Sunday, November 28, 2010

Jihad: Doctrine and Reality

Critics were quick to notice that President Obama adeptly sidestepped the question when asked a few weeks ago by a young student in India to define Jihad. "The phrase Jihad has a lot of meanings in Islam and is subject to a lot of different interpretations," the President replied. Without giving any of those meanings, the President went on to assure the student that most Muslims are peaceful, and that Islam is one of the world's great religions.

For those willing to invest 90 minutes for a deeper understanding of Jihad as understood by those who take it most seriously, this link is worth following (immediately under the video, click to watch the English version). I watched the documentary when it first appeared in Arabic a year or two ago, but this link provides English subtitles. As host Rashid says, "I'm not going to say "Happy viewing", because what you are about to watch is not Happy. But it is important, and it is real."

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Learning to Die in Miami (and Whale Watching in Baja California)

The other day I caught this NPR interview with Yale Professor Carlos Eire, who was discussing his new book Learning to Die in Miami. I realized immediately it was a book I wanted to read, and thanks to the electronic wizardry of the Kindle was beginning the first chapter less than a minute later.

Professor Eire was one of 14,000 Cuban children airlifted from Havana fifty years ago in the Peter Pan operation, a Kennedy era pre-Bay of Pigs historical event about which I had almost forgotten. The book is his memoir of arriving in Miami and his first years in America. One sentence that grabbed my attention was this description of the Jewish couple who were his first foster parents in America, "I've said it before, and I'll say it again and again until the day I die: such good people, such brave people, such transparent proofs for the existence of God. Little did they know what was in store for them, entangling their lives with ours."

It probably goes back to my own insecurities, but there was something reassuring about reading a distinguished professor from Yale University say his reason for believing in God is simply the good things that have happened to him. At this post, I noted that my reason for belief is not much different. And reading the Professor's statement reminded me of the day my daughters and I went whale watching in Baja California.

It was one of those spur of the moment trips. I was back in California from working overseas, and we decided to jump in the car and head south. A few days later we were on the southern tip of Baja California (for overseas readers this is not the state of California, but an 800 mile strip on the Western coast of Mexico). We enjoyed the beach and art colonies for a few days, and then headed back home. We stopped in a small coastal hotel for the night, where my daughter noticed a sign advertising Grey Whale watching and suggested we do that the following day. Having learned at least one important lesson in 25 years as a parent, which is never to say No to your children unless necessary, I agreed.

I was sceptical, however. I'd seen the tourists lined up on Fisherman's Wharf in Monterey California to lay down their money for a "whale watching trip" that involved going out into the bay for an hour or so and if they were really lucky seeing something at a distance their guide told them was a whale. But I was willing to give it a chance, and at seven the next morning we were waiting for the van to take us down to the boat.

My first surprise when we arrived and saw the old motorboat waiting for us offshore was that we were not alone. It was a local holiday, described by our guide as Mexico Family Day, and he had brought his extended family to go with us. Little children were dressed up in their Sunday best, with the girls wearing ribbons in their hair, all excited about the trip out in the water. We all piled in the boat, he started the engine, and off we went.

It was about an hour later that we noticed the huge grey lump on the surface we had come to see. The guide cut the engine until it was barely purring and we moved slowly towards the whale. To our surprise, rather than submerge itself and swim away, the gigantic grey whale moved towards us until it was parallel to our boat, rubbing itself against the side.

And that's when it all began. From out of nowhere - well, actually, from underneath the surface of the ocean - another whale emerged and then another. Soon there were half a dozen surrounding our small boat, engulfing it from all sides, pushing against it and spouting all over us. We reached over the sides pushing our hands into their rubbery skin, and the children went wild. The whales remained for what seemed like hours, swimming around us, spouting on us, pushing against us, having as much fun with us as we were with them. Then it ended as quickly as it had begun, with the whales giving one last push against the boat and then submerging themselves once again into the ocean to swim away.

That evening we stopped to fill up the car at a gas station. I recounted the adventure to an American couple who was there, and their jaws dropped open. "We've been coming here whale watching for the past 30 years," they said to me. "We've never seen anything like that."

Well - and here is where I know the atheists, agnostics, and sceptics will all have a field day - I think God gave my daughters and me that special experience just because he likes us. It was simply an unexpected gift from a friend.

Would I still believe in God had I been born a cripple, a refugee, homeless, or unloved, or all four at the same time? I don't know. Would I still believe in God if, at this stage in my life, I became an unloved, crippled, homeless refugee? Absolutely.

In her book Infidel, Ayaan Hirsi Ali describes the moment she first dared to utter aloud the words, "I don't believe in God." The sentence came after months of struggling with the fact that the 9/ll suicide bombers had carried out their operation in the name of Allah.

I often wonder if Ayaan hasn't thrown out the baby with the bathwater. In one fell swoop, she went from "Allah is not God" to "There is no God".  She seemed to dismiss the possibility that God does exist but he is not Allah. What is interesting to me is that as I follow the course of Ayaan's life from being an oppressed Muslim girl in Somalia to becoming a voice for the oppressed in America, I visualize the hand of God guiding her just as clearly as that wonderful day he brought those grey whales to our little boat in Baja California.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Coming Out of Bishop James Earl Swilley

A dozen or so years ago my daughter and I were taking highway I-20 across Georgia (no, it wasn't the sad Highway 20 Ride) when just outside Atlanta we noticed a church with a huge cross and the unusual name of Church in the Now. Seeing some cars in the parking lot, we realized a service was going on and whipped off the highway to check it out (life's adventures often come from these little whims). As we walked in, I realized that it was trying to be as "modern" as it could be to attract as many of "the lost" as possible. My daughter remembers the large disco strobe lights in the center of the auditorium, and I remember thinking that, like many churches, it seemed to be centered around the personality of its leader, Bishop James Swilley.

I hadn't thought much about it afterwards until my daughter told me a few weeks ago that Bishop Swilley was in the news; he had just informed his congregation he is gay. The sermon in which he did so, available here, is well worth hearing. A few days later he and his business partner, who is also his ex-wife Debye, were on the Joy Behar show on an episode, available here, which is also worth watching.

As I watched them on Joy Behar I realized that what they were saying needed to be analyzed and interpreted to a non-religious audience just as I usually analyze and interpret Yusuf al-Qaradawi. The Bishop, of course, did not describe Debye as his "business partner", but as his "ministry partner". This in itself requires an explanation that was probably lost to Joy Behar.

Religious people who belong to comparatively small groups often see those groups as larger than they really are. From their vantage point at the center of the group, it is not just a small sub-set of American religious culture, but a main ingredient. Many of them adopt the name of their founder. Jimmy Swaggart, Benny Hinn, and Kenneth Copeland are only a few of dozens of examples that could be given. It's not coincidence that the name of Bishop Swilley's business is JESM, James Earl Swilley Ministries.

If I were to define the word "ministry" in a religious context, it would be "a non-sustainable religious  enterprise centered around the personality and vison of its founder and supported by his followers." It is non-sustainable because the founder will inevitably die or become involved in a crime or scandal and lose the financial support of his followers. The exceptions are people like Oral Roberts or Jerry Falwell who founded successful universities, or Billy Graham whose legacy lives on in his son's international relief organization Samaritan's Purse. The ministry is an enterprise because it is a business and its bottom line is money. Without financial support, the ministry collapses. This support is given by followers who are often convinced they themselves will receive spiritual and financial blessings by giving money to the ministry's CEO.

In the Joy Behar interview, Debye described her abiding love and respect for her now ex-husband. If she ever asked my advice, I would encourage her to take a deep step back, forget the "ministry" for a long while, and give herself lots of time to think about what really happened. She might begin by looking a little more deeply at the religious beliefs or psychological motivations that led her to marry a man she knew was gay. She might ask herself what was so compelling about this "ministry" that caused her to sacrifice the values of honesty and intimacy for so many years.

I wish both Debye and Jim Swilley the best. You don't get many shots at happiness in this life, and I hope they both get another one. I especially hope they open themselves to the possibility that this happiness could lie outside their acclaimed "call to the ministry" and all that that entails.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Dr. Yusuf Qaradawi and the Sahaba, the Companions of Muhammad

Dr. Yusuf Qaradawi devoted a recent Sharia and Life program on Al Jazeera to the Sahaba, the Companions of Muhammad. Islam divides the earliest Muslims into several categories including the Muhajireen (the immigrants who migrated from Mecca to Medina with their Prophet), the Ansar (those supporters who accepted Islam in Medina), and the Tabieen (the followers, or Muslims of the generation following Muhammad's death). Those who personally knew Muhammad are accorded the highest category of Sahaba.

The occasion for Dr. Qaradawi's discussion was the fatwa (I wrote about it here) pronounced against  Kuwaiti Shia dissident Yasser Al Habib for suggesting that Muhammad's wives Aisha and Hafsah killed their husband so their fathers (Abu Bakr and Umar bin Khattab) could take charge. Qaradawi praised the fatwa, but regretted that Kuwait had withdrawn Al Habib's citizenship. "Anyone who insults the Umahat Al Mumineen (the Mothers of the Believers, or wives of Muhammad) deserves to be punished," said Qaradawi. "Rather than withdrawing his citizenship, Kuwait should have brought him back for a public trial, so that everyone can see what happens when someone speaks against the wives of the Prophet."

Even this sentence is interesting on a number of levels. Qaradawi seems to think that the United Kingdom, where Al Habib now lives, would be interesting in extraditing one of its residents back to Kuwait to stand trial for what the West has traditionally understood to be an expression of free speech. Secondly, Qaradawi obviously believes that speaking critically of even those associated with Muhammad is worthy of a public trial. Thirdly, Yusuf Qaradawi wants Yasser dead but is very skilled at not publicly saying exactly what he means. Ask any of the estimated 40 million Arabic-speaking people who watched this program what he meant by the comment, "So that everyone can see what happens when someone speaks against the wives of the Prophet," and they will unanimously tell you he is calling for Yasser's death. Ask a Muslim or non-Muslim apologist on CNN, FOX, or any of the other Western channels if Qaradawi was advocating the death sentence and they will deny it.

Some additional background information might be helpful. Some of Muhammad's followers thought the first three Caliphs Abu Bakr, Umar bin Khattab, and Uthman usurped the position that should have gone to the Prophet's cousin and son-in-law Ali. They became known as the Shia, who are even today given the derogatory title of the Rafideen, or Rejectionists, because they rejected the idea that Muhammad's successor should be chosen by a Shura council rather than following his blood line. Some modern Shia clerics have been quite vulgar in talking about the early Caliphs and their families, using the Arabic and Farsi equivalent of English four-letters obscenities to describe them. Recent Shia pilgrims to Medina have gone as far as to desecrate the graves of the Umahat Al Mumineen to show their contempt for the women buried there.

Dr. Qaradawi defined the Sahaba as "any Muslim who saw the Prophet, met with him, or heard him speak even once in their lives". They represent a unique generation that can never be repeated, he said, because they were "the students in the school of Muhammad". No other generation will have a better teacher, and no Muslims will ever again equal the Sahaba. Their relationship to Muhammad was different than the relationship of other followers to their prophets. They were willing to follow him to the death, whereas the Children of Israel continually rebelled against Moses and were unwilling to follow him into the land of Canaan (Qaradawi then quoted the relevant verses from Quran 5:20-26. The fact that the Bible indicates the "two spies" were sent into Canaan under the leadership of Joshua, not Moses as recounted in the Quran, seems irrelevant to Muhammad who never was a stickler for historical Biblical detail).

The Sahaba, explained Qaradawi, were not Maasoum or protected from sin as was Muhammad, but they had a strong sense of Adalah, or justice. They read the Quran with such devotion that they insisted the punishment of Hadd, or death, be imposed upon them if they broke its commands. Qaradawi then recounted the Hadith of the Sahaba woman from Juhaina who became pregnant as a result of Zina (either adultery or sex outside of marriage) and asked Muhammad to put her to death because of her sin. The Prophet replied that only she could be judged, not the child growing in her womb, and asked her to come back after giving birth. She did so, again pleading with Muhammad, "Please purify me now." Islam's Prophet told her to wean her child, and then return to him. She returned a few years carrying the child in her arms, fed him a piece of bread in the presence of Muhammad to prove that it could eat, and said, "Oh Apostle of Allah, the child has been weaned." At that moment Muhammad pronounced judgment upon her and she was stoned to death.

It's difficult to find a more vivid contrast between the message of Jesus and that of Muhammad than to simply read Jesus' encounter with the adulterous woman in John 8 and compare it with the above story. Dr. Yusuf Qaradawi would have us believe that the woman from Juhaina wanted to be killed because of her sensitivity to God's law, and that the Prophet of Islam carried out the sentence in obedience to the same law. I find this really hard to believe. It is true that Islam has produced a shame-based society, and I can imagine this woman's sense of shame being so strong she would see no advantage to staying alive. But Islam has also produced a very judgmental society, and I can also see Muhammad killing her simply because she had transgressed a rule he established for that society. In either case I, apparently unlike Dr. Qaradawi, don't see in the story a model for life and behavior to be followed in the 21st century.