Category Archives: Islam

Innocence in a Culture of Bigotry

You can talk to family members separately and each person will offer descriptions that sound like none of them came from the same family. Given that acknowledgement, my story is that my younger sister was a bully who was skilled at presenting herself like a victim and as a result routinely enjoyed my mother’s indulgence and I her scorn. The endless arguments led my brother to decide to be Switzerland. It would have meant more than I can adequately express to have him defend my honor. Here’s the thing about the notion of neutrality, when it comes to bullies or outright evil: not taking a side, is taking a side. During World War II Switzerland had a policy of denying entrance to Jews trying to escape the Nazis. Tens of thousands of would-be immigrants died because they were turned away by Switzerland. That’s how neutral looked to Jews fleeing genocide.

Switzerland and the Holocaust

If you are willing to take a position and maybe even help, how do you decide? Who’s right? Who’s wrong? The challenge is that often identifying the true victim is challenging because not every wronged person makes an ideal hero. We want to cheer for the unjustly accused as long as they suit our idea of someone blameless. If there are any shadows cast on someone’s character or details from their past that make us uncomfortable, then it gets muddy.

In early 2000, Adnan Syed was sentenced to life-plus-thirty-years for the murder of his ex-girlfriend. His guilt or innocence has been debated for many years by countless people. The debate went viral as a result of the podcast “Serial.” I was among the record-breaking number of people who listened in 2014. It was compelling. But in the end, “Serial” did not leave me with a clear conclusion, just disappointment. (I never listened to season two.) My perception is that Adnan did not make the perfect wrongly convicted hero, but was instead a flawed human being and in many ways an enigma. His story was told by producers who did not sufficiently address the impact of cultural and religious bigotry. It was addressed, yes, but not adequately

“Serial” – season one

Since the 2014 podcast I had not forgotten about Adnan; then, earlier this year, I met author Rabia Chaudry who wrote Adnan’s Story: The Search for Truth and Justice After Serial (2016). In her book, she owns her bias as a family friend and advocate for Adnan. She has become an attorney since his conviction, and is the person responsible for convincing the “Serial” producer to take on his story. What I observed from the podcast in 2014 and I maintain now, is that I don’t believe that what happened to Adnan would have happened if he was a Caucasian/non-Muslim.

The bigotry began by the police not investigating the victim’s white boyfriend (or anyone else), and going out of their way to connect Adnan to the murder, while using his religion for motive. They chose their suspect then set about proving it. Claiming his religion was his motive is like saying that anyone who is Christian could have a motive for murdering an abortion doctor. The most shocking initial public display of apparent systemic bigotry was at his bail hearing. Prosecutor Vicki Wash argued that “…he has limitless resources…if you issue him bail you are issuing him a passport to flee the country…There is a pattern in the United States of America where young Pakistani males have been jilted, have committed murder, and have fled to Pakistan…” (p.97). There is no such pattern. And there was never any reason to jump to that conclusion about Adnan and his community. In place of evidence, the prosecutor used religious and cultural bigotry.

I was at a picnic last summer and somehow the subject of the plain Mennonites and Amish came-up. These women wear a yarmulke-like net cap called a covering. I compared it philosophically to a hijab. The response was that the Mennonites and Amish don’t commit honor killings. I hope that if you’re reading this, I don’t have to explain how far-fetched this assertion was. But just in case, the link below has actual data on honor killings which are not exclusive to Muslims or men commiting murder, though of course, it’s always women who die.

Honor killing awareness

What I am willing to say is that when I see women needing to take special measures in their dress to accommodate their religious and cultural customs, it disappoints me. I support their right to do so, but I wish they would make a different choice. I wish this of the Amish, and I wish it of women wearing the hijab. These practices exist in the context of male dominant cultures, which are many. Male dominance is so prevalent and so pervasive that we don’t always even see it. It’s just not conscious for most people. It’s one of those norms we have come to take for granted.

Our justice system is another norm we take for granted, with little questioning. We want to believe that people get what they deserve so we don’t feel vulnerable. But the system has a deep inherent flaw in that it is an adversarial system set-up to have winners and losers. Lots and lots of losers. And most of them are poor. Read their stories. The drive is not for truth or justice. It is to win. At any cost.

The Pennsylvania Innocence Project

I don’t know if Adnan did it. But I do know that he did not get treated justly because he is a Muslim. I choose to believe if enough of us care about making our defective system more just, it can happen. I believe if we send our intentions into the Universe things will happen, though not without us taking actions as well, of course. Don’t know where to start? I do. Start by reading more. If you read with the intention of impacting change, I promise you that the Universe will present you with ideas and opportunities. At least choose to not be Switzerland. -J.B.

Advertisements

The Dark Night of the Soul

In the seventies, Dustin Hoffman played Jack Crabb in the movie, “Little Big Man,” as a white man raised happily by Native Americans who took him in when a different tribe murdered his parents. As Hoffman’s character said, “I wasn’t just playin’ Injun, I was living Injun.” While there are many ways to view his story, most often I think about it from the perspective of Jack Crabb getting crummy breaks, failing, and stumbling from one lifestyle into another. For some of us regular folks, doesn’t that kind of sum-up life?

I recently went to a memorial service for a popular teacher who was also instrumental in creating a successful drama program. Somewhere in mid-life he got born-again, so the seemingly never-ending memorial production was steeped in evangelical Christian rhetoric. There were three clergymen (men, of course) and it seemed we were never getting out of there. The last “benediction” (which meant more comments from clergy) started after we’d been there three hours.

Before the popular teacher went through his born-again phase (which I’m told lasted a long time but was eventually modified) there was a time in his life when I knew him to be a seeking person. You know, considering all the heavy life questions like the purpose of life, and the usual God questions. This was the brief period of time when I found him the most interesting. He was asteeple5_edited-2 seeking, humble, curious, feeling human being.

Ironically, it was at this very time in high school that I deliberately abandoned fundamental Christianity. Before that I used to carry my Bible around school every day – and actually read it. One day, I just stopped. I remember thinking, “This isn’t helping me. I’m tired of being depressed.” I did not permanently dismiss all of Christianity, just the version I was force-fed from birth, but I did leave organized religion alone for many years. As Jack Crabb said, “That was the end of my religious period.”

I sat at this memorial service thinking, “I wish I knew the guy they are all talking about.” The adoration was not less than epic. But I just didn’t see the same person they did. You could assess it as my flaw of being too critical. Maybe. When I think about him, I remember that period of time when he was searching and asking himself difficult questions. I was never among his favored protégés, so my perspective is that of the spectator. From my seat in the auditorium of life, I remember feeling disappointed that he so quickly abandoned seeking for easy answers.

There is something of potential great value in the dark night of the soul and it warrants careful consideration. When we feel lost or isolated, it is uncomfortable and painful. But when we are in that place we can see things, especially about ourselves, that are more difficult to see from the vantage point of lazy contentment. And even worse, when we adopt an ideology, we start reshaping our observations and thoughts to fit those notions, therefore cutting ourselves off from other possible understandings. In that mindset, I have watched people treat long-time friends with callous disregard because they got themselves a shiny new religion and new friends with it.

I understand what it feels like to struggle. Often when we are in that space we spend most of our mental energy trying to squirm free of the discomfort. I am suggesting that as difficult as it is, there is the opportunity to just stay in that uncomfortable space a bit and reflect. Breathe. This could be the angst before the break-through to a better direction, or thought, or understanding. And I will grant you that you don’t want to get stuck in that dark night. That’s called depression.

Respect the dark night of the soul. I think we should not be in such a rush to push out of it. Isn’t that really what Christianity’s lent and Islam’s Ramadan are all about? These two annual religious observances schedule a dark night of the soul in order for the faithful to take some time to reflect and reboot. Discomfort is built-in and used as a deliberate catalyst. What can we do differently? How can we make the future different than the past?

Any trip back to high school is uncomfortable for me, even seeing former classmates. I was recently humbled and saddened to learn I said some typical smart-ass thing once in French class that hurt a classmate. (Though I’m amazed my French was that good.) Now I haven’t been in high school since the seventies, so that’s a long-time for her to carry around the hurt I instigated. I do know that while I enjoy my own commentary on life, I just don’t need to impose it on others, and certainly not recklessly. I am grateful she gave me the opportunity to apologize. I’m not sure I’m any more careful with my comments, but I hope so.

Every life has a theme and a lesson. A lesson for the individual, and a lesson for the rest of us. The memorial service offered story after story. Good stories. Nice themes. The stories that I remember weren’t going to come-up. They are reserved for a few friends, in a small circle of people who know me and still like me. The stories are impacted by where you’re sitting and your view. French class? Memorial service? Lost in high school? It depends if you’re inside looking out or outside looking in. And if the lights dim, or the night seems darker than usual, just take your time. The dark night of the soul is a holy place. -J.B.

Unholy Land

Living in the suburbs as I do, I would have difficulty in deciding which Saturday morning sound is worse: the leaf-blower or the chainsaw. Both make me want to scream – which I may have done once. Not unlike the sound of adults talking on Charlie Brown cartoons, when I hear Benyamin (Benjamin) Netanyahu speak, I hear a leaf-blower. Recently Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has been spouting his typical doomsday rhetoric over the diplomatic agreement to place limits on Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. Limits on nuclear weapons – of course that’s a bad thing.

Al Jazeera America online led with this paragraph on July 14, 2015. “Iran and six world powers announced a historic deal Tuesday morning that places limits on Tehran’s nuclear program in exchange for relief from international sanctions, a development that represents the most significant diplomatic milestone in a dispute that has lasted for more than a decade and could significantly alter geopolitics in the Middle East.” This is what Netanyahu has been complaining about, from which he could be comforted if the United States just sent Israel more money.

Al Jazeera article
Netanyahu response

The pending agreement to limit the development of nuclear weapons with Iran is just one story from a region that is violent and complex and which I wish I could ignore.  (I know I’m not the only one who feels that way.)  It was with great reluctance, and in fact dread, I decided to start reading about Palestine and Jerusalem, the entire Armstrong-Jerusalemregion being too overwhelming. Further, I admit that my research is never exhaustive; I try to identify a few good sources that I believe are reliable and work with them. I trust anything by Karen Armstrong as well-researched and well-written, so I have been reading Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths (Ballantine Books NY 1996, new preface 2005). With all due respect to Armstrong, you can summarize thousands of years of Jerusalem’s history by saying: nobody gets along for long, and somebody’s gonna get killed.

I have supplemented the Armstrong reading with a publication by the Episcopal Church, which in my view is gloriously liberal, inclusive, and socially aware. The Episcopal Peace Fellowship produced, Steadfast Hope: The Palestinian Quest for Just Peace, an annual report-type 50-page book (second edition, August 2011). Accidentally, I also listened to two Philip Roth audio books. His characters provided insight into archetypes with regular interaction between Zionists and secular Jews (not mutually exclusive), weaving in an ongoing conversation about Jerusalem as the Homeland.

My research about Israel and Palestine has included the US role, which forces an awareness of the planeloads of money we lavish on that small country. In 2007, US foreign aid to Israel was $3 billion in direct assistance, which was two percent of their entire budget. Later in 2007, the Bush administration promised to increase the aid to $6 billion over the next 10 years (Steadfast Hope, p.33). Let’s say it’s five billion by now, and for a country of eight million people. In 2015 the US will spend only a little over double that, $13.13 million, on food and agriculture for a US population of 317 million. The math gives me a headache but no matter what the calculations, that’s too much money for too few people, with much of it spent on the military. That is not how I want my tax dollars spent.

US Budget Basics

Neither do I want my tax dollars spent on aggression against the Palestinians while Israel breaks international law. “US aid has been used to support Israel’s military occupation of Palestine, to build illegal colonies and segregated highways on Palestinian lands, to construct what Palestinians call the apartheid wall…” (Steadfast Hope p.33). The Israelis regularly use US made and paid Caterpillars to bulldoze Palestinian homes, businesses, groves of olive trees and more. Between 2000 and 2005, nearly 465,000 Palestinian olive trees were uprooted. That is not to say that olive trees are more important than people, it is to illustrate that however Israel tries to justify aggression, it will never be able to prove olive trees fired the first shot. Palestinian farmers are denied access to their own fields and residents are denied access to hospitals. Since 1972 the US has singularly vetoed 43 Security Council resolutions that were responding to Israel’s aggression against the Palestinian people.

When I was in graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania, I was never allowed to cite Wikipedia as a legitimate academic source. Nonetheless, I found a terrific timeline for the history of Jerusalem and the link follows. Let me tell you why this matters: because in the history of Jerusalem, lots of different folks have called Jerusalem theirs. The Jews are only one group. I have condensed the Wiki timeline below.

Wikipedia’s Jerusalem timeline
Ancient period – starts 4500 BCE with Canaanites
House of David rules after military conquest from 1010 BCE to 740 BCE
Classical Antiquity – 332 BCE “Hellenistic Kingdoms” & Romans
Life of Jesus and development of early Christianity
Late Antiquity – 324 CE Byzantine period
Middle Ages – 636 CE
1099 The Crusaders capture Jerusalem and slaughter most Muslims and Jews
Early Modern – 1516 Ottoman period
Modern Era – 1821 Ottoman, British, Israeli
1948 Arab-Israeli War
1967 The Six-day War

The current state of unquestioning, and in my view irrational and excessive support of Israel, takes us to Evangelical Christians in the US. Christianity is a majority religion in the US, but it is declining. Evangelicals enjoy a large percent of the Christian majority, but among Christians, they do not comprise a majority. (See the Pew study, the link follows.) What Evangelicals are good at is making noise and getting news coverage, and only seeming to be a majority. They embrace unquestioning support of Jewish rule of Israel. This political position has nothing to do with the life and ministry of Jesus, and in itself is un-Christian.

Pew’s Religious Landscape study

The irony of Evangelical support of Israel is that it is rooted in anti-Semitic, apocalyptic mythology. The political advocacy for a Jewish state in Israel pertains to end-time prophecies in which a Jewish state in Israel precedes the ‘second coming’ of Jesus, after which all the Jews are annihilated. Simply put, it is just one manifestation of cheering for the end of the world.

The excessive financial and unquestioning political support of Israel is neither Christian, patriotic, nor humanitarian. It is expensive and unjust. Neither is sole ownership of Jerusalem theologically valid for any of the three Abrahamic religions. In the Armstrong book she described Christianity as “the religion of love” and Islam as “the faith of unity and integration” (Kindle location 4762). Of Judaism, Armstrong said, “Crucial to the cult of Jerusalem from the very first was the importance of practical charity and social justice,” (location 289).

“All the great religions insist that the true spirituality is practical compassion,” (location 286). Additionally for Judaism, as it developed from a small sect to a more established religion it evolved: “As the religion of Yahweh changed during the Axial Age, justice and compassion became essential virtues, and without them, it was said, devotion to sacred space was worthless,” (location 1478).

Connecting the sacred to geography is not uncommon. It is paradoxical that human beings love the metaphysical aspect of religion but keep trying to connect it to the physical. “Historians of religion believe that it is one of the earliest manifestations of faith in all cultures. People have developed what has been called sacred geography that has nothing to do with a scientific map of the world, but which charts their interior life,” (location 185-6). Experientially, that makes sense for individuals; however, it is not politically valid.

It is inconceivable to me that any particular piece of land was promised to any specific tribe or religious group. And even if you think so, how in the world can you imagine that the God of a compassionate religion would approve of killing people to dominate property? The very acts of killing and aggression would make that land unholy. These conflicts have nothing to do with any god, only with politics and greed. It is all very human and entirely unholy. – J.B. Good

Families and Religion

Most of the major religions have stories about families, and often they’re confusing. However, if you are not comfortable with paradox, then you probably won’t be comfortable with religion in general, because many religious messages appear to be contradictory and are at least ambivalent, especially on messages about families.

Before the Buddha became the Buddha he left his family to find enlightenment. He never returned. Buddhism is a religion of compassion but it could be argued that abandoning one’s family is not compassionate.

Gandhi’s (Hindu) family was not so happy, with his parenting approach apparently as ascetic and tenacious as he lived his life. There was a play about Gandhi the man in the late nineties where the character of Gandhi’s wife said, “You have filled the entire sky with your love, like the clouds of a monsoon, but bend a little as you do, and pour a few drops into my son’s mouth.”

New York Times on Gandhi the man

Judaism has a story of God asking Abraham to kill his son. At the last minute God changed his mind and some poor goat was murdered instead. One irony of that story is that Abraham’s only (legitimate) son was supposed to father a nation, and there was Abraham raising a knife to him.

According to legend, three of the dominant religions of our time, came from that one man: Abraham. I’m not asserting that it is literally true, I’m telling you about the mythology of Judaism, Islam and Christianity. Abraham was to be the father of the Jewish nation by his second son Isaac. His first son was Ishmael, who had a different mother than Isaac (not Abraham’s wife), and could be considered the father of Islam. Jesus became the catalyst for Christianity, and was himself Jewish.

I’m not going to interpret all these stories, I’m just pointing out that even in our religious mythology, families are not easy. In our routine lives, it can be a stretch just to have a pleasant special occasion. When it comes to hoping for a Hallmark-card kind of holiday, or even more unlikely – expecting a real family to resemble a Norman Rockwell painting – I think it is only for the lucky few or those in denial.

For many people, being around family requires sedation. I admit that I do not like to attend family events if there is no opportunity for a glass of wine. If that’s not possible-short of having a brown bag in the car, I allow myself the option to pre-medicate with my legal prescription of Xanax, the same as when I go to the dentist. I wonder what holidays are like with Bill Maher’s family? I bet they’re more fun than mine.

I love watching Bill Maher. It seems his two favorite drums, on which he beats regularly, are bad religion and good ColoradoSignmarijuana. With limits, I don’t disagree. Most of what Maher identifies as evidence that religion is bad, is evidence that religion is used badly. Most of what is good about marijuana, is not evidence that no one abuses it – or that there are not some very bad things about the infrastructure supporting marijuana use.

Here’s the thing, if marijuana were legalized it could be taxed and regulated. I call that job and revenue creation. And as to corruption and abuse, well there’s just no question that abuse and corruption occur even with legal substances. There’s also that ‘gateway’ argument; when it comes to marijuana as a gateway to worse drugs; well, for some people, beer is a gateway drug. For me, being around relatives is a gateway to drugs.

If we are to believe the mythology of the three Abrahamic religions then their inability to get along could be interpreted as an endless family feud, related as they are. What don’t families fight about? Who has more sheep? Who got a bigger inheritance? Who has a bigger house? Who gets to run the oilfields? Who has more successful kids? Then families turn into clans. Clans turn into tribes. Tribes turn into territories. Territories turn into countries. And all the time, the squabbling doesn’t stop. At some point people get killed.

For those of us who choose to explore religion, it goes with the entire complicated package of families and humanity. I have written this before and I still don’t know the original source, but human beings imagine the God we are capable of imagining – and most often our god resembles ourselves. People who thrive on hate, see an angry god. People who need rules and structure see a rigid, demanding god. And people who believe in love see a God of love.

Because bad people claim their actions are a result of religious imperatives, doesn’t mean it’s true. Bill Maher (on HBO’s “Real Time”) had Bobby Ghosh on his panel June 27th (managing editor of Quartz, qz.com). When it comes to religion and politics in the Middle East, he said it better than I ever have:

“ISIS is the worst, most successful terrorist group in modern times…They hate everybody. They are killing more Muslims than they are killing anyone else…It’s not about religion…It is a power struggle in which religion is a uniform. The Shia are not trying to convert the Sunni, the Sunni are not trying to convert the Shia. They are fighting for power…”

So, my point is that if families can’t get along, why does anyone expect it from tribes and countries? My big disappointment is if these three religions come from the same guy – according to their own mythology, then they ought to cut each other some slack and freaking learn to get along.  I mean, I keep showing up for Thanksgiving.  I’m the vegetarian bringing the damn turkey already.  True religious leaders should lead in promoting the common good, not themselves, and condemning – loudly – violence in the name of anyone’s religion.

Getting rid of religion would not reduce wars, violence, or conflict. These are unfortunate aspects of the human condition that all of us have experienced to some degree in our own flawed families. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to be better. And I think it’s ok if that takes a little sedation. Maybe they should pass around joints at Middle East peace talks. They could all relax and eat junk food and forget what they were fighting about. Think about the possibility of marijuana as a gateway drug to peace talks. And isn’t it great we have several months before Thanksgiving? – J.B.

Bullies and Religion

“Radiolab” replayed a story this month that mentioned hockey great Wayne Gretzky (NPR 2/9/2014,”Secrets of Success,” original air date 7/26/2010).  At the age of two, Gretzky’s parents put hockey on TV for him and when the game was over he would cry.  It seems at two, he loved the game that much.  My own early memory is so much less, but still similar.  On the first day of fourth grade we were required to write about our summer.  I recall thinking that I could probably survive fourth grade if all I had to do was write, of course, that was before the math began. 

I think that writing is a little different from the obsessive passion of the Wayne Gretzkys and Olympic hopefuls of the world, for example, because the writers I most enjoy have read a lot and lived life.  While it may be true about many passions, vocations, or the arts in general, it seems that there is a need for times of reflection and quiet – passion alone is not enough.  It has been my experience regarding both religion and writing, that periods of solitude and retreat are essential, especially when we are struggling.

Islam is projected to be the fastest-growing religion worldwide according to Pew Research (link follows), rising IMG_0924from 1.6 to 2.2 billion people by 2030.  All that started in a cave, with one person.  Mohammed, before he was the prophet he was to become, needed some solitude and developed a habit of retreating to a cave in the hills of Mount Hira outside Mecca, (Huston Smith, The World’s Religions, 1991, p.224).

“The Future of the Global Muslim Population”

The Buddha, before he was the Buddha, was Siddhartha Gautama and born to a wealthy family, offered every comfort and luxury of his culture.  But he left it all behind, including a wife and son, to “live the life of a lonely forest-dweller…to rejoice in solitude,” (Huston, p.83-4).  And so, from solitude, two of the world’s great religions began.

In part, the retreat by Mohammed and the Buddha was a response to the suffering around them. In our post-modern world of runaway capitalism, I ask you to think about a basic and common form of suffering, workplace bullies.

The Philadelphia Business Journal did an unscientific survey of 173 responding readers and 58 percent said they knew of a supervisor at work who was bullying people; another nine percent said there was one who quit or was fired, which makes 67 percent.  PBJ asked the wrong question.  The question should have been: “Have you or any of your coworkers been bullied at work?”  I guarantee the number would have been higher, and 67 percent is not small.  If this number is representative, or as I suggest low, then lots of people are miserable at work.  They fear for their jobs, their health, and have little peace of mind.  Job satisfaction is a ridiculous fantasy when your spirit is crushed on a daily basis.  And even if your passion is outside of work, you drag home too depleted to pursue it.  You become Wayne Gretzky forgetting that there was a hockey game on tonight and just losing interest in the puck.

Bullying at Work in the PBJ

I assert that in a capitalistic society with the ever-widening gap between the disgustingly rich and the working poor, threatening someone’s livelihood is economic violence.  The expertise of the bullies is convincing you they can harm you, they are willing to do it, and enjoying the whole dirty business.  In some cases, they really can hurt you.  If, like most folks, you can’t quit because you need the job, you are stuck.  Has anyone noticed the workplace has gotten meaner?

There are a number of reasons that Mohammed and the Buddha needed solitude, and their response to suffering was, in my opinion, one of these reasons.  I had a shrink once who called it “strategic retreat.”  With enough retreat, meditation, contemplation, and if you are a person of faith – then prayer, I believe you can survive.

This is not my tidiest column.  I have started to write this several times over several months.  I intended to go on a rant about bullies and how I am just sure God doesn’t like them.  What I won’t do is defend them or rationalize their bad behavior because of a difficult childhood, or crap like that.  It doesn’t matter why they are a bully.  It matters who they are bullying and what weapons they are using.  It might be a jealous co-worker starting gossip or a supervisor who thinks you remind him of the sister who regularly called him on his shit.  The bully is not my preoccupation or priority, it is the victim.  If that is you, I want to let you know that you that you do not deserve this and that I recognize that your pain is real.

There are no easy answers for suffering, whatever the cause.  If your religion is not helping you with this, then consider reframing it.  I have read a little something about all of the major religions and some of the minors.  They all have something to say about suffering and some of it is helpful.  Don’t take any of it at first reading or what you were taught by others.  Allow yourself, like Mohammed, some time alone in the cave and see what comes to you.  I don’t have much faith and it is not common or traditional, but I do believe that if you are suffering, eventually there will be some measure of comfort come into your life.  You may not see justice served to the bully, but you might get some for yourself, which is much more important. – J.B.

American Hero: Imam W.D.

What’s happened to “Star Trek”?  It’s gone mass appeal with little time for a story in between faser fire, fisticuffs and bodies spit into space.  This is not your parents’ action and adventure of the old Indiana Jones days.  No, today it means convincing, gratuitous violence, thank you J.J. Abrams (the over-lauded young director).  The title “Star Trek into Darkness” is entirely appropriate.  Yes, I admit I’m a bit of a Trekkie.  I like that it was always easy to find several interesting heroes in a “Star Trek” episode or movie.  Still, the question this disappointing movie made me ask is: who are our heroes?  What constitutes an American hero these days?

First of all, there’s trouble with the word ‘American.’  Linking our identity to this continent reminds us (or should) of the historic fact that the Europeans stole this resource-rich continent from the Native Americans, along with economic prosperity for the elite built on the backs of African (et.al.) slaves.

The exploitative heritage of this country is often glossed-over, or worse, a cliché.  In fact every time I look at Andrew journey-into-america-cover211Jackson on a $20 bill I shudder.  His systematic and unapologetic intention to exterminate Native Americans would easily be called genocide by today’s standards.  Author Akbar Ahmed assigns him the category of “predator” in describing “three distinct but overlapping identities – primordial, pluralist and predator,” in Journey into America: The Challenge of Islam, (p.45).  Ahmed’s examples and explanations of these identities are interesting, but for the sake of brevity in this column you can take them at face value, using Dick Cheney and Andrew Jackson as examples of predators, Thomas Jefferson being a pluralist, and the Puritans primordial.  Ahmed looks at these conflicting identities and their impact on society, and foundational for the conflicts we all live with today.

The book flap of Journey into America said, “This eye-opening book also offers a fresh and insightful perspective on American history and society.”  I’m backing into the story of this book because reading about my own country’s history through the eyes of immigrants was powerful.  I was not ignorant to America’s inglorious past, but Ahmed put some of this country’s history in the context of how Muslims are currently treated in America, immigrants and natives.  Not surprisingly, he reveals story after story of bigotry, though this book is much richer than any of those stories in isolation.  In fact, the context he provides is what makes reading Ahmed compelling.  It matters in general, but also because there are six to seven million Muslims in the U.S., and globally, one of every four persons is a Muslim (p.7). 

Ahmed chairs Islamic studies at American University in Washington, DC and is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.  He chose an anthropological methodology because, “Anthropologists believe that society consists of interacting parts, and that anthropology is therefore the only discipline attempting to study society as a whole,” (p.10).  Ahmed travelled the U.S. and beyond with a team of researchers for visits to mosques and personal interviews, as well as collecting 2,000 questionnaires from people of all backgrounds all over the country. 

With all these stories, from first-hand accounts and from history, there was one person who especially struck me as what I think of as a real American, and my idea of a hero.  Ahmed described him by saying, “The genius of Imam W.D. was that he single-handedly moved the African American community toward identifying with a pluralist American identity while moving away from Black Nationalist Islam,” (p.174).

In my effort to get to know him better, a well-informed source referred me to two books.  Both are dated, but offered me a fuller picture of Imam W.D.  In American Jihad: Islam After Malcolm X (1994), author Steven Barboza titled the chapter on W.D. Mohammed “Prodigal Son,” (p.94).  (The Black Muslims in America, 3rd Edition 1994, by C. Eric Lincoln was also consulted for this column.)  Over time, the world would see how W.D.’s interpretation of Islam differed from his father, Elijah Mohammed.

Barboza’s book had an undertone of disappointment that W.D. did not build on his father’s legacy and empire, which was successful, but harsh.  As one example of sanctioned non-religious activities, the Nation of Islam (NOI) under Elijah Mohammed had a team of “enforcers” (“Fruit of Islam,” FOI) which were known as the ‘punch your teeth out’ arm of NOI.  That may well have been the case since there was a story of ten people killed ‘for no other reason than they didn’t want the FOI completely dominating their lives,’ (p. 96).  Imam W.D. also ended the exclusion of whites (p.95-6).  Louis Farrakhan and his followers eventually split from Imam W.D., retaining many of Elijah Mohammed’s doctrine and practices.

Akbar Ahmed compares Imam W.D.’s impact on American Islam akin to Martin Luther’s impact on Christianity (p.173).  In 1992 he was the first imam to offer morning prayers in the U.S. Senate (Barboza, p.98).  Not only did he make great strides in pluralism, he also taught his followers how they could be good Muslims as well as patriotic Americans.  Another imam said of him: “He is the greatest inspiration to us; he inspired us to accept our obligations and responsibilities as Americans.  Since 1975 we have identified as Muslim Americans.  We have rights, duties, and responsibilities as Americans.  We have to support good wherever we see it,” (Ahmed, p.192).

I now see the late Imam W. D. as a peaceful, devout spiritual man who sacrificed and persevered to lead people of his own faith on a devout path, while maintaining and building inter-faith relationships.  In this country he was a pioneer in teaching a more Orthodox, compassionate Islam.  He’s not taught in American history classes.  Probably many more non-Muslims think of Louis Farakhan or early Malcolm X.  Imam W.D.’s influence was quieter, but likely more widespread, and more spiritual than political.  That was heroic.

With no disrespect to Imam W.D. or Akbar Ahmed, I leave you with something less lofty.  I have been enjoying Canada10340‘s Islam-light on Hulu.com.  Take a look at “Little Mosque.”  It’s not quite a sitcom, but it’s not drama either.  It is an everyday interpretation of the lives of Muslims in a small town in ‘America’ (remember Canada is on the American continent).  This show makes me makes me smile, and sometimes laugh out loud.

“Little Mosque” on Hulu.com

Asalaam alaikum: peace be unto you. –J.B.

Newt the Nightmare

Newt Gingrich was not morally inspiring the last time he held office.  His situation ethics – which in his case meant he was exempt from the many values he purported – makes his recent pandering to the ‘religious right’ all the more offensive.  So now Newt is back, with a threat to run for president.  Do we really need another ignorant, embarrassing president?

With all due respect to the Texans I like, and there are some, Newt made an appearance at a San Antonia church from which even John McCain rejected an endorsement in the last presidential race.  To put the Cornerstone Church in perspective, their clergy John Hagee, described the Holocaust as fulfilling God’s prophecy.  (For the full CNN story written by Dan Gilgoff, from which the photo here is posted, see the link below.)

http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2011/03/28/gingrich-fears-atheist-country-dominated-by-radical-islamists/?iref=allsearch

Here’s what Gingrich said about religion in the United States: “I have two grandchildren: Maggie is 11; Robert is 9.  I am convinced that if we do not decisively win the struggle over the nature of America, by the time they’re my age they will be in a secular atheist country, potentially one dominated by radical Islamists and with no understanding of what it once meant to be an American.”

If Maggie and Robert are in a half-decent school, then they probably know more about American history and civics than their bigoted grandfather.  This is someone who used to be Speaker of the House who clearly doesn’t understand the separation of church and state.  The separation is not an atheist conspiracy.  The United States has a secular government by design.

My abridged description of the origin of separation of church and state is that it was largely a result of squabbling between different Protestant Christian denominations that didn’t want any of the others becoming the official church of the new country, e.g. the Baptists didn’t want to be forced to be Puritans.  The way to protect each other from having an official religion forced on them was to have no state or federal religion.  That also means that the Constitution protects us from Islam becoming the official religion, though I for one am more worried about the Christian extremists.

Howard Fineman put it well in The Thirteen American Arguments (p.61).  “The land we live on was claimed in God’s name, but the world’s first officially secular government sits on it.  We invoked God in making our Declaration of Independence, but not in our governing authority, the Constitution.”

Fineman is not some crazy, liberal journalist spouting off.  His reference is to the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people to peaceably assemble, and to petition the government for redress of grievances.”  This is the amendment that protects all of us from a totalitarian government.  Now that’s what it means to be an American.

The Gilgoff story reported that Gingrich converted to Catholicism two years ago.  (I guess he had his annulment fast-tracked.)  Ironically, the early Americans were not too kind to Roman Catholics.  As an example, Philadelphia’s cathedral was completed in 1864 with minimal stained glass windows to discourage the vandalism like had taken place two years earlier in anti-Catholic riots (this information is from a tour I took in 1998).  That’s what it once meant to be an American, Newt.

There are more moderate than “radical” Muslims, just like there are more moderate Christians than extremists.  Those moderates are not suicide bombers any more than most Christians go around bombing women’s clinics.  I just completed research on news coverage of religion.  For the perception of radical Muslims, I do place some blame on the media and the politicians.  Those participating in radical Islam do not represent the majority of Muslims and are usually politicians who have hijacked the religion to serve their own ambitions.  News stories that were better researched and better written would make this clear.  I also remind you than when there was a shooting in Arizona by a crazy white guy, no one talked about his religion.

When it comes to Newt Gingrich, it’s hard to know where to stop, but I will.  Thinking of people like him ranting ignorantly about religion just ruins my day.  If Gingrich runs for anything anywhere, it ought to be back to school because he could really do with some education. -J.B.

Islam, My Cousin

For some, religion and families are so intertwined there’s no separating them.  I have a number of relatives who describe themselves as “born again” who insist on hosting family reunions in church basements.  I have the damndest time finding a cocktail there, so I don’t go.  I have too many bad memories of being forced to attend Sunday School in church basements where I was beat over the intellect by ‘teachers’ who had barely graduated from high school, nonetheless they were telling me how to interpret the Bible.

On this anniversary of September 11, a few Bible stories come to mind.  Right after the whole “creation” story there’s Cain and Abel, the first sons of Adam and Eve.  Cain is the greedy brother who is envious of Abel so he kills him and takes his stuff.  And the game is afoot.  Fast forward to Abraham.  Everyone thinks (including Abraham and his wife) his wife is too old to have kids so he shtups the black maid to assure progeny.  Why?  Well, because he can, is my thought.  And from that point on the family feud ensues.  Abraham and his wife eventually have a son and he becomes the father of Judaism, which eventually gives birth to Jesus and Christianity.  Abraham’s other son, Ishmael, eventually produces Mohammed, and then Islam.

I consider Judaism and Islam my religious relatives.  Islam is the younger half-sibling of Christianity.  All three of these traditions claim one God and earthly heritage in Abraham.  So why can’t we all just get along already?  That takes us back to Cain and Abel.  There’s always someone envious trying to knock someone good over the head.  It is as much a part of the human condition as is, I hope, compassion.

At work, I have a friend who has the nickname Swig.  His Muslim name is Ayyub, which he tells me can be translated to Job.  I am pleased to say he calls me “Cuz,” as in Cousin.  (I have his permission to mention him, and I thank him for getting me thinking about this cousin thing.)

This week I have been honoring the anniversary of September 11th by getting to know my Islam cousin better; not Swig/Ayyub, but my religious cousin, the faith and history of Islam.  My University of Pennsylvania professors would want me to make clear that this study has been not been exhaustive.  So noted.  In particular, I have enjoyed the way that two Western academics have been explaining things to me: Karen Armstrong’s Islam: A Short History, and Huston Smith’s The World’s Religions.  I have read parts of the Koran (the word a translation of “Quran,” the version I have is translated by N.J. Dawood).  There is no way I can do it justice on my first readings, so I will rely on Armstrong and Smith.

To start, Islam is the religion and practitioners are Muslims. (I always found that confusing.)  Islam grew up in the dessert when polytheism was the standard.  There weren’t enough resources for everyone so it was just good business, and survival, to raid your neighbors and take their stuff.  Mohammed changed all that.  He insisted on justice and worked politically to facilitate peaceful relations with neighboring tribes and clans, including – by the way – Jewish tribes.  (Anti-Semitism is a Christian invention.)

Foreign Policy magazine listed Islam as the fastest growing religion in the world at 1.84 percent, with Christianity trailing at 1.38 percent (“The List: The World’s Fastest Growing Religions,” 5/14/2007).  Is Cain envious of Abel’s success?  Smith translates the word Islam as, ‘the peace that comes when one’s life is surrendered to God,’ (p.222).  How can you hate that?

Muhammad (the name given to more male children than any other in the world – Smith p.224) was never a god or even “divine figure” (Armstrong p. 24).  Muhammad believed God spoke to him, just as Abraham before him and Saint Paul after Jesus.  But there is a significant difference in how Muslims view the Koran from how Christians view their Bible.  The Bible tells stories about God and has some quotes from God the Father and Jesus, however, the Koran is all actual quotes right from God.  That makes burning the Koran more like taking a Bible, stacking on the Eucharist, or communion host for you Protestants – then lighting the fire on Christmas Eve, because Saturday the 11th is the last day of Ramadan.  Even Cain didn’t go that far.

I’m relieved to say that there is a Facebook page rallying opposition to the (now formerly) scheduled burning of the Koran by the not-so-Christian clergyman in Florida.  At the time of this writing more than 39,000 Facebook people gave this page a thumbs-up.

So I honor September 11th by getting to know my religion cousin, Islam, a little better.  The most respectful response to the innocent who died is to refuse to become like the hate-mongers who killed them.  I won’t even curse that crazy Florida guy.  (Believe me, I want to.  Even though he retracted his appalling threat, I am convinced he actually enjoyed his notoriety.)  This week, and especially the 11th, I will celebrate tolerance, including tolerance for the beliefs of my born-again cousins, which I admit is very difficult for me.

I beg the indulgence of my Muslim “cousins” and close with this quote from “The Exordium” of their very holy scriptures, with as much respect as possible from an outsider:

“…Guide us to the straight path,

The path of those whom You have favored,

Not of those who have incurred Your wrath,

Nor of those who have gone astray.”

Peace to you, friends and cousins alike. –J.B. Good