Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Koran and the Basmala

The Arabic expression Bismillah ar-Rahman ar-Raheem, in the name of God, the Compassionate and Merciful One, is one of the most famous in the entire language. It begins all but one of the Koran's 114 suras, and is commonly used among Arabic speakers when saying their prayers, before eating a meal, or giving a formal speech. It even has its own abbreviation and is known simply as "the Basmala".

Since the expression is the very first sentence of the Koran (surat Al-Fatiha, Koran 1:1) and is later repeated 113 times, Muslims believe it is an essential part of the revelation given by God to Muhammad. Is that true, or was the Basmala inserted into Islam and the Koran at a later date? That question was discussed on this Arabic TV program Daring Question, in which host Rashid presented the following evidence that this well-known expression was not a part of the original Koran.

1. The Basmala does not appear in the story of Muhammad's first revelation. According to Islam, an angel appeared to Muhammad and told him to recite. When Muhammad repeated several times he did not know what to recite, the angel squeezed him tightly and said in Surat Al-Alaq, "Recite 'In the name of your Creator who created humanity from a blood clot.' Recite 'Your Lord is generous, who with the pen taught men what they did not know." (Koran 96:1-5).

If the Basmala was part of the Koran, why did it not appear in the first revelation of Gabriel to Muhammad? Why did the angel not begin with, "In the name of God, the Compassionate and Merciful One, Recite..."?

2. Muhammad and his early successors did not pray using this expression. An authentic Hadith from Sahih Muslim recounts that Anas, a servant of Muhammad who was with him for many years, said, "I prayed with the Prophet, and with Caliph Abu-Bakr, and with Caliph Umar, and with Caliph Uthman (the first three leaders succeeding Muhammad). I never heard any of them say, "In the name of God, the Compassionate and Merciful One."

Muslims who perform the five daily prayers repeat the Basmala 17 times in one day. Why do they  repeat thousands of times throughout their lifetime an expression Muhammad and his companions never used once in their prayers?

3. Except for Surat Al-Fatiha, the Basmala always appears in the Koran as an introduction to the chapter and not as the first verse. If the Basmala was in each sura as originally revealed, why is it merely an introduction and not the first verse of the sura?

4. The 114 suras of the Koran do not represent 114 revelations given by God to Muhammad; Muslims believe their Prophet received thousands of revelations that were combined in these chapters long after Muhammad's death. If revelation ceased with Muhammad, how could each chapter begin with the Basmala as part of the original revelation?

5. Muslim claim not a single letter has been added to the Koran. The Basmala, however, contains 4 words in Arabic. If that expression was affixed to 113 suras, does that not mean a total of 452 words have been added to the Koran?

As could be expected, these arguments are not new to Muslim scholars and Rashid next played a video from a Saudi Shaykh who offered his explanation. The Shaykh said that when the Basmala came within the verse, as in the first ayah of Al-Fatiha (Koran 1:1), it was part of the inspired text. When it appeared outside the text, as in 112 other suras, it was not part of the inspired text but a Tabarruk, a blessing or working aid given to separate the suras from each other. 

Rashid noted in his response that even the Shaykh admitted that the Basmala was added to the Koran; who knows what else has been added? The problem with this explanation, continued Rashid, is the Shaykh's insistence that the Basmala in Koran 1:1 is the exception. Surat Al-Hijr (Koran 15:87) is interpreted by Muslim scholars to mean that the first chapter of the Koran, Surat Al-Fatiha, must contain seven verses. Since Al-Fatiha's first verse is the Basmala, was it not simply added to the sura to give it the required seven verses?

In another authentic Hadith, Anas continued, "I prayed behind the Prophet and his companions. They would always open their prayers with 'Praise God, the Lord of the Universe, but never mentioned the Basmala."

Why do Muslims not begin their prayers as Muhammad did? Was the Basmala added to Surat Al-Fatiha just to give it the required seven verses? When Muslims use it in their prayers today, are they repeating a phrase their Prophet never used in his prayers?

Apart from Koran 1:1, and appearing 113 times as a sura designator, the Basmala appears one other time in the Koran. This is in the chapter of the ant, Surat al-Naml (Koran 27:29, 30), in which the Queen of Sheba informs her cabinet, "Oh my ministers, I have received a letter from Solomon that begins, In the Name of God, the Compassionate and Merciful One."

Note that the Basmala in the above verse is not portrayed as revelation from God to Muhammad, but as simply the introduction of a letter from Solomon. Solomon was a Jewish king, and naturally began his  letter with a common Jewish greeting.

Surat Al-Anfal (Koran 8:31) states that the Quraysh often responded to Muhammad's alleged revelations by saying they had heard these expressions before, with Surat As-Saffat (Koran 37:36) adding they were not prepared to leave their gods to follow "a mad poet". To his own people, Muhammad simply repeated religious expressions with which they were already familiar and claimed they were inspiration from God.

Why is the chapter entitled Repentance (Surat At-Taubah, Koran 9) the only one in the Koran that does not begin with the Basmala? Mufassir (Koranic expositor) Uthman claims it is a continuation of the previous chapter, The Spoils of War (Surat Al-Anfal), and therefore does not need the Basmala to separate it from the previous sura. Al-Qurtubi, on the other hand, claims that the beginning of Surat At-Taubah with its attached Basmala has been lost to history.

Since surat At-Taubah contains the famous "Verses of the Sword", in which Muslim warriors are commanded to fight unbelievers wherever they find them, it is perhaps poetic justice that this chapter does not begin with the usual reference to the mercy and compassion of God.

Rashid then introduced an Arabic scholar to explain the linguistic origin of the four words of the Arabic Basmala. The first word bism or "in the name of" is a contraction of the preposition "b" (in) and the noun (ism) "the name of". The Arabic word for "name", however, begins with an "a" that was deleted in the contraction of the preposition and the noun. This contraction is a feature of Aramaic and Syriac, not Arabic, giving evidence that the Basmala was an Aramaic/Syriac expression. These two languages were spoken by the Christians and Jews of the era.

The second word of the Basmala, Allah, also finds its origin in the word "Elohim", which is a common word for God in the Syriac and Aramaic languages. The following word Rahman is from the Syriac active participle Rahma meaing the Lover, with the "n" added in Arabic to turn it into an adjective. The final word Rahim also comes from Syriac and is a passive participle meaning the Beloved. The Basmala, according to the linguist, was a common expression used by Jews and Christians in Arabia at the time of Muhammad and as a result found its way into the Koran.

As noted in previous postings, comparatively few Muslims will have the courage to present the Imam at their local mosque with the evidence given above that the Basmala was not revelation given by Allah to Muhammad, but simply an expression their Prophet adopted from the religious vocabulary of the Christians and Jews of his day. Some individual Muslims, however, might seriously think about it on their own, and thinking is always a good thing.

Monday, December 12, 2011

The Koran and the Year of the Elephant

Scriptural literalists believe every word of their sacred texts is true historically as well as in every other way. For Christians and Jews, this means believing the sun was created four days after the earth as described in Genesis 1. And for Muslims, it includes believing in the battle of the elephant.

Surat Al-Fil, the chapter of the elephant (Koran 105), is considered to be an early Meccan sura and is one of the shortest in the Koran. Its text reads simply, "Have you seen what your Lord did to the owners of the elephant? Did not he ruin their plot when he sent flocks of birds to attack them with pellets of baked clay? He made them like the stalks of an empty corn field after its ears were devoured by the cattle."

This short video gives the version of the story first recorded by Muhammad biographer Ibn Ishaq and taught to millions of young Muslim children around the world. In 570 AD, the year of Muhammad's birth, Abraha was the governor of Yemen which was part of the Ethiopian Kingdom ruled by the Negus. With the Negus' permission Abraha built in Sana "the greatest cathedral in the world at that time" (Al-Qullays in Arabic, the word is from the Greek word for church "ekklesia"). Abraha's reason for building the church, according to Ibn Ishaq, was not to establish a house of worship but to divert Arab pilgrims from going to the Kaaba in Mecca. When an infuriated  Arab visitor from Mecca took revenge by urinating and defecating inside the church, Abraha decided to invade Mecca and destory the Kaaba. With a huge army that included elephants (although Ibn Ishaq says it was one elephant named Mahmud, other accounts give numbers varying from 13 to 1000), Abraha headed towards Mecca defeating every Arab tribe he met along the way. As he approached the city, his army was  suddenly attacked by flocks of thousands of birds who hurled pellets of hardened clay that caused their flesh to explode and destroyed the entire army. "Such was the victory bestowed by Allah, the All-Majestic, All Powerful, to the people of Mecca and such was the protection provided by him for his house the Kabaa in Mecca," concludes early expositor Ibn Kathir.

Apart from bringing back memories of Alfred Hitchcock's movie The Birds, the story poses the more basic question, Is is True? That question was recently discussed here on the Arabic program Daring Question.

In addition to Islam's default position that anything in the Koran is true simply because the Koran says so, Muslim scholars have argued the story must be accurate because we have no evidence of Meccans contradicting Muhammad when he first recited it as revelation from God. But the fact is that no contradiction of Muhammad was allowed at all, with writers and poets such as Asma bint Marwan killed simply for challenging him. There is no way of knowing, 14 centuries later, how the Meccans responded to Surat Al-Fil when they first heard it, because the voice of Islam is the only voice that remains from that time.

The description of the birds who attacked the army in the story suggests legend rather than fact. According to Ibn Ishaq and other Muslim historians, they had shoulders of dogs and each one carried three pellets with the bird's name written on each one.  Many temples in Greek and Hindu mythology have similar stories of deities magically protecting them from attacks by their enemies.

The most famous Byzantine historian of this era was a scholar who lived in Palestine named Procopius. His volumes give many details of the rule of  Abraha, but make no mention of a journey across the desert with an army containing elephants. Elephants graze most of the day and consume as much as 600 pounds of food and 60 gallons of water per day. They are not desert animals, and an elephant marching across the Arabian desert would require even more water. Although the Ethiopians used elephants for battle in areas where water and food was readily available, they never used them in the desert. The distance from Sana to Mecca is over 500 miles,  and it would have been highly unlikely for an army of elephants to cross that distance.

Apart from the issue of whether Surat Al-Fil is accurate historically, another interesting question is when it was written. Muslim scholars have always claimed it was an early Meccan sura, but this was during the time when the Negus of Ethiopia welcomed Muslim refugees sent by Muhammad from Mecca because of the hardships they were experiencing there (described here). The relationship between Muhammad and the Negus was good, with the Muslims enjoying his hospitality. It is difficult to relate this hospitality with Islam's rendition of the Negus building a temple in Sana to detract from the Kaaba and then sending an army to destroy it. Had his entire army been destroyed by Muhammad's machine-gun firing birds, why would the Negus turn around and welcome the Muslims as guests to live in his country for years?

An additional point is that the Quraysh of Mecca sent emissaries to Ethiopia in an attempt to persuade the Negus to repatriate the Muslims who were living there. If the Koranic story of the elephant had been given by Muhammad before that time, it stands to reason the emissaries would have used it to inform the Negis of what Muhammad said about them. There is no evidence, however, that this story was used in their arguments to the Negus.

What makes more sense is that this sura was written later in Medina, perhaps when Muhammad was preparing to invade the Christians of Tabuk. It was during the Medinan period that Muhammad began to demonize regional Christians in his preparations to attack them. What better way to motivate his army than to create a story of a Christian general who wanted to destroy the Kaaba but whose army was destroyed by the miraculous power of Allah!

There are additional problems with the Islamic account of the story. According to Ibn Ishaq, the Christian Abraha built his church to divert Arab pilgrims from Mecca to Sana for economic reasons. When the Arab defecated in the church, Abraha determined to attack the Kaaba both for revenge and to destroy the competition to his church. The problem is that Muslims, from ancient historians to those alive today, view history and religion from an Islamic perspective. The idea of a Haj, or pilgrimage to a holy location where one's sins will be forgiven, is a Muslim and not a Christian concept. It is true that Christians visit revered sites, but not for the reasons Muslims do. Christians also do not try to entice non-Christians to visit their sites. The idea that Abraha would build a pilgrim site to attract non-Christian pilgrims is not a Christian concept and has never happened throughout Christian history. As noted above, it is more likely the story was created to increase antagonism against Christians attacked by the Muslims at the end of Muhammad's life and in the decades following.

Although Muslim scholars claim that all the Arabs made pilgrimages to Mecca and its Kaaba, which they believe was built by Adam and restored by Abraham, non-Muslim history tells a different story. At least 21 regional cities are recorded as having temples called kaabas where people came for pilgrimages and religious practices. A Greek historian named Diodorus and other pre-Islamic historians described one such location in present day Tabuk in northern Saudi Arabia as being where "all the Arabs came for pilgrimage". The idea that Mecca was a famous religious center and that Abraha would come from Yemen to destroy its Kaaba because it provided competition to his church in Sana is nothing more than Muslim fiction.

Here is a short review of how Surat Al-Fil contradicts historical records:

1. Historians of the era including Procopius detail in history the reign of Abraha in Yemen. These details include how he came to rule, accounts of his wars, and his death in about 535 AD. They make no mention of his crossing the desert with elephants to attack Mecca, or of his death after being blitzed by Muhammad's magical birds.

2. These historians state that Abraha died about 545 AD, 25 years before Muslims claim he died during the year of Muhammad's birth, and that following his death his sons took over his kingdom. When the Persians invaded about 570 AD and defeated them, these sons had already been ruling many years.

3. The Muslim claim that Abraha built a cathedral to divert pilgrims from Mecca has no historical basis apart from the Quran-based claim of Muslim historians. Engravings found at Yemen's Dam of Marab, one of the eight wonders of the ancient world, detail various events of Abraha's kingdom, but none of them mention his cathedral or any attack against Mecca.

4. The Himyar Kingdom was at enmity with Abraha, and assisted the Persians in defeating him in 570 AD. The Himyars left extensive engravings of their battles with Abraha. Had he been killed by a magical bird attack following his raid against Mecca it is highly improbable this would not have been noted in their historical engravings. As can be expected, there is no mention of such an event.

5. The Ethiopian Kings of the time also left records of their territories and rulers. There is no mention in ancient Ethiopian history of Abraha attacking Mecca and dying as a result.

6. Ibn Ishaq is the only reference for the story as believed by Muslims. Even later Muslim historians acknowledge that Ibn Ishaq often exaggerated in some of the accounts he created surrounding Muhammad's life. These same historians, however, have no other source to authenticate the events described in Surat Al-Fil.

And here is a short list of why Muslim historians deliberately distorted the historical records concerning Abraha:

1. Their claim that he died during the year of Muhammad's birth gave added importance to the birth of Islam's Prophet.
2. The story created animosity against Christians, in preparation for the attacks carried out against them by Muslims beginning near the end of Muhammad's life.
3. The Koran says so.

For believing Muslims, "The Koran says so" is the most important reason of all. Very few have the courage to publicly question the historical accuracy of the Koran.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Koran and the Samaritans

Arabic last names often indicate where someone comes from. Yahya al-Libi is known to be from Libya, Hasan al-Masri from Egypt (Masr is Egypt in Arabic), Rashid al-Maghrabi from Morocco (al-Maghrab in Arabic), and Yunis al-Iskandarani from the city of Alexandria (al-Iskandariya).

It follows logically that for an individual to bear the laqab (last name) of a location, that location must have been there when the person was named. If Alexandria was formed by the Greek emperor Alexander the Great in the fourth century BC, it stands to reason that anyone with the name al-Iskandarani lived after that time and not before. If a folk tale claimed to be from the 10th century BC with a hero named al-Iskandarani, it would be easy to conclude the story was false.

Such self-evident fact was apparantly of no interest to the compilers of the Koran, as seen in the attention given to someone named "al-Samari" (the Samaritan) in the story of Moses and his brother Aaron. The city of Samaria, from which this person was named, was built in the 9th century BC. Moses, liberator of the Hebrews from Egypt, lived at least six centuries before. How does the Koran have a Samaritan speaking to Moses six centuries before the city was even created?

The story of Moses is found in surah Ta-Ha (Koran 20). On the trek across the Sinai desert from Egypt to what is now Palestine and Israel, Moses left his people and went to meditate for 40 days on Mount Sinai. The following conversations then took place (verses 83-97):

Allah: Why did you leave your people, Moses?
Moses: They are always bothering me, and I wanted to be close to you, Allah.
Allah: Well, we tempted them during your absense, and they failed the test.
Moses: (rushes back to his people): Why did you melt all your gold jewelry to make a golden calf?
People: It's not our fault. The Egyptians gave us all that gold just to get rid of us. The Samaritan put it in the fire, and out came this golden calf?
Moses to Aaron: Why did you allow them to do this?
Aaron: Don't blame me, it's not my fault. If I would have tried to stop them it would have started a riot. It's his fault (pointing to the Samaritan).
Moses to the Samaritan: Why did you do this, Samaritan?
The Samaritan: It's not my fault. I just threw some dust from the footprint of the angel Gabriel's horse into the fire after we threw in the gold and voila - out came this live golden calf!
Moses: Get the hell out of here - and go to hell, by the way! We're going to burn this golden calf and scatter its ashes in the sea.

Like many stories in the Koran, it's an interesting read. But is it true?

Early Koranic expositor Qatada explained that the Samaritan in this story was a Israelite from the tribe of Samaria who lost his faith in Allah during the long trek across the Sinai. The Samaritan pretended to accept the monotheism of Moses, but retained his desire to worship the cow as his people had done in Egypt.

To protect himself from accusations of wrongdoing (such as the rumors that swirled when he married his daughter-in-law as described here), Muhammad invented the concept that prophets could not commit major sins. According to the Bible, Aaron is the one who instigated the making of the golden calf. Since Aaron as a Prophet in Islam could not have done this evil deed, Muhammad created the fictitious Samaritan to be the culprit.

The book of I Kings in the Bible describes a king of northern Israel named Omri who "bought the hill of Samaria from Shemer for two talents of silver and built a city on the hill. He called it Samaria, after Shemer who was the former owner of the hill" (I Kings 16:24). This was in the 9th century BC, 600 years after Moses.

II Kings 17:1-6 describes the defeat of Samaria by the Assyrian emperor Shalmaneser V in 722 BC when he deported its residents to Assyria (present day Iraq) and brought people from Iraq to repopulate the city. This Biblical account was confirmed by an engraving discovered by French diplomat to Iraq and archeologist Paul Emil Botta in 1842 that reads, "In the first year of my reign I laid seige to the city of Samaria. I deported 27,290 of its citizens and replaced them with people from other areas."

The people Shalmaneser brought to Samaria from Iraq were not Jewish monotheists, but idol worshippers deported from areas conquered by the Assyrians. These Samaritans did not speak Hebrew, and never assimilated into the culture of their Jewish neighbors. They were hated even in the time of Jesus, and one of his most famous parables, The Good Samaritan, tells the story of a young man beaten and left to die by the side of the road. Religious rabbis passed by the young man without helping him, said Jesus, but a Samaritan outcast rescued him and nursed him back to recovery.

As early Koranic expositors such as Qatada realized that the Samaritan invented by Muhammad and described in the Koran did not even exist, they tried to cover his mistake by insisting this was the name of one of the ancient tribes of Israel. All the tribes of Israel are listed in the Bible, however, and there is no evidence that a tribe by that name ever existed.

Is there any historical figure to whom Muhammad could have referred when he described this Samaritan who pretended to be a follower of Moses but remained an idolater in his heart,  and who had the magical power to create a live calf from gold and dust thrown in a fire? The New Testament book of Acts, chapter 8, describes a first century AD Samaritan named Simon the Magician popular in Samaria. Jealous of the miracles committed by the Apostle Peter when he visited the city, Simon offered him money for the same power. When Peter refused, Simon pretended to follow him but later recanted of his Christian faith and founded a heresy known as Simonianism which contained a mixture of Christian belief and magical practice. Members of the Ebionite sect, discussed here as having a direct influence on Muhammad, describe in available writings from the 4th century AD the considerable influence of Simon. One text, entitled The Recognitions of Clement, even recounts that Simon claimed he could bring statues to life. This is exactly the same as the Koranic account of the Samaritan bringing life to the golden calf.

Could Muhammad's relative Waraqa bin Naufal, himself probably an Ebionite priest in Mecca, been the one who first told Muhammad about this Samaritan with his magical powers? And could Muhammad, never one to quibble about historical details as evidenced here when he confused tribes living soon after Noah with the Nabateans who lived milennia later, simply thrown al-Samari into his story of Moses and Aaron to prove his point that a real Prophet never commits great sins, thus distancing himself from any similar accusation?

Many Muslims who have read thus far will at this point simply grit their teeth and press their heels against the floor. There he goes again, attacking our Prophet and our Holy Book! Relatively few will seriously think the story through and try to find an answer that makes sense. It's much easier - and safer - to simply believe.

The above material was adapted from this Arabic TV show Daring Question

Monday, October 24, 2011

Hillary Clinton and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was quick to respond when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad suggested in a recent interview with Fareed Zakaria that Iran would be willing to train Iraqi troops after American forces leave.

We have bases and allies in the region, she blustered. Iran should think twice before it makes any plans to train Iraqi soldiers.

I thought it was the silliest statement I've heard a Secretary of State make since Condoleezza Rice stated that Sunnis and Shias needed to resolve their 1400 year old conflict by just "getting over it". Actually she was correct - they do - but to base American foreign policy on the hopes that they would was insane.

I understand that Secretaries of State are not allowed to think creatively and speak independently. If they want to keep their jobs they can only say things the Boss will approve. But the reality is that Iraq is now an independent Shia-majority nation and Iran is its closest ally. There is nothing America can do - except bluster - if it invites Iranian soldiers to train its own. America handed Iraq to Iran eight years ago on a silver platter and Iranian influence is now entrenched from Basrah to Beirut. Now is the time to experience the results.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

The Machine Gun Preacher

I knew I was listening to something unusual when I heard my drive-to-work buddies The Broads speak favorably of someone who had "got saved" in a church in Pennsylvania. They were talking about the movie The Machine Gun Preacher, based on the book Another Man's War. It's the true story of a rough and tumble man whose life was turned around when he accepted the challenge to visit east Africa with a church construction team. That short-term trip turned into a life mission as author Sam Childers determined to build an orphanage and help rescue children in the south Sudan and northern Uganda. The movie tells the result of that decision.

I saw the movie this afternoon. The theater was almost empty, but I'm glad I went. The film probably won't win Oscars at next year's Academy Awards, but for me it was a gripping story that raised some uncomfortable questions. According to the movie and the author's own claims, he has killed soldiers in The Lord's Resistance Army to rescue children and stop others from being killed. To what extent does a Christian use violence to stop violence? How often does one kill to stop killing? Is the author correct when he says, "If your child is abducted by a brutal rapist and murderer and I bring her safely home, does it matter what I did to rescue your child?"

The words "evangelical" and "missionary" don't usually get good press in the American media, and it's easy to overlook activists like Sam Childers who really try to make a difference. I'm glad they made a movie of his life, and kudos to the Broads for promoting his movie.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Can We Call It Islamic Terrorism?

A debate is taking place across the political, academic, and religious spectrum about whether acts of terrorism committed by Muslims should be called Islamic Terrorism. I've recently attended conferences where I've heard alleged experts state that it should not be. If terrorism committed by the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka is not called Hindu Terrorism, they argue, and if the terrorism of Norwegian Anders Breivik is not Christian Terrorism, why are acts of terror committed by Muslims called Islamic Terrorism?

It is a good question deserving a thoughtful answer which was given, in my opinion, by Rashid and Middle East Forum director Magdi Khalil in this recent Arabic program. Rashid noted that terrorism could be described as religious terrorism if it fulfilled the following four criteria:

1. The individuals carrying out the operation were devoted to their religion.
2. These individuals used religious texts to justify their operation.
3. The individuals carried out their operation to achieve religious objectives.
4. Religious leaders supported the operation and praised those who carried it out.

Rashid and Magdi then applied these four criteria to the perpetrators of 9/11, the Oklahoma Bombing, and the Norwegian Massacre. In his final testament, suicide pilot Muhammad Atta mentioned three times in four short pages that he would soon be meeting the virgins of paradise promised him by his prophet Muhammad. In his justification for 9/11, Osama bin Ladin did not inform his fellow Muslims it was intended to punish an imperialistic, political enemy. He did say that it was a blow against the rayyis al-kuffar, a religious expression meaning the leader of the infidels. The writings of bin Ladin, as well as Ayman al-Zawahiri and other al-Qaeda Sharia or religious leaders are filled with references to the Koran, the Hadith, and early Islamic history to justify their strategy. The 1500 page manifesto of Anders Breivik, in contrast, does not mention the teachings of Jesus or the Bible a single time. His only reference to Christianity is a generic one in which he envisions a Christian Europe being changed to a Muslim one. And Timothy McVeigh, rather than fantasizing about virgins in paradise, acknowledged that if there was a hell he would probably be going there.

What were the objectives of McVeigh and Breivik, as compared to Muslim terrorists? Again, the first two had nothing to do with achieving the goals of Christianity. McVeigh was angry at his government, and Breivik was fearful for his culture. Muslim terrorists, on the other hand, state again and again that their goal is to establish Deen Allah, the religion of God, throughout the earth as Islam was practiced by Muhammad and his early followers.

It was in the response of Muslim religious Shaykhs to the death of Osama bin Ladin that the contrast is most clear. Rashid played a montage of Arabic-speaking Imams across the Middle East eulogizing the death. Without exception they attacked and blamed the United States but praised bin Ladin. He was a sincere Muslim, they reminded their viewers, and it is our responsibility to pray Salat al-Ghaib, the prayers for departed souls asking God to receive them into Fardous or Paradise. We might have had our differences with him, they added, but these differences were only minor points of disagreement. What I find interesting is that the "minor points of disagreement" were the practice of al-Qaeda of declaring Muslim governments Takfir or infidel. It would understandably be difficult for an Egyptian, Moroccan, or Saudi Shaykh who only holds his position with the blessing of his government to join Ayman al-Zawahiri in condemning that government as apostate.

I've noted before that the difference between the public stated positions of Muslims in the West and their counterparts in the Arab World is striking. I've also noted that most Western non-Muslim academics and politicians, very few of whom know Arabic, have as their sources English-speaking Muslims who tell them what they want them to believe. Even those non-Muslim experts who claim to know Arabic, in my opinion, don't really know it well enough to listen to the Osama bin Ladin eulogies played by Rashid and really know what is going on.

Magdi Khalil then divided Islamic history into five stages. The first, he said, was the Islamic conquest of the 7th and 8th centuries, followed by the Crusades in which Europe attempted to regain the territory it had lost to Islam. The third stage was the Ottoman Empire in which Islam again tried to reconquer Europe and famously reached "the Gates of Vienna" in 1683, followed by the European imperialism and colonization of the next two centuries. The last forty years, said Magdi, have seen the beginning of the fifth stage, the revival of political Islam which again strives to reign throughout the world.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the show was when Khalid called in from Jordan. "Hello Rashid," said Khalid. "I was a terrorist. I left Jordan to go to Iraq in 2003. I had been a university student and a moderate Muslim but left university to devote myself to Islam. I first went to Syria, where all the incoming Mujahideen and Jihadists stayed together. We were given food and everything we needed until it was time to depart to Iraq. We travelled to Abu Kamal, which is a town on the Syrian-Iraqi border, and entered with no difficulty because we had been given passports and all the necessary travel documents. We first went to Al Qaim, then to Ramadi, and finally arrived in Baghdad where we were divided up into different groups. There were young Jihadists from all parts of the Arab World including Tunisia, Syria, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen. You name the country, they were there. We were all young extremists who had come for Jihad. We were not interested in politics, but based our beliefs upon the Asoul, the original texts of Islam. If the texts supported fighting and killing, we were prepared to fight and kill."

"But some Muslims argue," interrupted Rashid, "That you misinterpreted the texts of Islam."
"That is incorrect," replied Khalid, "We followed the exegesis of Ibn Taymiyah. He said that when Muslims were living in a state of weakness they should follow the peaceful suras of the Koran that were written in Mecca, but when they became powerful they should follow the suras of Medina."

"Why did you change your mind about Jihad?" asked Rashid.
"The reason I left Iraq and returned to Jordan was not for religious reasons or because I thought I had misinterpreted Islam," replied Khalid. "I returned because my family needed me. But after my return I began to ask myself why I was being told to hate and fight Christians and Jews. I discovered that the reasons were religious, not political."

When Rashid asked Khalid where he was now in his spiritual journey, Khalid replied he no longer believed in Muhammad but was beginning to investigate the teaching of Jesus.

I find stories like this very encouraging. When I say my goal is to convince Muslims that Muhammad was just a man and the Koran is just a book, I am often informed it will never happen. The experience of Khalid tells me that it can happen, although just one person at a time. I believe that is much more intellectually honest than trying to convince Khalid he merely misinterpreted the peaceful message of Muhammad and the Koran. And yes, I do believe it should be called Islamic terrorism.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Final Testament of the Holy Bible by James Frey

I'm embarrassed to admit that I am influenced by the media. The reason I watch neither Sean Hannity nor Rachel Maddow is not that I don't believe they are both gifted, charismatic individuals, but that I realize how easily I could be sucked into their respective and polarizing agendas.

I am one of millions of people who, a half dozen years or so ago, was captivated by James Frey's book A Million Little Pieces. And I am one of millions who was angered and disappointed when The Smoking Gun website followed by Oprah exposed him as "a liar and a fraud". Oprah was particularly incensed because she had both interviewed him and endorsed his book on her television show. She was merciless with him afterwards. Along with many others, I tossed James Frey into the rubbish bin never to think of him again.

Until last week that is, when I listened to an extensive recent interview between Oprah and Frey. She was apologetic, seeking his forgiveness (well, not in so many words) for her role in the hell he went through. She acknowledged that she had judged him. He explained he had written his book, which was loosely based upon his own life experiences, as a novel and only changed it to a "memoir" when publishers told him it was the only way they would publish it. He noted that he saw himself as an artist as much as an author. Just as Pablo Picasso painted "self-portraits" that in no way resembled himself except in his own imagination, James had written his book as a self-portrait only loosely connected to documented times and events. But unlike Picasso, James was exposed to a scrutiny of his life by the American media and public that could have destroyed a lesser man. One of the most poignant moments of the interview was when he described a painting in his house called Public Stoning. Every time he looked at the painting, said James, it reminded him of what he had gone through and exhorted him never to go through that again.

He then described a book he had just written, a reinterpretation of the life of Jesus called The Final Testament of the Holy Bible. I'm reading and enjoying it. If reading about a bisexual, alcoholic Jesus who lives in the slums of New York City and impregnates a young Puerto Rican stripper is too much for your theological tastebuds, I wouldn't recommend it. But if you are open to new insights from a young, gifted author, this might be your kind of book. I'm reminded of a pastor friend who once told me he never formed his theology from the movies he watched. The same should hold true of books as well.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Jack Mormon Coffee Company

I spent last weekend visiting my son in Salt Lake City and we spent Saturday morning at the Mormon Temple. It was my first time in SLC, and I had not realized a trip to the temple carries almost the same significance to Mormons as a pilgrimmage to Mecca for Muslims. Groups of converts from all over the world were walking around the compound and there were numerous wedding parties. It makes sense to a believer; what could be better than getting married on the temple grounds? I found myself gawking like any other tourist at the groups of clean-cut people, men all wearing white shirts and black trousers and many of the women modestly dressed also in black and white. I wanted to take photos (which I didn't because I've never been a camera person), and realized how the Amish must feel in my homeland of Pennsylvania when tourists flock to take pictures of them.

We then walked to a nearby farmers market where along with the fresh produce were dozens of booths of jewelery makers and other crafts. We wanted a cup of coffee, and then noticed the booth with the title The Jack Mormon Coffee Company. As we ordered our coffee I told the hostess that I imagined a lot of out of state visitors did not understand the significance of the name. She said that was correct, and I asked my son if he had ever heard the expression. He had not, and I explained that a Jack Mormon was a non-practicing or ex-Mormon. Mormons are not allowed to drink coffee (unless the reigning Prophet has had a recent revelation of which I am unaware); thus the name The Jack Mormon Coffee Company.

Sunday morning some friends I had known overseas invited us to attend a special church service commemorating 9/11. Their non-Mormon church began only four years ago and now has hundreds of weekly attendees. Many of these are ex-Mormons and they even have special seminars on "Confronting Mormonism with Courage and Compassion".

I find the reasons people leave religions even more interesting than the reasons people convert to them. The reasons people join a religious group are often predictable; they are lonely, going through a difficult period in their lives,  or meet someone from that religion who impresses them. I would guess that ninety percent of the women who convert to Islam did so because of the influence of a Muslim man in their lives. But the reasons people leave religions are fascinating. They all seem to share the commonality of realizing that things they once believed or are commanded to do no longer make sense. As I've noted before, I think that is a good thing.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Remembering 9/11

We're all going to hear and read a lot over the next few weeks about how 9/11 changed America. The reality is that 9/11 did not change America; it was our leaders' reaction to 9/11 that changed America.

In 2006 I had the opportunity to go to Baghdad and ended up working there for the next two years. At one point I asked a coworker back in America if she had ever considered going there as well. "I don't think so," she replied. "I'm too much against the war to go to Iraq." My unspoken response was, "And you think that all of us who are out here thought the war was a good idea?"

A few months ago I was having a drink in a neighborhood Irish Pub. It is near a military hospital and some of our "wounded warriors" are bussed there once a week to get them out of the hospital for a few hours. (The expression Wounded Warrior, by the way, is an euphemism if there ever was one; it sounds so much more noble than truthfully describing someone as a triple amputee or a paraplegic). One young man was sitting there in his wheelchair. His legs had been blown away, and he was trying to manage a beer with his two prosthetic arms and hands. It was his face though, untouched by his physical wounds, that looked the most tragic. The look in his eyes was one of intense hopelessness and loneliness.

As I watched him, I felt a wave of anger sweep through me. What was there in Iraq or Afghanistan that was worth the loss of his arms and legs? What was worth the blown apart arms, legs, and lives of many more thousands of young men and women than those killed killed on 9/11?

Vice President Cheney's new book is just the latest of a series of accounts written by officials in the Bush administration. They all justify themselves and defend their publicly-declared reasons for taking us to war from the comfort of their million-dollar homes.

As I remember 9/11 a week or so from now, I won't be thinking very much about where I was when I first saw those planes crashing into the Twin Towers. I'll be thinking about Colin Powell informing the United Nations that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and understanding the administration had already made their decision to go to war. I'll be thinking about President Bush standing on the deck of an aircraft carrier announcing that the Mission was Accomplished and realizing he did not have a clue about what he had gotten us into. I'll be thinking of President Obama's decision to send 30,000 additional forces to Afghanistan, and knowing that hundreds of them would soon be maimed or dead. And I'll be thinking of the young man at the Irish Bar with the incredible sadness on his face trying to drink his beer with his prosthetic hands.

Monday, August 29, 2011

My Father Was a Freedom Fighter by Ramzy Baroud

I've always considered myself a non-traditional Christian Zionist. The difference between me and traditional Christian Zionists, as I imagined it, was that they had eschatological reasons for supporting Israel at all costs (eschatology, for non-native speakers of English from Malaysia, means a theological perspective for events scheduled to happen at the end of the world). Eschatological Christian Zionists believe that God gave the land of Israel to the Jews for all time, and the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 set in motion events that will culminate in the end of history as we know it. Well-known Christians preachers such as John Hagee  have built an entire career on this conviction.

A non-traditional Christian Zionist - of which I might be the only one on the entire planet - takes a slightly different perspective. I believe that Israel needs to remain planted where it is because it is impossible to undo the last 60 years of history. I also believe that a one state solution, where Israelis and Palestinians live together on the same territory, is impossible because, frankly, I don't trust Islam. Muhammad laid out as clear as a bell that according to his plan Muslims were to rule. Non-Muslims would not be forced to accept Islam, but would be required to live in subjugation to their Muslim rulers. For 1400 years Jews in Baghdad, Damascus, Cairo, Tunis, and many other cities lived under those constraints. For the last 60 years they have been free, and they aren't about to go back. As long as one Muslim standing believes that the teachings and actions of Muhammad are still binding today, Israel is in danger.

Perhaps another difference between me and a traditional Christian Zionist is that the traditionals tend to support Israel no matter what. Israel is always right, and the Palestinians are always wrong. Israel is never to be blamed, and the Palestinians are never to be taken seriously. Israel is never to be criticized, judged or condemned, and the Palestinians are always to be ignored.

If I am really honest, however, I have to acknowledge there hasn't been that much difference between me and a traditional Christian Zionist. More than I would want to admit, I have accepted the Israeli narrative of what happened in the first half of the last century. Jewish settlers began to arrive in Palestine from various parts of Europe, the narrative goes, and lived in peace with the Palestinians from whom they purchased land. Arabs arrived from Yemen, Iraq, and other countries to work for the Jews in the economy that was growing there. There were minor skirmishes, but for the most part life between the two communities was peaceful and prosperous. It was only after the United Nations declared Israel to be a nation and the Palestinians refused the proposed settlement that the trouble began. Egypt's Gamal Nasser promised to drive Israel into the sea, Arab armies attacked the fledgling country, and Palestinians by the tens of thousands voluntarily left their homes thinking they would return in triumph just a few weeks later. When they realized they could never return home, they turned into relentless enemies determined to destroy both Israel and its Jewish population.

It was only when I read Ramzy Baroud's book, My Father Was a Freedom Fighterthat I experienced the eye-witness account of the Palestinian diaspora as told by a Palestinian whose parents made the trek from what is now southern Israel to Gaza. As I read I realized I had two choices. I could either choose to believe that Ramzy was exaggerating or lying, or accept that the expulsion of the Palestinians was a well-thought out and executed operation that totally ignored the rights of hundreds of thousands of people.

As a typical man, I'm always looking for solutions. Is there any possible solution to the "Palestinian problem" that will soon, no matter how much Israeli and Western politicians try to ignore it, become a serious "Israeli problem"? Allow me to make a few suggestions.

1. The first step towards true reconciliation always comes from the party in power. That party is Israel, and Israel must take the first step. Although I would not expect Israel to say it is sorry for forcibly expelling the Palestinians in 1948, they can at least admit that is what they did. And although Israel might be unable to give Palestinians the right to return to their farms and villages, they can at least pay them a fair remunerations for the land that was stolen from them.

2. Palestinians must make a clean break from Muhammad. All that the Koran and the Hadith teach about the Jews and about the need for Islam to rule must be seen as merely the teaching of a 7th century Arab tribal commander that has no relevance for today.

3. Both Jews and Muslims must take a little more seriously the teaching of a Jewish Rabbi who lived in Palestine seven centuries before Muhammad. "Love you enemies," said Jesus, "And do good to those who hate you."

An impossible, unrealistic command? Yusuf al-Qaradawi believes so. I heard him explain on al-Jazeera TV that the teaching of Jesus to love your enemy was an impossible one that no-one was able to keep. Muhammad was much more practical, continued the Shaykh, because Muhammad did not tell you to love your enemy but only to be just to him. The problem, of course, is that the justice of Muhammad leaves much to be desired.

So there you are, a three-step solution to begin solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I think it would be a great start, but whether anyone will be willing to put it into practice is another story altogether.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Non-Muslims in the Arab Spring and Religious Rights

The Arab Spring, of which Muammar Qaddafi is the latest victim and Bashar Assad likely soon to follow, is the result of millions of people who had no voice, few rights, and little power suddenly discovering all three. The voice they found was not that of Arabic satellite TV, the rights they demanded were not willingly given them by their governments, and their weapons were not drone aircraft and Abrams tanks. Instead they discovered that by communicating under the radar of government intelligence services using Twitter, Facebook, blogs and cell phones, they could unite to organize demonstrations and eventually bring down governments. Their demands were for the fall of dictators, the end of emergency rule under which people could be arrested and held without charge, the opportunity to elect their own political leaders, and religious freedom.

Wait a minute; did I just say "religious freedom"? I was kidding, of course. That is the definitive difference between the Arab Spring and other famous revolutions such as the American Revolution of 1776. The settlers who came to America from Europe were looking for the opportunity to practice religion according to the dictates of their consciences. When they established the American Constitution, they took care to ensure that no religion would ever be imposed upon the American people and that individuals would have the right to believe whatever they wanted about deities, religious  systems and holy books. Freedom of religion is an essential part of our constitution and legal system.

You might argue that we haven't always done it very well, and that reminds me of a conversation I had with an Indian woman from Bombay many years ago. We were both in Capetown for a few weeks during the time of apertheid, and she commented how uncomfortable she felt by the way white South Africans looked at her as she visited a local mall. When I reminded her that even in America blacks did not always feel welcome in public places she replied, "Yes, but the difference is that in America racial discrimination is against the law. Here, it is part of the law."

And that's the reason religious freedom, the right to believe or disbelieve whatever you want about Muhammad or Allah or the Koran, is not even part of the equation when it comes to the Arab Spring and the new Middle East. Most Muslims never even consider how discriminatory their faith is to non-Muslims in general and ex-Muslims in particular. They love to quote La Ikrah fil-Deen, "There is no compulsion in religion" from Surah al-Baqarah in the Koran, but do not realize that their own most famous Koranic expositors such as Ibn Kathir interpret that verse to describe how Muhammad broke up Muslim families in Medina who had given their children to be raised by Jewish women. When Muhammad expelled the Jews from Medina and the Muslim women wanted their children back, Muhammad refused to allow it saying, "La Ikrah fil-Deen" (I have described this in detail here).

The new constitutions being written in countries that have experienced recent upheaval, such as Iraq, Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya, all include sentences containing something like "Islam is our religion and Sharia is our law." People who leave Islam in these "Arab Spring" or "America liberated" countries have no more rights than they ever did. It is still against the law, subject to persecution, prosecution, and imprisonment to say nothing of social rejection, to openly and boldly simply leave Muhammad behind.

This Arabic Television program, hosted by Rashid, recently dealt with the question of why Muslims who have exchanged Muhammad for Jesus in Arab countries - and there are thousands if not more - are not vocally demanding their religious rights just as they are joining with others in demanding political rights. Even apart from Muslim converts to Christianity - they call themselves the Abireen, or the people who have "crossed over" - why are not the millions of Copts in Egypt demanding full religious equality with their Muslim fellow citizens? Why are they not demanding the right to build churches as easily as Muslims build mosques, to call Muslims to Christianity as boldly as Muslims call Christians to Islam, and the right to run for high political office as easily as Muslims do?

The guests who appeared on Rashid's television show believe without exception that the Arab Spring is a good thing that will eventually result in increased rights for all people, non-Muslims as well as ex-Muslims. I hope they are right.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Why Do We Kill: The Pathology of Murder in Baltimore - Kelvin Sewell

I've just read the sobering book Why Do We Kill? The book is unique because it was written not by an academic, sociologist, or psychologist, but a policeman who walked the streets of Baltimore for 22 years and asked himself how people could do the things he's seen people do.

The book was special to me because I lived in Baltimore the early years of my marriage. My children were born there. We lived in a rowhouse in Butchers Hill, one of the previously-deprived neighborhoods being upscaled for a new population of white professionals like me. Every day I took my dog for a run around Patterson Park. I still remember the shout I got one day from a snarky local. "Hey, is that your dog?" "It sure is." "It sure looks like you!"

As I look back 30 years later, I realize I was never a part of Baltimore - I just lived there a few years. Besides, what could it mean to be a part of Baltimore? Neighborhoods changed completely from one block to the next, even from one side of the street to the other. Walk one block from my rowhouse on Baltimore Street, and I was in a neighborhood of Polish immigrants who had lived there for generations. Walk a block on the other side, and I was in the black ghetto.

In a very real sense, that has been a part of my entire adult life - I've never lived in a community of which I felt a part. I was always a foreigner during my 15 years in the Middle East, living and working with other expatriates isolated from the local culture and community. Even though I made more of an effort than most to learn the language, culture, and history of the countries I lived in, I was still a stranger. This was followed by several years living in Georgia, which was no different. I wasn't really a part of the south; I was just a Yankee temporarily living there. I lived in a modern subdivision inhabited mostly by geographical transplants like myself. The company for which I worked had very few genuine Southerners in it. Even my church was not local - it was part of a denomination started by a southern Californian and pastored by a New Englander.

So what does my experience have to do with a book about murder in Baltimore? Although the author could not come up with a single definitive answer for why hundreds of young Baltimoreans point their guns at other  people every year and pull the trigger, I came away with the impression that these young people experience a deep, deep sense of isolation. Unlike me, however, they do not have positive influences in their lives that enable them to move beyond their isolation. Their inability to emotionally enter into the life of another person makes it much easier to end that life.

As I began to read the book, I carried many of the judgments against the young murderers that other White Christian Baby Boomers might carry. "I bet almost all of them are black....I wonder how many of them came from broken families?....Do they even know what it means to have a father?"
Actually, these are relevant questions, but they don't cut to the heart of the issue. The author points out that our cities are still neglecting their poor. In the case of Baltimore, billions of dollars have been invested in developing the Inner Harbor skyline that attracts millions of tourists and catches the eye of everyone taking I-95 South from New York City all the way to Miami. City officials have dealt with Baltimore's legendary murder rates by building larger and newer prisons and exploiting every statistic that points to a lower ratio of any type of crime. But the teenagers whose case files are examined by Kelvin Sewell still continue to kill, and too few people are asking the question, "Why do they do it, and what can we do about it?"

Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Pangs of Ramadan

"Wallahi this is hard," complained Abderrahman as he stopped by my desk the other day. "Ramadan in August is not easy! We have finished eight days, and still have 22 more to go."

He was perhaps expecting a word of encouragement or commiseration from me, but when none was forthcoming his tone picked up. "I've been reading articles about the benefits of fasting," he assured me. "It cleans out your digestive system and purifies your kidneys. It removes toxins from your body and gives it an entirely fresh start."

As Abderrahman left to wait anxiously for six more hours until he could swallow a taste of water or a morsel of food, I realized there was no way I could tell him what I was really thinking. Do Muslims realize how often people do not respond to them simply because of the realization the conversation will go nowhere? If I could have said what I wanted to, it would have been, "Abderrahman, God could care less whether you wait until sundown to swallow your saliva, have something to eat or drink, smoke a cigarette or have sex. He's not going to forgive any more or less of your sins based on how well you keep Ramadan. Fasting during the sacred month was only one of many Jewish pre-Islamic religious practices Muhammad adopted in his attempts to make the Jews believe he was the Prophet he claimed to me. You fast because you have been socially conditioned your entire life to do so, and the shame, fear, and guilt you would feel by not fasting far outweighs the physical discomfort of doing so. Most of all, just keep in mind the spiritual pride you will feel when it is all over!"

To be fair, Muslims are not the only people who live within the framework of the religious insanity that results from keeping man-made traditions intended to impose spirituality and morality. Yesterday I visited the land of my roots, the Pennsylvania Dutch country. As I followed Amish slow-moving horse-drawn buggies and saw Mennonite women with their plain dresses and white hair-coverings, I had the same question. "Do you really think God cares whether you drive a buggy or a Buick, whether you wear jeans or a long skirt?"

What I find interesting is how young Mennonites and Muslims, particularly teen-age girls, try to break away from the constraints of their religious communities. Anyone who has been to Cairo has noticed young Muslim girls wearing the hijab and long skirts - but with those skirts hugging their hips as tightly as they can wear them. Yesterday I saw young Mennonite girls wearing not the unattractive white hair coverings of their mothers, but thin slivers of black cloth that only covered a fraction of their hair. They almost looked as if they were cut out of black lace panties! (OK, I'll admit that is a very bad pun). The point is that Mennonite teenagers in Lancaster Pennsylvania and Muslims girls in Cairo Egypt are both suffering under the constraints of the religious systems imposed upon them, and both want escape. The more young people question why they do what they are told they must do, and have the courage to break with traditions that really make no sense, the better off they - and all the rest of us - will be.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Blessed Holy Ramadan

Islam is the only religion in the world that forces its adherents, under penalty of law, to keep its religious traditions.

On this Arabic TV show host Rashid recently listed the penalties for eating publicly in Muslim countries during Ramadan. Morocco's criminal code stipulates that any Muslim found eating in a public place during Ramadan will be fined and imprisoned from one to six months. In Qatar the penalty is not limited to Muslims; anyone including non-Muslim expatriates and foreign workers caught eating, drinking, or smoking in public will be fined and put in prison up to three months. The penalty in the UAE and Kuwait also applies to all, Muslims as well as non-Muslims, although the imprisonment is only one month.

Egypt's constitution does not ban eating publicly in Ramadan, but 155 Christians were arrested in one province alone, Aswan, in 2009 for eating publicly. With the collapse of the government and the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist movements, there is no telling how many will be arrested, persecuted, or harassed this year.

In Iran in 2004, a 14-year old youth died as a result of the 85 lashes he received for eating during Ramadan. In Algeria in 2010, Algerian Christians who were tried for eating publicly during Ramadan were sentenced to three years in prison, although the sentence was commuted as a result of media attention. At the beginning of Ramadan each year in Saudi Arabia, guest workers are warned that if they eat publicly during the month they will be arrested and subject to imprisonment and deportation.

Muslims in the West love to talk about the spiritual benefits they achieve from Ramadan. It brings them closer to God, they say, increases their Patience and gives them opportunity to focus their attention on matters of the spirit.

That could be true. Spirituality is incredibly subjective, and if someone says that going without food from dawn to dusk makes him or her a more spiritual person who am I to question?

What I find interesting, however, is that young Muslims living in Muslim societies overseas are questioning more and more the regulations that force them to follow particular religious practices whether they want to or not. A young Moroccan blogger named Kacem El Ghazzali, whose English blog can be seen here, posted an Arabic video on youtube in which he forcefully and eloquently argued that penalizing people for eating publicly during Ramadan is a violation of personal freedom and human rights.  Not only does it violate the human rights of Muslims, he argues, but it represents an Islam that imposes itself upon Muslims and non-Muslims whether they want it or not. More than 200,000 Arab-speaking people have viewed his video.

I find this amazing. Had he posted the same video just a few years ago, he might have received only a few hits. But young Muslims are questioning as never before tenets of their religion that their ancestors accepted without argument for centuries. Why does anyone, they are asking, have the right to tell me that I cannot have a sandwich in public for an entire month? What right does anyone have to inform non-Muslim visitors they cannot eat in a restaurant because that might offend Muslims? Why do we belong to a religion that imposes itself upon others whether they want it or not?

Much of this questioning is beyond the radar of the Western media. You probably won't read an article in the Huffington Post about Kacem El Ghazzali's 200,000 hits for his "Let's All Eat in Ramadan" campaign. I would suggest, however, it is much more important than opeds you will read there by Western Muslims telling us how much closer they feel to God during the Holy and Blessed month of Ramadan.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Dr. Laura and Gay Marriage

Today a man called radio talk-show host Dr. Laura with an interesting dilemma. He was gay, he said, 51 years old and had been celibate his entire life. He had a female friend whose company he enjoyed. They were both growing older, and the prospect of being old alone was not attractive to either of them. Would it be wrong for them to get married, he asked, with the understanding they would sleep in separate bedrooms and never have a physical relationship?

Dr. Laura reminded the caller that women enter marriage with expectations and fantasies of what the relationship will develop into. Did his friend secretly hope she might un-gay him? Was she really prepared to spend the rest of her life without physical intimacy? What would happen if she came to his bedroom one night needing something more and he refused her?

I'm really looking out for you, Dr. Laura informed her caller. You are the one who stands to get hurt if this marriage doesn't work out.

But as she often does, Dr. Laura was not content to let the matter rest but went a little deeper. If you are gay, she asked, Why have you spent your entire life celibate?

In his response the caller revealed he had come from a conservative, non-gay-accepting background, and had always been fearful and ashamed of his homosexuality.

But aren't you even now, probed Dr. Laura, Avoiding the reality of your gayness? Instead of marrying a straight woman and setting yourself up for heartbreak, why don't you find a mature gay man with whom you can have a real relationship?

And here is my question for Dr. Laura. She is against gay marriage. But she is also against "shacking up", as she calls it when two unmarried people live together. She is against sex outside marriage, often describing women who engage in it as "unpaid whores". But didn't she just go against her own principles by advising her caller to find a gay man with whom he could have a relationship? She was encouraging a relationship that would naturally include physical intimacy, as far as I could tell, and at the same time asserting he and his partner could not get married. I don't get it.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Spiritual DNA and Tithing

A psychiatrist once told me that it takes three generations to move out of a cult. I'm not sure if that is correct or not, but it was true in my case. My grandfather was a member of the Amish church, a cult that does not allow its members to use electricity or drive automobiles. He left that to join the Mennonite church which was a little less strict - you could drive a car, but women were expected to have long hair and wear little white caps known as "coverings". My father left the Mennonite church to join a fundamentalist church, and I have moved away from that. So there you are, three generations.

But I haven't completely escaped - there are still aspects of the fundamentalist Christian world view that permeate my spiritual DNA and are hard to break. Take the principle of tithing, which means you give a full ten percent of your gross income (for overseas readers, that means before taxes are taken out) to your local church. If you do this, God will "bless" you and your family. If you don't, God will get that ten percent one way or the other because it belongs to him and according to one well-known verse from the Old Testament you are "robbing God".  God's ways of getting his due money are numerous including job loss, ill health, wayward children, and car wrecks.

One might wonder where such a grotesque idea came from. It began in the book of Genesis, when Abraham went out with a small army to attack a king who had robbed and kidnapped his relatives. Abraham defeated the enemy king and on the way home was met by a mysterious priest called Melchizedek who blessed Abraham for his victory. Abraham responded by giving the priest ten percent of the spoils of war.

Fast forward to the end of  Leviticus, where an elaborate religious system had been established for the nation of Israel. Leviticus 27:30 says, "A tithe of everything from the land, whether grain from the soil or fruit from the trees, belongs to the Lord." Since the word "tithe" by definition means ten percent, farmers were expected to donate ten percent of their grain and fruit crops to support the priests and their families. Deuteronomy 12:17 adds that the people were not simply to eat their donations at home, but were to take them to the tabernacle where they were to be shared with family, friends, and the priests. It was actually a beautiful idea. As people made their pilgrimages to the tabernacle, they took food with them to share in great communal feasts that included the entire community.

The only other reference to tithing in the entire Bible, as far as I know, is the reference in Malachi where the author warned the people that if they refused to bring this food to the temple they were in fact robbing God.

The New Testament does not mention the tithe a single time. Jesus, Paul, the other apostles and authors - not a single word. The emphasis shifted from giving an obligatory ten percent to donating what you could to help people in need.

So why did I, when I got my first real job that paid seventeen thousand dollars a year, make sure that seventeen hundred of that went to my church? Was it fear that if I didn't God would zap me one way or the other? Was it really based upon a desire to give? I'm still not sure. All I know is that it was a part of my spiritual DNA, something I felt obligated to do.

American Christianity is now a multi-billion dollar enterprise, and God seems to have an insatiable thrist for new buildings. Each of these buildings costs millions of dollars, to say nothing of the staff and programs required to run them. What better way to finance the entire operation than to at least once a year have a few sermons on tithing? These sermons typically dangle before the congregation both the carrot and the stick. God's blessing is waiting to be received by those who tithe, but beware if you don't.

Part of this makes sense. If you belong to a country club you are required to pay annual dues - often thousands of dollars - to keep the club in the red. If you attend a church that has buildings to maintain, staff to pay and programs to run, you should do your part in meeting expenses. I'm just not convinced that the high-pressure tithe is the way to do it.

In a very real way, the tithing principle corrupts faith. The idea behind it is that you give ten percent to God, and the rest is yours to do with as you like. A person with disposable income can pay the tithe and have money to waste with no sense of responsibility to the person sitting next to her who doesn't have money to feed her children.

Imagine, for example, that you make two hundred thousand dollars a year and want a luxury car. The principle of tithing says that you give twenty thousand to the church and God will bless you as you enjoy your car. But if you skip the tithe and purchase the car, watch out! You might not make it home from the dealership.

Aren't there other principles that make a lot more sense? If you want a nice car, why not just save your money until you have the cash to go buy it? Or if you decide you can do with a lesser car, or drive the one you have a few more years because you would like to have more money available to help others, go for it. The money you give does not need to be an obligation. I don't think that is what God intended.

So why do I still feel the need to tithe? Remember what I said about your spiritual DNA, those principles you inherited from your childhood that are extemely difficult to erase or overcome? I'm still not sure that God is not out to get me if I don't put ten percent of this month's income in the offering plate next week.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Triple Agent: The al-Qaeda Mole who Infiltrated the CIA by Joby Warrick

I've recently read - and highly recommend - The Triple Agent. It is the story of how al-Qaeda agent Himam Balawi was trusted by the CIA well enough to be allowed onto their base in Khost, Afghanistan, where he blew himself up as well as several CIA case officers. It was one of the most tragic days in the history of the organization. Rather than review the book, I'd rather just comment on a few quotes. At one point, the author wrote:

"But somewhere Balawi had fallen off a cliff...against all logic and his own self-interest, he had embraced a virulent philosophy that threatened to destroy everything that Jordan had achieved in a half century of faltering progress toward modernity. He had risked his reputation and his own family in the service of fanatics living in caves two thousand miles away. How such a thing could happen to such a clever, world-wise young man as Balawi was unfathomable."

I've gone way past amazement - although I am still disappointed - when I hear otherwise intelligent, educated, articulate individuals such as Joby Warrick (and almost everybody else in the intelligence and academic communities as well as the media and the government) describe the radicalization of young Muslims as "unfathomable". It's like hearing someone describe Warren Jeff's belief in polygamy as "unfathomable". Excuse me, that's what your prophet did! Just as Mormon polygamists justify their behavior with chapter and verse from their holy books and the life of their prophet, so do Muslims Jihadists justify their terror, chapter and verse, from the Koran, the Sunna and the Sira (the life and sayings of Muhammad). And just as progressive Mormons try to argue - often with great difficulty and little success - that trying to model Joseph Smith in the 21st century is not a viable option, so moderate Muslims face an impossible task when they protest that the Jihadists are taking verses from the Koran and examples from the life of Muhammad out of context when they carry out their acts of terror.

At one point in the book the author described the efforts of Jordanian intelligence officer Bin Zeid to deradicalize Balawi. "Osama bin Laden's vision of Islam is distorted," Bin Zeid would say. "The Koran forbids the taking of innocent life."

There is nothing more amusing - although tragic - than reading the attempts of Muslims who are not Islamic scholars as they try to convince the Jihadists that they have Islam and Muhammad all wrong. At this post, I described the futile efforts of Tawfik Hamid to do just that. Bin Zeid might argue that the Koran forbids the taking of innocent life, but he completely skirts the questions of who is innocent in Islam. According to the Koran, no-one who denies the message of Muhammad can be described as innocent. Shaykh Yusuf Qaradawi argues that no Israeli can ever be considered innocent. It is only a step further for al-Qaeda to argue that no American is innocent. Again, the Jihadist Sharia scholars trump non-scholars like Bin Zeid and Tawfik Hamid every time.

Towards the end of the book, just before the explosion in Khost on that fateful day, Warrick discussed some of the questions being raised about allowing Balawi on the compound.
"The Mukhabarat had been dealing with jihadists of all stripes for many years, and it knew a few things about them, including which ones could be flipped. The low-level types - the thugs and opportunists who glommed on to terrorist movements for personal advantage - could be transformed and might even become useful informants. But radicals and ideologues never truly switched sides. A true believer might lie and deceive, but deep down he could never betray his cause. And Humam al-Balawi had all the markings of a true believer."

This is probably the most important paragraph in the entire book. How naively we seem to believe Saudi claims that hundreds of former jihadists have been "reformed" by taking them through a comfortable rehabilitation program and then giving them a car, an apartment, a job and a wife. As Warrick accurately noted, these are not the true believers. Those who are truly convinced will never change.

They will never change, that is, unless they have a complete paradigm shift - to use a hackneyed phrase - and dare to ask the questions no Muslims yet dare to raise publicly, "Is it possible that Muhammad was not a Prophet of God? Could it be that he was nothing more than a seventh century military and political commander who had nothing to do with God? Is it conceivable that the Koran could be just a collection of sayings that was presented to the Muslim community as the word of God?"

"I'm a Muslim," a  lawyer told me recently in Tunisia, "But I'm an atheist." Well I'm not an atheist, but I admire his courage. I'm just looking for the day when he will be able to make that admission, not to a visiting American infidel, but to his own Muslim community without fear of reprisal or condemnation. I'm hopeful enough to believe that day will come.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Sex, Mom, and God

I've recently read Sex, Mom, and God by Frank Schaeffer. Although I highly recommend the book, I would suggest that if you haven't read Crazy for God you read that first. Crazy is autobiographical, tracing Frank's life as the son of evangelical Christian leaders, and Sex fleshes out a few developments that were left uncovered in the first book.

One of the things I like about Frank's writings is that he and I have followed similar spiritual and intellectual  paths. As a gifted and professional author, however, he has more time and skill to articulate his thoughts than I do. Things that I fleetingly think about find full expression in his paragraphs, and I find myself in agreement with much of what he has to say.

One particular example of this is his view of the Bible in general and the Old Testament in particular. As a critic of Islam as expressed and practiced by Muhammad, I've found myself looking more judgmentally at objectionable parts of early Islamic history than I have at objectionable parts of early Hebrew history. I criticize Muhammad for slaughtering 800 Jewish boys and men at Medina for not accepting him as a Prophet but gloss over Joshua and Saul slaughtering the populations of entire towns including newborn infants for not worshipping the God of the Jews. I condemn Muhammad for stoning to death an adulterous couple in Medina, but ignore the fact that the God of Moses ordered the stoning of married brides who were found to not be virgins. I scorn Muhammad for initiating a sexual relationship with a nine-year-old child (Aisha) that could only be described in today's terms as rape, as well as marrying his own daughter-in-law (Zaynab) and raping another wife (Sofiya) after torturing, robbing, and beheading her husband (Kinana of Khaybar), but skip right over Soloman's Biblical sexual conquest of not dozens but hundreds of women.

What I've done is simply use the excuses Christians have always used and continue to use. It's true that Joshua slaughtered children, they argue, but we don't do that anymore. Besides, maybe those people were so evil their babies needed to be sliced through with those swords. That was for a special time, they argue, only temporary whereas the injunctions of the Koran are for all time and all people everywhere. Jesus has taken us beyond the law of Moses, they argue, and now Muhammad wants to take us back to the law.

All of the above might be true, but they miss the main point which is that the Jehovah of Moses and the Allah of Muhammad both commanded the slaughter of innocents, allowed the sexual conquest of women as the property of men, and ordered the stoning of women who did not abide by the rules.

Maybe it's time for Christians to think a little more clearly, and be a lot more honest. If we are going to argue that their book is flawed and human, is it time for us to admit the same about ours? That's not saying both books are the same, or communicate the same basic message (which I don't think they do). It's just looking at our book with the same critical stance that we use when we look at theirs.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

A Wedding Conversation

Last weekend I attended the wedding of two Muslim family friends. The groom’s family is from Pakistan and that of the bride from Bangladesh. As the Imam emphasized in his sermon before the marriage contract was signed, the marriage was bringing those two families and their respective communities closer together.

At the reception dinner I sat next to a university professor who had taught the bride in a few of her graduate classes. The professor and I were talking about retirement, and when she asked me if I had post-retirement plans she might have been surprised by my answer. “I’d like to convince one and a half billion Muslims,” I replied, “That Muhammad was just an ordinary man and the Koran is just a human book.”

“I was recently in Tunisia,” I continued, “And had a conversation with a taxi driver. ‘We just want to be free,’ he said. ‘Let those who want to pray go to the mosque, and let those who want to drink go to the bar.’”

“That’s fine,” I told him. “But there’s only one problem. Muhammad said you can’t go to the bar. As soon as you try to exercise that freedom, someone will grab you from behind and remind you that Muhammad or the Koran said you are not allowed to do that.”

“Educated people might agree with you,” the professor countered. “But the key to change is education. The average Muslim would never accept what you are trying to say.”
"Ordinary people can change,” I replied. “I grew up in a fundamentalist Christian family where we were taught every word of the Bible was literally true. But now as I read the first chapter of Genesis, it sounds much less God’s description of how the universe came into existence than a man living in the Bronze Age four thousand years ago imagining how he thought it came to be.”

“A few minutes ago,” I continued, “The Imam read words from the Koran describing God as being the Great One, the Compassionate One, the All Powerful Creator, and the Righteous Judge. As I listened to those words, it sounded much more to me like someone 1400 years ago describing what he imagined God to be like, rather than God’s description of himself.”

“But how would you persuade Muslims that Muhammad was not a Prophet of God, or the Koran was just a human book?” the professor inquired.

“Most Muslims know very little about the life of their Prophet,” I replied. “From before they can walk or talk they are taught to believe in this compassionate, wise person they imagine existed. The average Muslim knows next to nothing of his true history. I would begin by just pointing out events in his life they perhaps haven’t thought about that portray him in a less-than-prophetic light. For example, the fact that he persuaded his own son to divorce his wife so that he could marry his daughter-in-law, and then justified the whole sordid affair by stating that God had commanded him to do it.”

Had we more time to continue the conversation, I might have pointed out to her that many, many Muslims, including the couple whose wedding we had just celebrated, are wonderful loving people. Well, not all of them of course. Not the pick-pocket who had stolen my wallet a few weeks before at the entrance of the old souk in downtown Tunis. But the shopkeeper who recovered my wallet with documents intact and went to quite a bit of trouble to get it back to me certainly was. I just believe that what their Prophet and his book teaches them about God and people holds them back from being all they can be.

One thing the professor said stuck with me. We both have two daughters, and I commented to her that three of the greatest blessings we can give our daughters are to be whoever they choose to me, to marry whomever they choose to marry, and to believe whatever they want to believe. “Islam grants daughters none of those rights,” I said. “Muslim women are not allowed to publicly acknowledge they are lesbian even if they are, Muslim women are not allowed to marry non-Muslim men, and they are not free to let it be known publicly that they are atheists or do not believe Muhammad was a prophet.”

“But that is not true only of Islam,” the professor replied, “Many orthodox Jewish women or evangelical Christian girls are not free to say similar things."
I agreed with her. We might disagree on the penalty - Muslims can be killed for criticizing Muhammad, and although ex-Amish Christians and ex-Orthodox Jews can be shunned by their respective communities for leaving the faith I haven't yet heard of it costing them their heads. But I would agree with her that devotion to any inspired text, and in particular allowing religious leaders to interpret that text to you as a mandate to how you are expected to believe and behave, can be a dangerous thing.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Williamsburg and Tunis

I spent the weekend in Williamsburg, Jamestown, and Yorktown, Virginia, where the first settlers arrived from Europe 400 years ago. The tours, scenery, and bike trails were spectacular. On Easter morning I visited the Bruton Parish Church where most of Virginia's eight Presidents attended services. The highlight for me was not sitting in the pew occupied by George Washington or Thomas Jefferson, but climbing the stairs to the Slaves Gallery for the personal slaves of the Williamsburg elite. The day before I had learned that notices announcing runaway slaves often contained St. Paul's admonition that "Servants are to Obey their Masters".

I could not help making a comparison between four stages of Williamsburg history and that of Tunisia. Stage One, from 1611 until 1776, saw Virginia living under British rule. Stage Two, for almost the next hundred years, had Virginia experience independence and freedom - but only for its white population. More than half of Williamsburg during that time were slaves. Stage Three began with Abraham Lincoln's Proclamation of Emancipation, and the freedom of the slaves. It was only Stage Four, under leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King, when blacks were legally integrated into all parts of society.

One might think this was a 400-year process, but in reality the changes came in short powerful spurts of energy. The years just before and during the Revolutionary War set the course for the next one hundred years, and the few short years surrounding the Civil War propelled events for the century to come. The Civil Rights Movement of the sixties, again a focal point of activity compressed into a few short years, set the pace for the next fifty years until the present time.

Tunisia has experienced not four, but three stages of recent history. First was living as a French Protectorate from 1881, second was independence under President Habib Bourguiba in 1956, and the third was the Jasmine Revolution of 2011. The question to be asked now is, Will there be a Fourth Stage? Will a Martin Luther King arise to lead Tunisians into true freedom, or will the country sink into a morass of Islamists and Power Hungry politicans?

I'm not optimistic about Tunisia's short term prospects. The last thing Muslims want to hear, but to me the most rudimentary truth, is that they have to make a choice between Muhammad and freedom. They simply can't have both.

The words "free" and "freedom" are mentioned dozens of times in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. The second chapter of Genesis, the Bible's first book, announces, "You are free to eat from any tree of the garden." (well, except one!) One of Jesus' primary messages was, "You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free."

How many times do you think "freedom" is mentioned in the Quran? The Arabic verb to be free is Hurr, to set something free is Tahrir, and freedom is Huriyah. The verb Hurr does not appear in the Quran a single time. Tahrir is mentioned a few times, but only in a legal sense - if a Muslim kills another Muslim, he must set free a Muslim slave in compensation (not a non-Muslim slave, mind you!). And the most important word of all - freedom? It is not found in the Quran a single time. There is a reason for that, you know.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Buddhist New Year

Today I joined literally thousands of Buddhists in our area as they celebrated the Buddhist New Year at the local temple. I've driven past the temple hundreds of times - an inauspicious building off the highway - but except for a few saffron-robed monks in front had never seen much activity. I never would have imagined our city had so many Theravada Buddhists; they are the ones who celebrate the New Year this weekend. It was a festive, family occasion with stalls selling types of food I've never even seen much less tasted and people wearing jeans, tee-shirts, miniskirts and tank tops. Everyone was welcomed inside the temple, non-Buddhists as well as believers, women as well as men, where people sat together and waited patiently to receive individual blessings from the main monk.

I could not help but compare the experience with the recent CNN program "Unwelcome: The Muslims Next Door". When the several hundred Muslim families of Murfreesboro, Tennessee, decided to build a 52,000 square foot Islamic center in the middle of town, local residents responded with protests, vandalism, arson, and lawsuits. To me the difference is striking. In my neighborhood, thousands of Buddhists who blend into the general culture in their mannerisms and dress turn out to celebrate their faith at a small, inconspicuous temple. In Tennessee a few hundred Muslim families whose women, children, and even men often stand apart from the dominant culture even in their dress decide to build a large, imposing center and refuse to back down when asked to reconsider. I have the impression that Islam seeks to impose its presence whenever possible, and when that imposition is resisted cries of Islamophobia are quickly heard.

Even though I enjoyed the day, I'm not about to become Buddhist. I like Jesus, thank you, and still have problems with Siddhartha Gautama abandoning his young wife and newborn child forever to seek enlightenment. Even more significantly, I think Buddhism is way too pacifist. Afghanistan was once a Buddhist country, but because there was no emphasis on self-defense they had nothing with which to resist Islam when it steamrolled in and demolished Buddhism there forever.

But I welcome the Buddhists in my neighborhood. And by the way, CNN, I welcome Muslims as well. I would actually love to have "Muslims Next Door".