Would transplants from pigs to people break religious dietary laws?

From the department of Applying Ancient Religious Beliefs to Modern Technologies…

We have an article from Ari Stillman at ReligionDispatches.org about the possibility of growing human organs in pigs for transplantation into humans. Apparently, pigs have already generated “human blood” after being injected with human blood cells.

According to the Telegraph of London, these techniques could provide a solution to the current shortage of available organs.

Professor Hiromitsu Nakauchi, director of the centre for stem cell biology and regenerative medicine at the University of Tokyo in Japan, tells the Telegraph: “Our ultimate goal is to generate human organs from induced pluripotent stem cells…”The technique, called blastocyst complementation, provides us with a novel approach for organ supply. We have successfully tried it between mice and rats. We are now rather confident in generating functional human organs using this approach.”

Stillman raises the very interesting question of whether traditional Judaism and Islam — which prohibit the eating of pork — would allow for “xenotransplantation” using pigs.

Scholars from both traditions say that saving a life generally takes precedence over other rules.

And the pig would not actually be eaten, but would only, well, produce organs that would become part of human bodies. Hmmm.

Stillman writes: “Of course, the question is bound to surface at some point as to whether they have to use a pig? Why not another animal so as to save the trouble of these religious debates? Unfortunately (or quite fortunately, depending on your orientation), pigs are anatomically and physiologically similar to man. Coupled with their low maintenance, it makes them ideal surrogates for the growth of human organs. If you believe in intelligent design and techno-determinism, then maybe this is just indicative of God’s progressive sense of irony.”

(AP Photo/David Duprey)

A public Muslim service in Peekskill

I just got back from Pugsley Park in Peekskill, where the Islamic Center of Peekskill held a very public celebration of Eid ul-Fitr, the Islamic festival that marks the end of Ramadan.

The group held their prayers and celebration outdoors so their non-Muslim neighbors could see them.

Several senior members and the groups’ imam, a 45-year-old fellow from Senegal, told me that public perceptions of Muslims will only change when non-Muslims see how Muslims act and live.

During his sermon, Imam Papa Sall repeatedly said that Muslims have to be true to themselves by living honorable, honest lives that will influence the way non-Muslims understand their faith. Words won’t do, he said.

It was a quiet morning on Main Street in Peekskill. Many people were at work, of course. A good number of people slowed down in their cars to see what was happening, but then went off to continue their day.

It was interesting, at least to me, that the Islamic Center of Peekskill chose to have this first public celebration just as Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf is FINALLY making the media rounds to talk about himself and the plans for the downtown Islamic center.

Maybe it’s time for a Muslim public relations firm to get off the ground and to help Muslim groups in the U.S. figure out how to better communicate with all those Americans who still know nada about Islam and are unlikely to ever pick up a Quran.

The Muslim community in the U.S. is growing by the day. Its leaders must be more visible and must do a better job of communicating.

At Pugsley Park, the Islamic Center set up a table of pamphlets. I saw many of the same pamphlets I’ve seen at various mosques and Islamic events over the years.

But “Islam: The True Religion of God” and “Who Invented the Trinity” won’t cut it anymore. They’re proselytizing tracts that might have been enough when no one was paying attention to Islam. Today, they’re liking to offend passers-by.

The American Muslim community has to do better.

Why did he stab the cabbie?

The story of Michael Enright, the Putnam County guy who allegedly stabbed a Muslim cab driver yesterday, will draw national attention for some time.

At least until we have some idea why he did it.

The cabbie, Ahmed H. Sharif, has made clear that he believes he was stabbed because he is a Muslim.

Just got a press release announcing that a coalition of Muslim groups on Monday at the National Press Club in D.C. will release a “public service announcement” that responds to the Great Mosque Controversy and the cabbie stabbing.

It says: “The PSA will showcase American Muslims of diverse ages and backgrounds responding to the fears and concerns many Americans may have about Islam and Muslims.”

The producer of the PSA, a fellow by the name of David Hawa, says: “I think people need to hear from the average American Muslim about who we are and where we stand. This PSA will give me and other American Muslims the opportunity to talk directly to the American public –  free of any fear that politics or agendas are driving the discussion.”

Two other “Islam-related” notes:

1. In case you missed it, while I was on vacation, the Pew Forum released a poll showing that 18 percent of Americans believe President Obama is a Muslim. Only 34 percent of adults say he is a Christian.

Wow.

From the release:

*****

According to the survey, nearly one-in-five Americans (18%) now say Obama is a Muslim — an increase from 11% in March 2009. Only about one-third of adults (34%) say Obama is a Christian, a sharp decrease from 48% in 2009. Fully 43% say they do not know what Obama’s religion is. The survey was completed in early August, before Obama’s recent comments about the proposed construction of a mosque near the site of the former World Trade Center.

The belief that Obama is a Muslim has increased most sharply among Republicans (up 14 points since 2009), especially conservative Republicans (up 16 points). But the number of independents who say Obama is a Muslim has also increased significantly (up eight points). There has been little change in the number of Democrats who say Obama is a Muslim, but fewer Democrats today say he is a Christian (down nine points since 2009).

*****

2. Politico has a story about a group of American imams visiting the Auschwitz and Dachau concentration camps.

The group stopped to pray at Dachau. An organizer said: “All of the tourists stopped in their tracks. I don’t think anyone has ever seen anything like it.”

Photo: (New York Taxi Worker Alliance)

Have you heard there are plans for a mosque near Ground Zero?

Back from vacation. A good (and sunny time) was had by all.

I’ll share my beach reading list in a day or two.

When I left, the GROUND ZERO MOSQUE controversy was a big story. Not it is a BIG STORY.

The Boston Globe and Portland Press Herald — yes, I was in Maine — had coverage every day. And it seems that every politician and interest group in the country has had something to say about whether the Islamic community center should be built.

What’s going on here? Lots of things, of course.

There seems to be a legitimate question of whether an Islamic center two blocks from Ground Zero is simply too much — symbolically — for those who lost loved ones on 9/11 or otherwise had their lives changed forever. If a survivor feels that a mosque in that location would be inappropriate, who is to tell her (or him) that they are wrong?

The “They can build it, but not there” camp seems to be growing.

At the same time, this whole debate/controversy has revealed a deep anti-Muslim antipathy that some would like to take mainstream.

Many protesters make generalizations about Muslims or Islamic practice that show that we’ve learned little about a faith followed by 1.3 billion people. A Brooklyn plumber who attended yesterday’s anti-mosque rally has been widely quoted as saying that the people behind the project are “the same people who took down the twin towers.”

The whole debate is a classic example of a truism of public relations: “If you don’t define yourself, someone else will.”

As I’ve written before, the man behind the mosque proposal — Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf — and his advisers have done a terrible job of explaining themselves.

They seem to have not realized that their plans would provoke opposition.

They’ve done and said almost nothing to explain who they are — truly moderate Muslims — and why their project would be good for New York.

It’s almost hard to believe that Rauf is currently in the Middle East, representing the U.S. State Department, as his good name gets torn apart at home. Who’s running the show?

A terrific article in today’s Washington Post outlines Rauf’s utter failure at P.R.:

*****

So far, debate has been framed around whether a $100 million, 15-story Muslim community center and mosque should be built two blocks from where Islamic radicals brought down the World Trade Center. But interviews with people who know Rauf suggest that the project isn’t much more than an idea and that Rauf’s most controversial trait may be his ambition.

While he portrays himself as someone who runs two influential interfaith nonprofits (his Web site says he is “regarded as one of the world’s most eloquent and erudite Muslim leaders”), neither one has a staff, and the project that has inspired outrage hasn’t even begun fundraising, said Rauf’s wife and work partner, Daisy Khan.

*****

I’ve interviewed Rauf several times and believe that most Americans would like him if they got to know him.

But it’s probably too late for that.

Rauf and his wife, Daisy, needed to do an hour on Oprah.

Instead, they let a bunch of politicians introduce them to America.

(AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

ADL opposition to ‘Ground Zero mosque’ leads to a debate in itself

The Anti-Defamation League’s opposition to the so-called “Ground Zero mosque” is getting a lot of attention, for good reason.

Abe Foxman and his ADL are famous for fighting to protect the rights of religious minorities (namely, Jews). Its motto: “To stop the defamation of the Jewish people…to secure justice and fair treatment for all.”

So many will say, no doubt, that its position on the mosque goes against the group’s historical mission.

If you read the ADL’s statement, they’re basically saying that Muslims have every right to build a mosque in NYC, but to do so near Ground Zero is just too much for the survivors of 9/11.

The final paragraph sums things up:

*****

Proponents of the Islamic Center may have every right to build at this site, and may even have chosen the site to send a positive message about Islam.  The bigotry some have expressed in attacking them is unfair, and wrong.  But ultimately this is not a question of rights, but a question of what is right.  In our judgment, building an Islamic Center in the shadow of the World Trade Center will cause some victims more pain – unnecessarily – and that is not right.

*****

But the ADL also raises more serious questions about the Cordoba Initiative, which is seeking to build the Islamic center:

*****

In recommending that a different location be found for the Islamic Center, we are mindful that some legitimate questions have been raised about who is providing the funding to build it, and what connections, if any, its leaders might have with groups whose ideologies stand in contradiction to our shared values.  These questions deserve a response, and we hope those backing the project will be transparent and forthcoming.

*****

Gubernatorial candidate Rick Lazio, who is building his candidacy around opposition to the Islamic center, is hailing the ADL’s stance:

*****

The Anti-Defamation League deserves praise for their courage in taking the responsible and correct position of supporting my call for more transparency in the financing of this 100 million dollar Mosque at Ground Zero. Andrew Cuomo could end the public’s concern on the Cordoba Initiative by simply doing his job and shed the necessary light on this project. Andrew Cuomo must show the same political courage demonstrated by the Anti-Defamation League.

*****

Commentator Jeffrey Goldberg says the ADL made a “terrible decision.”

He writes on the Atlantic’s blog: “The fight is not between the West and Islam; it is between modernists of all monotheist faiths, on the one hand, and the advocates of a specific strain of medievalist Islam, on the other. If we as a society punish Muslims of good faith, Muslims of good faith will join the other side. It’s not that hard to understand. I’m disappointed that the ADL doesn’t understand this.”

Rabbi Irwin Kula, president of the NYC-based National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, told the NYT: “The ADL should be ashamed of itself. Here, we ask the moderate leaders of the Muslim community to step forward, and when one of them does, he is treated with suspicion.”


Catching up on 9/11

It’s been a few days since I posted, as I’ve been trying to transition to my new life as a GA — general assignments — reporter.

I’ve been busy roaming around around, talking to people about the war in Afghanistan. Should we increase troops, pull the troops out or what? My story is out today, on the anniversary of 9/11 (which I’ll get to in a moment).

I have to say that I really appreciate the many emails and phone calls I’ve gotten from people about the demise of the religion beat here at LoHud/The Journal News. It means a lot to hear that people appreciated my coverage of religion for the last 12-plus years.

I understand that people feel it’s a mistake for LoHud/TJN to stop covering religion. But I also understand the very difficult challenges facing this business. We’re cutting back in many ares and trying to do other things well. Sometimes, there are no easy answers.

This is a tough week for me because the Religion Newswriters Association is holding its annual conference, in Minneapolis this year, and I’m not there. I’ve been to 8 or 9 conferences and  really enjoyed getting to know a group of reporters dedicated to covering religion as best they could.

It’s a smaller gathering this year, as many newspapers have been cutting out their religion coverage. The Boston Globe’s Michael Paulson, who is in Minneapolis, writes on his blog about the religion beat being “endangered” (and has a few nice words to say about me).

So today it’s 9/11.

It was in the days after the attacks — and the weeks and months — that many people wrote and said that religion coverage was especially important to highlight and explain everything happening in the world today.

And explain we did.

Much of the coverage has focused, of course, on Islam, which was still a pretty mysterious (world) religion to most people before the attacks. I think it’s safe to say that people who want to know something about Islam now do.

Covering Islam has been no easy task for most journalists in this country. Why? We talk to and write about Muslims in America, who often see the world very differently from Muslims in Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan or Iraq.

Many of the outrageous things we read about Muslims in the world — people being stoned, people being arrested for converting, a woman facing trial for wearing pants — are outrageous to Muslims who live and work in the U.S. And I can tell you, American Muslims are beyond tired of having to explain and apologize for the actions of people far, far away.

A new study from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life shows that Americans, by and large, see Muslims as facing a great deal of discrimination — more than any group in society other than gays and lesbians.

Forty-five percent of the public says Islam is no more likely to encourage violence than other religions. Thirty-eight percent say that Islam is more likely to encourage violence.

But which Islam are we taking about? How it’s practiced in Pakistan or in Ohio?

A surprise to me: 45 percent of Americans say they know a Muslim personally. I would have expected 20 percent or something like that.

But get this: Only 41 percent of those polled could identify the name Muslims use for God (Allah) and their holy book (the Koran). I mean, what have you been doing for the last eight years?

Regardless, if you want to relive the emotions that Americans felt after 9/11 and the many questions that people asked, check out some of the video excerpts and interviews that made up the PBS special “Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero.”

Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete, the prominent theologian from NY, said this:

*****

What does that mean? It means a boundary has been broken that opens up the floodgates to unstoppable horror, because human is all we are, all we can be, all we can appeal to. It’s our safety net. … But here, the more you show your humanity, the more you’re hated. I’ve never seen anything like this. And I saw it.

To me, to distract one from this, to look for explanations, is obscene. It’s an offense against the reality of what happened — an offense against our humanity — to look for political explanations, economic explanations, diplomatic explanations. “Oh, it’s American foreign policy. It is the arrival into our shores of the Palestinian-Israeli fight. It is globalization. It is the cultural wars. It is American imperialism.” All of that is proposed by the “Yes, but” brigade who got to work immediately after the explosion. It is obscene and irresponsible, because we were facing an attack, a hatred of humanity which is what we all have in common. It’s our line of defense, our only one. And now that was gone. …

The people who did this, who planned it, who brought it about, I don’t know what their theology or their ideology is. I take them at their word; they died with the name of God on their lips. People say they were sincere; well, yes, they were. They believed. This is an act for them that was a sincere act, the worship of their God. I take them at their word. Does that make them any less evil? Oh, but no, that precisely is the monstrosity. If they were not sincere, it would be a terrible thing, but … it is the sincerity, it is the free will. I mean, they willed this to happen. They willed the destruction of humanity, of humanness, of everybody in that place on that day at the World Trade Center. This was a freely willed act, very sincere. And this sincerity is one of the horrible characteristics of the face of evil I saw that day. …

Michael Jackson as pop theologian (and celebrity god)

Wondering this morning if there was a religious dimension to the life — or death — of Michael Jackson, I came across reports that he had converted to Islam.

Somehow I had missed it.

Reading several reports from last year about his conversion, it’s not clear to me that he really did become a Muslim. The guy was pretty reclusive, after all. And he could have changed his mind by now. But it’s possible.

We know that he spent most of his life as a Jehovah’s Witness. And that he was, well, Michael Jackson, with everything that being Michael Jackson entails.

Anthea Butler, an historian of American religion who is in residence at Harvard Divinity School’s Women’s Studies in Religion Program, writes on ReligionDispatches today that MJ was something of a tabloid god.

If you think about it, it makes some sense.

It’s been over the last 25 years or so — the age of Jackson — that America has become a celebrity-worshiping nation. I know we’ve always loved Marilyn and Bogart and Bing and all those guys, but things have been different since the ’80s.

Celebrities now dominate the news, the royalty of our culture. And Michael Jackson was the king — or a god.

Butler also notes the spiritual, if humanistic, component of MJ’s songs. And I guess you can find it, if you can put aside some of the ugliness and weirdness that surrounded the last third of his life.

She writes:

*****

Yet, for all of the crass tabloid fodder, Michael was his best when singing these hopeful songs that called listeners to become a better human being. He most certainly reached more people than the average religious figure, and his songs had an affect on an entire generation weaned on MTV. His own religious journey, from his childhood as a Jehovah’s Witness, to a foray in the Nation of Islam, to finally professing Shahada to become a Muslim, shows an interior struggle, despite all of the fame, to find the peace he so often sang about. In all of the accolades and obituaries to come, Jackson will never be called a theologian, though he was one. A Pop theologian, to be sure, but a theologian nonetheless. Struggling with his humanity, half man, half child, he danced as much to entertain I suspect, as to take away his pain. In the dance, he became transcendent, divine. And in the end, it was the very body that he used to beguile millions that failed him.

*****

(AP Photo/Chris Pizzello)

ADD: Deepak Chopra, who was a friend of MJ’s and had contact with him in the last few days, shares his thoughts about the Mysterious One on Beliefnet.

Around the world (religions) in 4 hours

Not many people are rushing to Queens today — with the Swine Flu and all — but I just got back from a fast-paced day in Flushing.

I went on my first class trip in some time, tagging along with several “world religion” classes from the Masters School in Dobbs Ferry.

A couple of years ago, I visited the Masters School to write about a Buddhist monk who was creating a mandala, an artwork of sand. One of the teachers told me that “world religions” is a required course at the school and that each class takes a one-day field trip to houses of worship from several traditions.

I thought it would make a good story. And now it is.

Two busloads of students, teachers and parents (plus me) headed out this morning to Flushing, believed to be one of the most diverse places in the world. (When I covered Billy Graham’s last crusade there in 2005, I certainly got the sense that this was true.)

We went to a Russian Orthodox Church (located in a former Lutheran church), a Daoist temple, a mosque and a Hindu temple.

Since this was a one-day crash course (crash trip doesn’t sound right) and the students had to get back to Dobbs for afternoon sports, we could only spend about 45 minutes at each stop. So we got a brief introduction at each house of worship before students got the chance to ask questions.

Then we were on to the next stop.

It was a great, if brief, education for the students, who got to see people who practice the religions they study in class.

I’ll write more about it at some point this week.

Pretend ‘mosque’ in Illinois used for emergency drill

Muslim advocacy groups are not that happy that an emergency preparedness drill in Irving, Ill., targeted a pretend mosque.

A community facility was renamed “Irving mosque” for the day.

According to the local paper, the pretend mosque was supposed to be “the home-base for a radical, heavily armed group with suspected terrorist ties.”

There were “explosions” and “casualties,” “hostages” and “suspects killed.”

The Council on American-Islamic Relations says that the exercise sends the wrong message.

Ahmed Rehab, executive director of CAIR’s Chicago chapter, said in a statement:

The use of a fake ‘mosque’ in this type of drill sends the wrong message to law enforcement officials who may now view mainstream institutions, such as Islamic houses of worship, as potential security threats. Officials must be trained in dealing with hostage-taking and responding to chemical, biological or bomb attacks. We are only questioning the wisdom of linking the American Muslim community and its institutions to such incidents.

Muslim inmates get their meals

A settlement that will allow Muslim inmates at Westchester County Jail to have halal meat — specially prepared according to Islamic dietary laws — is apparently of international interest.

My colleague Shawn Cohen wrote about the settlement after a judge signed off on it. It seems that it took three years for the case to be decided after Muslim inmates said they were being discriminated against. They have had to eat vegetarian meals instead of meat dishes that were not prepared in accordance with their faith.

Now Muslim inmates will be able to have four halal meat dishes a week. Actually, the jail began offering halal meals in September.

The Associated Press picked up the story, and the International Herald-Tribune ran it. The IHT, the international, English-language daily, is very popular in Europe. And these days, Europe is keenly interested in all aspects of assimilating Muslims into the wider culture…