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The Tandem Project is a UN NGO in Special Consultative Status with the
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ISSUE: Samuel G. Freedman, New York Times, A War-Hardened Filmmaker Delves Into Islam, is an article about a documentary film, Koran by Heart, an annual International Holy Koran Competition held in Cairo each year for young Muslims from all over the world. It is a documentary film not meant to defame or disrespect Islam in any way, but to point out the multicultural challenges to understanding each other.  It is best said in the last paragraph of the article: “For me, it all comes down to education,” Mr. Barker said. “If we were making a film about evangelical Christians memorizing the Bible, and that’s all they did, we’d be troubled by that. With regard to Islam, we have a problem with that narrow approach, which can lead to extremism and, in the worst cases, to terrorism. As long as they’re getting a broad education, their religion is their own business.”

A War-Hardened Filmmaker Delves Into Islam

On his way home from covering the Persian Gulf war, the filmmaker Greg Barker stayed overnight in a small Egyptian village. Early the next morning, an undulating sound awakened him. For someone raised in Southern California, where predawn interruptions usually come from car alarms, it took some time to realize he was hearing the muezzin’s call to prayer.

In that moment, Mr. Barker sensed both epiphany and rebuke. Something about the summons to worship clearly mattered enormously to the people now heading toward the mosque. Yet even after working for months as a journalist in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, reporting on a war in the midst of the Muslim world, Mr. Barker had to admit that he knew virtually nothing about Islam.

Now, 20 years later, the curiosity and challenge of that moment have reached fruition in the form of the documentary “Koran by Heart.” The film follows three children as they compete in an international contest to memorize and recite from the Koran, the Muslim holy book. Fittingly, it will be shown on HBO on Monday as the Muslim holy month of Ramadan begins.

“Koran by Heart” simultaneously embraces and subverts a familiar documentary genre. As several critics noted when it played last spring at the Tribeca Film Festival, it follows the formula of cute, precocious kids under win-or-lose pressure that was popularized by the 2002 film “Spellbound” and “Mad Hot Ballroom” in 2005.

Unlike a spelling bee or a dance tournament, though, the International Holy Koran Competition, held annually in Cairo, has consequences beyond triumph or tears. In Mr. Barker’s supple, subtle hands, the contest provides a means of exploring the tension within Islam between the kind of fundamentalism typified by rote, literalist instruction and the modernity outside the madrasa’s door.

“I was interested in Islam as a force in the world,” Mr. Barker, 48, said in a Skype interview from his home in the Los Angeles area. “The struggles, the conversation about modernity within the faith. It’s not what most people are aware of. I was looking for a way to put a human face on the religion and on the struggle. And as a filmmaker, I was looking for a way in.”

Before embarking on the project, Mr. Barker had established himself as a filmmaker of artistic and political consequence with documentaries like “Ghosts of Rwanda,” a retrospective on the genocide there, and “Sergio,” which explored the assassination of the United Nations’ ambassador to Iraq in a truck bombing that killed 22 people.

About two years ago, Mr. Barker and Sheila Nevins, the president of HBO Documentary Films, separately heard about the Koran competition. With the cable network’s backing, Mr. Barker assembled a crew, navigated the labyrinth of Egypt’s bureaucracy and began filming the two-week contest last August.

Even as Mr. Barker was granted access, skepticism and hostility also greeted the project. While he was limning Islam through the contest, the organizers and participants were expressing their attitudes toward the West to the documentary’s creative team.

“The big question, over and over again, time after time, without fail, was, ‘Why are these people making the movie?’ ” recalled Razan el-Ghalayini, 25, an American Muslim and associate producer of the film. “ ‘Don’t Americans and Christians hate Islam?’ I don’t think even I understood the extent to which people felt that way.”

Amid that climate, Mr. Barker managed both to grasp the pageantry of the competition — 110 children and young adults from as far afield as Italy, Nigeria, Pakistan and Australia, all being tested on a text of 200,000 Arabic words and their ability to improvise melodies as they chant — and to zero in on the characters who would ultimately supply the film’s deeper themes.

These were three 10-year-olds: Nabiollah Saidoff from Tajikistan, Rifdha Rasheed from the Maldives and Djamil Djieng from Senegal. After the contest ended, Mr. Barker and his crew followed all three back to their home countries.

A prodigy at Koran recitation, fawned over by elderly judges as if he were Harry Potter at Hogwarts, Nabiollah turns out to be illiterate in Tajik. His sole education has come from the imam of a madrasa that the Tajik government shut down for its fundamentalist leanings.

“The problem,” the principal of a secular school explains in the film, “is small rural schools, where children have just one teacher, can lead young people to join extremist groups.”

In seeming contrast, Rifdha, the daughter of two accountants, is a straight-A student and aspiring scientist. Her father, however, has become a fervent Muslim, dismissive of the Egyptians as not observant enough. He informs Rifdha that he plans to move the entire family to Yemen, and that, even if she is educated, her future will be as a housewife.

That intimate drama attests to the words offered during the film by Maumoon Gayoom, a former president of the Maldives: “We have always practiced a very moderate form of Islam in the Maldives. ...But the trend — to go back in history, to return to early Islam — is felt all over the Muslim world.”

It would be an unconscionable spoiler to reveal here what happens to Rifdha and Nabiollah by the documentary’s end, or to divulge how they fare in the contest. Suffice it to say that they exemplify both the concept of the Umma — a sense of Muslim peoplehood that transcends race, class, geography and nationality by means of its common text — and the specter of unquestioning obedience to scripture.

“For me, it all comes down to education,” Mr. Barker said. “If we were making a film about evangelical Christians memorizing the Bible, and that’s all they did, we’d be troubled by that. With regard to Islam, we have a problem with that narrow approach, which can lead to extremism and, in the worst cases, to terrorism. As long as they’re getting a broad education, their religion is their own business.”


The Tandem Project

The First Preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights reads: Recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.

Surely one of the best hopes for humankind is to embrace a culture in which religions and other beliefs accept one another, in which wars and violence are not tolerated in the name of an exclusive right to truth, in which children are raised to solve conflicts with mediation, compassion and understanding.

There is an increase in dialogue today between religions and other beliefs to embrace diversity, but few persons, less than one percent of any population, ever participate. This is a challenge. The value of such dialogues is proportionate to the level of participation. For civil society increased participation would create opportunities for education on inclusive and genuine approaches to human rights and freedom of religion or belief. 

In 1968 the United Nations deferred passage of a legally-binding convention on religious intolerance saying it was too complicated and sensitive. Instead, they adopted a non-binding declaration on the elimination of all forms of intolerance and of discrimination based on religion or belief. While very worthwhile, the declaration does not carry the force and commitment of a legally-binding international human rights convention on freedom of religion or belief.

Religions and other beliefs historically have been used to justify wars and settle disputes. This is more dangerous today as the possible use of nuclear and biological weapons of mass destruction increases. Governments need to consider whether religions and other beliefs trump human rights or human rights trump religions and other beliefs or neither trumps the other. Can international human rights law help to stop the advance and use of such weapons in the face of this historic truth?

  • QUESTION: Weapons of mass destruction as history teaches are often legitimized for national security and justified by cultural, ethnic, religious or political ideology. The U.N. Review Conference on the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and studies on biological and cyber weapons demonstrate advances in science and technology is being used to increase their potential for mass destruction. The question is whether an International Convention on Human Rights and Freedom of Religion or Belief, elevated and supported equally by the U.N. Human Rights Council and U.N. Security Council, would help offset the risk of weapons of mass destruction. Recognition of the need for synergy to balance rights and security is a foundation for solving this issue.

“I am become death, the destroyer of worlds”

- Robert Oppenheimer, quote from the Bhagavad Gita after exploding the first atomic bomb, Trinity 1945.

The Tandem Project believes until a core legally-binding human rights Convention on Freedom of Religion or Belief  is adopted international human rights law will be incomplete. It may be time to begin to consider reinstating the 1968 Working Group to bring all matters relating to freedom of religion or belief under one banner, a core international human rights legally-binding treaty.

The Tandem Project a non-governmental organization (NGO) founded in 1986 to build understanding, tolerance, and respect for diversity of religion or belief, and to prevent discrimination in matters relating to freedom of religion or belief. The Tandem Project has sponsored multiple conferences, curricula, reference material and programs on Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights- Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion – and the 1981 United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief.

Document Attached: Again in Norway