An unholy alliance (fwd)
jm at jmason.org
Tue Nov 4 10:22:13 PST 2003
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There's been too much politics. Let's talk religion! ;) Some interesting
religion bits from the subscriber-only depths of New Scientist.
Translation: fundies of all stripes are happy to make up, if it means they
can torpedo the latest godless atheistic science together.
An unholy alliance
New Scientist vol 180 issue 2419 - 01 November 2003, page 21
Muslims have diverse views on scientific ethics, yet only the
conservatives are heard. And a Muslim-Vatican deal is not helping,
warns Ehsan Masood
EVEN in the atmosphere of mutual suspicion and hatred that has arisen
between the Muslim world and the west following 9/11 and the war in Iraq,
one thing remains clear: in Islam, as in Christianity, there are many
voices. It makes as little sense to speak of a single Muslim view of, for
example, free market economics as it does a Christian one. What is true
in politics is equally true in science. Yet in science, the diversity of
Islamic voices is not getting heard. On everything from stem cell research
to abortion, the conservative line is crowding out more liberal views.
An unofficial alliance forged this year between Archbishop Michael
Fitzgerald, a top Vatican official, and Abdulaziz Sachedina, a leading
Muslim bioethicist at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville,
seems likely to reinforce this trend. The two called for more dialogue
between Catholics and Muslims. This is undoubtedly a good idea. But the
alliance was also designed to push the Vatican's agenda on issues like
abortion, stem cells and condoms.
In this it is damaging, for many Muslims have views on these matters
that are quite different from the Vatican's. Moreover, a failure to
foster religious and intellectual freedom could seriously undermine
scientific and technological progress in Muslim countries, as a report
on Arab development published by the UN Development Programme last week
While the Catholic Church has an official line on technology, faith
and ethics, Islam is not monolithic. "A diversity of views does exist
and derives from the various schools of jurisprudence, different sects
within Islam, differences in cultural background and different levels
of religious observance," says Abdallah Daar, director of applied ethics
and biotechnology at the University of Toronto.
Take nuclear weapons. Iran's former president Hashemi Rafsanjani told
a Friday prayer congregation in August that Islam does not permit the
development of weapons "that destroy humanity". Yet in December 2002,
a fatwa from Egypt's Al Azhar University in Cairo had said precisely
the opposite: that the Koran urges the faithful to "be fully aware of
its enemies in order to enable Muslims to prepare and to have at least
equal means of deterrence - if not greater means".
Bioethics is no different. Mainstream Muslim opinion says, for example,
that third parties should not be allowed to donate eggs or sperm to
couples seeking IVF treatment. Nor is surrogacy permitted. "Islamic
teachings limit procreation to between husband and wife only," says
Mohammed Albar, a consultant in Islamic medical ethics in Jeddah,
Saudi Arabia. But according to Marcia Inhorn, an anthropologist at
the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor who is studying infertility in
Middle Eastern countries, the authorities in Iran do not necessarily
agree. Having children is considered such a crucial part of marriage in
Muslim societies that infertile couples sometimes end up divorcing. Iran's
spiritual leader allows infertile couples to use third-party donor sperm
and eggs to prevent them from splitting up, Inhorn says.
Muslim academics often voice contrarian viewpoints on biomedical
ethics. The Iranian philosopher of science, Abdolkarim Soroush, for
example, says he can find nothing in Islam that prevents animal-to-human
transplants. Nor can he see any reason why couples should not be allowed
to choose the sex of their baby - two issues on which Muslim and Catholic
conservatives take a more restrictive line.
Even on abortion, the most forbidden territory of all, there is a
divergence of views. A fatwa issued by the Islamic Jurisprudence Council
of Saudi Arabia in 1990 allows abortion up to 120 days after conception
if a fetus is "grossly malformed". What this means is that Saudi Arabia,
one of the world's most conservative Muslim countries, is significantly
more liberal than the Vatican, which has decreed that abortion should
be permitted only if the mother's life is in danger.
Why is there such pluralism in Islam? Unlike Catholicism and most other
Christian churches, Islam has no official priesthood. Religious leaders
do exist, but they are, technically speaking, first among equals. The
upside of this is that individual Muslims have the power to make their
The downside is that almost anyone can set themselves up as an expert with
a legitimate Islamic point of view. This makes it easier for organisations
like the Catholic church to seek out Muslim voices that sound like their
own - and vice versa. And this is what is happening. Even at the UN,
the Vatican, conservatives from the US, and Muslim states often flex
their combined muscle to defeat measures they dislike.
For Muslim countries, such an alliance offers a rare chance to be seen
by Washington conservatives as the good guys. The casualties are the
millions of ordinary Muslims - and indeed Christians - whose legitimate
views are crowded out in the name of a spurious consensus.
Ehsan Masood is a London-based journalist
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