed to exert influence from the shadows, a dealmaker who would, so went the popular depiction, been welcomed by the devil. He was prime minister seven times. He was minister of the interior, defense and foreign minister at stages. He was always stepping into the limelight.

Andreotti professionalised politics, making its pursuit inseparable from him as a being. He gravitated to power in the manner of lustful desire, a creature of heat who seemingly operated in the manner of that Italian expression that it is far better to have power than shag. (These are hardly mutually exclusive, but governing can have its distractions.)

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