Osama bin Laden+Jesus=Art?

On August 29, 2007 the winner of the 2007 Blake Prize was announced.  According to the Blake Prize website, “The Blake Prize for Religious Art is one of the more prestigious art prizes in Australia. For 55 years it has been awarding a prize for works of art that explore the subject of religious awareness and spirituality.”  This year’s winner was Shirley Purdie and her piece “Stations of the Cross”.  However, the winning piece isn’t what people are talking about.

“The Fourth Secret of Fatima” by Luke Sullivan and “Bearded Orientals: Making the Empire Cross” by Priscilla Bracks are all anyone wants to discuss.  “The Fourth Secret of Fatima” is a statue of Mary wearing a burqa and “Bearded Orientals” pairs a portrait of Christ with one of terrorist Osama bin Laden looking like Jesus.  The inclusion of these two pieces are causing quite a stir in Australia.  To see these pieces click here

Australian Prime Minister John Howard was quoted in “The Daily Telegraph” saying, “The choice of such artwork is gratuitously offensive to the religious beliefs of many Australians.”  Sydney’s Catholic Archbishop, Cardinal George Pell, has been quite vocal with his displeasure, “Some contemporary art is tedious and trivial.  These couple of works demonstrate this.  Regrettably, attempts to insult Jesus and Mary have become common in recent years, even predictable.  Too often it seems that the only quality which makes something ‘art’ is the adolescent desire to shock.  If this is the best the Blake Prize can do, it has probably outlived its usefulness.”  (I have to point out here, that obviously these two pieces weren’t “the best the Blake Prize can do” since a totally different piece won the $15,000 prize.)
 
Enough about the Catholics, what do Australian Muslims have to say about all this hooplah?  Ikebal Patel, the President of the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils offers some unique perspectives.  He is quoted in the “Sydney Morning Herald” saying, “So [Mary wearing a burqa is] no different to how our mothers and sisters are expected to be modest in their dressing.”  He explains that the statue is not at all offensive because both the Virgin Mary and Jesus are revered figures in Islam.  However, Patel was offended in many different ways by “Bearded Orientals”.  “You have a revered prophet of Islam (that would be Jesus) being equated to somebody like Osama bin Laden.  Also in Islam, we don’t have any paintings or drawings depicting any of our prophets, so I find it quite offensive,” he states.
 
Look at all this debate!  The Anglican Bishop of south Sydney, Robert Forsyth, is quoted saying, “Is the one of Mary having a go at religions for oppressing women?”  (My new friends at Roman Catholic Womenpriests, probably have something to say to that!)  According to the “Washington Post”, Bracks (the artist who did “Bearded Orientals” told Australian radio, “I’m interested in having a discussion, and asking questions about how we think about our world and what we accept, and what we don’t accept.”  Reverend Pattenden, Blake Society Chairman, says neither of the two artists had set out to offend anyone, and he was not personally affronted, “They are both works which made me stop and think.”
 
Now I ask you this, isn’t that what art is all about?

The Fes Festival is Cool

When we decided to add a blog to The Magical Buffet’s website, the idea was that it would end up being this kind of fluffy thing where I would spend time going, “Isn’t this thing cool?”  Instead, I’ve somehow ended up spending time learning about Roman Catholic Canon Law, discussing the misrepresentation of Wicca, and most recently, trying to wrap my brain around the Malaysian Constitution.  Which is why I was concerned when I decided I wanted to write about the Fes Festival that recently took place.
 
I told Jim, I want to write about this festival, but all I really have to say about it is that it is really cool.  Shouldn’t there be more?  He assured me that it was okay to just write about something because it was cool, so here we go.
 
The 13th annual Fes Festival of World Sacred Music took place June 1 to the June 10 of this year.  If you’re like me, you’ve never heard of this thing, and if you’re like me, the more you learn the more you wish you could go. 
 
After the Gulf War, two Islamic scholars decided to start an interfaith music festival in Morocco to promote peace.  It is held each year in Fez, a medieval city over 1000 years old.  Performers from around the world gather in Fez to share their music, making it a cultural melting pot of races and faiths. 
 
2007 marks the 800th anniversary of the Islamic sage and poet Jalaluddin Rumi (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jalaluddin_Rumi) so various concerts and rituals throughout the festival were in celebration of Rumi and his teachings.  The free concerts included, Latefa Raefat (Morocco), Majda Yahyaqui (a female Moroccan artist performing malhoun music, which is typically done by men), Said Bey (who performs rai and malhoun blended with funky bits of flamenco and salsa), Amarg Fusion (This group is a symbol of Amazigh culture), the London Community Gospel Choir, Johnny Clegg (“Zulu Rock”, which is African song with electric guitar), Elias Karam (Syrian performer), and obviously many more.
 
It’s not just music; they also host “Fes Encounters”, where politicians, activists, and academics are brought together to discuss urgent issues.  Past topics have been conflict resolution, climate change, social justice, and urban renewal.  This year they discussed cultural diversity versus globalization and the relationship between faith and reason.  They broke them down into 3 days.  Day one, “Our cultural identities vs. globalization.”  Day two, “Our heritage cities: reflections of an ancient world or an imaginative resource for the future?”  And day three, “Our beliefs and our reason put to the test in the new world.”
 
Oh, and all of this is taking place in a country where 98.7% of the population are Muslim.  (1.1% are Christian and 0.2% are Jewish, in case you were curious)  That is right, an Islamic culture is not only hosting these festivals, they came up with the idea in the first place.  In my opinion, the Fes Festival proves that there is room for everyone in the world, regardless of faith.  That is why I am writing this blog, because the Fes Festival is cool.
 
Want to learn more, visit their website: www.fesfestival.com, just be sure when you get there you click on the English option, unless you speak French or Arabic!
 
Want to learn even more?  Well, I could go next year and write about it that way you would hear about it first hand.  Make checks payable to Rebecca Elson.  I’ll be sure to send you a postcard!

The Malaysian Conundrum

On Wednesday May 30, 2007 Malaysia’s highest court ruled that they did not have the authority to help Lina Joy, a Malay Muslim, officially convert to Christianity and have that change reflected on her National Identity Card.   Depending on what you know about the Malaysian Constitution and their judicial system, this may or may not surprise you.  Obviously, I found it distressing.  When I then learned that Article 11, clause 1, of the Malaysian Constitution states, “Every person has the right to profess and practice his religion and, subject to Clause 4, to propagate it.” I grew more confused.  I should also mention that Article 3, clause 1, is “Islam is the religion of the Federation; but other religions may be practiced in peace and harmony in any part of the Federation.”  So why is Lina Joy screwed?  Welcome to the nightmare of the Malaysian Constitution butting heads with the Malaysian judicial system, and religion.
 
“This Constitution is the supreme law of the Federation and any law passed after Merdeka Day which is inconsistent with this Constitution shall, to the extent of inconsistency, be void,” Article 4, clause 1, the Malaysian Constitution.  Of course, the Malaysian Constitution is enough to make the average person bash their head against the wall, or maybe that was just me.  The Constitution became official in 1957 and has been amended approximately 42 times up through 2005.  The wrinkle is that every batch of amendments only counts as one, regardless of how many changes were actually made each time the Constitution was amended.  Thus, some scholars estimate that the true number of amendments has been more like 650.  Ouchie.  To help with your perspective, the United States Constitution, including the Bill of Rights and subsequent amendments, takes up roughly nineteen 81/2×11 pages.  The Malaysian Constitution, in a similar font and format, uses up one hundred and sixty three 81/2×11 pages.  Most authorities agree that the Malaysian document was deliberately vague, because the founding fathers were unwilling to upset any of the three dominant groups at the time of independence from Britain, when building a multiracial and peaceful nation was more important.  Upon reading the document, a brain buster to say the least, I can safely say that the Malaysian Constitution is a somewhat conflicting piece of governance.  Among loads of things, it allows for the freedom of faith, yet it says that Islam is the official religion.  Anyone who understands the importance of separation of Church and State knows that this is a recipe for disaster.
 
I found several different numbers, so I’m taking the average.  Approximately 54% of Malaysians are Muslim, with the remainder being Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, and Sikh.  Malaysia has long served as an example of the world’s most progressive and modern Muslim democracies.  I don’t want to put down Malaysia, it’s blend of religion and cultures is impressive and made for an awesome episode of “No Reservations” with Anthony Bourdain, but the more I’ve been learning, the more I have to say that Malaysia has some issues that terrify a born and raised American.  Here is where the fun starts.  Most native Malays, like Joy, are Muslim and have been for generations.  Muslims, by order of their faith have certain requirements, and in an effort of the Malaysian government to better serve the Muslim needs, which have different laws that apply to them, a Muslim’s National Identity Card identifies them as Islam.  In addition, to better serve the Muslim populations, they have their own court, the Shariah courts.  These courts deal in the family and personal affairs of Muslim citizens.  Civil courts see to the affairs of everyone else.  Bumiputra, Malays and other indigenous people, who are primarily Muslim, benefit from a 30 year-old program of privileges that require certain levels of ownership by bumiputra to be maintained and enforce hiring quotas within large companies.  Obviously, those standards continuing are dependent on the bumiputra staying a majority in Malaysia, and that religious conversions potentially can mess with those numbers.  All of this lays the groundwork for how Lina Joy was screwed.
 
In 1990, Azlina Jailani began attending a Christian church.  In 1998, she became baptized and filled out the paper work to have her name legally changed to Lina Joy.  She also requested that her religion on her National Identity Card be changed to Christian, so that she could marry her Christian fiancé.  Muslims in Malaysia are not allowed by law to marry people of other faiths.  The intended spouse is expected to convert to Islam.  Her name was legally changed, but both times she made the request to have Islam removed from the card, it was refused because she was ethnic Malay and was legally Muslim and could not change religions.  Citing Article 4, 3, and 11 of the Malaysian Constitution, Joy took her case to the civil courts, because she was a baptized Christian and felt that the Shariah courts should not be involved in the matter.
 
The Federal Court was divided 2 to 1 in its decision that the matter was beyond the jurisdiction of the country’s civil courts and must be handled by religious authorities.  Chief Justice Ahmad Fairuz Abdul Halim said that the government agency responsible for identity cards acted reasonably when it refused to change Joy’s religious status.  According to the International Herald Tribune, he was quoted as saying, “She cannot at her own whim simply enter or leave her religion.  She must follow the rules.”  Yep, 8 years is very whimsical.  Silly girl.
 
What are these rules that Joy should follow?  She must offer proof in a special Muslim court that she has abandoned Islam and that the civil courts cannot interfere.  Oh, that’s not so tough.  Bearing in mind that according to Leonard Teoh Hooi Leong, a lawyer representing the Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism, and Taoism (they’re called MCCBCHST for short…I’m serious), Joy will have a very difficult time getting the Islamic authorities to allow her to leave Islam.  No one in recent years has done it in the federal territory of Kuala Lumpur, where Joy is registered.  He says that those who have tried have been threatened and cajoled.  Um, okay.  That’s tougher.  Oh, by the way, the abandonment of Islam is called apostasy, is deplored by many Muslims, and in several Malaysian states is punishable by fines and imprisonment.  (To show how progressive Malaysia is, in other Muslim countries the punishment could be death.)  Lina Joy’s fate now rests with the Shariah courts, and that would be why she is screwed.  The Malaysian Constitution does not clearly state who has the final say in such matters and so by default it goes to the Islamic court.
 
Judge Richa
rd Malanjum, the one dissenting opinion, was quoted in the International Herald Tribune as saying Joy’s “fundamental constitutional right of freedom of religion” had been violated.  Also, “She is entitled to have an identity card in which the word Islam does not appear.”  Calling the agency’s refusal to officially change her religion “an abuse of power.”
 
Well amen brother!  The older I get, the more I appreciate the simplicity, yet effectiveness, of the United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights.  After trying to learn and weave my way through this mess, I would kiss every last person involved with the Philadelphia Convention.  Moreover, I don’t mean that figuratively.  Go!  Dig up their bones!  After learning all this, I appreciate them enough I would French kiss their decomposed remains!  Take heed friends, Malaysia is a shining example of what happens when there isn’t an effective separation of Church and State, and when civil liberties are whittled away at.  The next time someone is willing to make a concession and gives away even a sliver of our rights, all it’s doing is making it easier for them to take more away. 
 
In honor of Lina Joy and her plight, take a moment to read the Constitution of the United States of America, its Bill of Rights, and subsequent amendments.  Savor the freedoms that our Constitution gives us that poor Lina Joy does not have access to.  http://www.constitutioncenter.org/constitution/constitution.pdf
 
 
 
Obviously, a dumb average American like me does not innately know all about the Malaysian Constitution and justice system.  I read many articles and visited many sites to cobble this together.  If you want to walk in my footsteps, here are the many websites I visited and articles I read:
 
http://www.iht.com/articles/2007/05/30/news/malaysia.php
http://www.asianews.it/index.php?l=en&art=9403&size=A
http://www.nysun.com/article/55680
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Constitution_of_Malaysia
http://www.pogar.org/publications/other/constitutions/malaysia-e.pdf (all 163 pages of Malaysian Constitutional headache!)
http://article11.org/
http://www.malaysianbar.org.my/content/view/1834/27/