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.