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".

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Where are the Christian Pirates?

After hearing a Democracy Now story last year linking suicide bombings in Pakistan to poverty and hopelessness, I posed what seemed an obvious question. "If poverty causes extremism, why are there no suicide bombers from among Pakistan's poorest of the poor? Where are the Christian Suicide Bombers?"

A similar question came to mind today after hearing this NPR story about the pirates of Somalia. Poverty and lawlessness, claimed the author, are the main reasons for the piracy. The question that came to my mind probably never even crossed the mind of the author, "If Somalia were a traditionally Christian country, like Uganda or Ethiopia, would international piracy even be an issue?"

From year one of the Muslim Hijri calendar, which began when Muhammad traveled as a Muhajir, or migrant from Mecca to Medina in about 623 AD, two Arabic words became an important part of the lexicon of the language. These are Ghazawat, the raids of the Prophet, and Anfal, the spoils of war. Muhammad had only been in Medina a few months when he realized an easy and effective way to meet the economic and financial needs of his growing community was to attack trade caravans passing through the area. Rather than combine the desert expertise of Medina's Arabs with the agricultural and industrial success of the Jewish tribes who had lived there for centuries to develop caravans of his own, Muhammad found it easier to simply condemn the Jews for not accepting him as a Prophet and attack the caravans of others. Literally hundreds of pages of the earliest biographies of the Prophet are devoted to accounts of these raids, and most of the second part of the Quran, those suras authored in Medina, are related to the same subject.

The death of Muhammad ten years later did not signal the end of the Ghazawat, but only their beginning. In swift order his warriors swept north, south, east, and west, continuing the raids (which had by now developed into full-scale attack and conquer) and reaping the benefits. Christian societies (Egypt and the Copts) were given the choice of conversion or subjugation. Societies containing "pagan idolaters" - the Zorastrians of Persia and the Buddhists of Afghanistan - simply saw their religious traditions wiped out. Those who were strong enough to resist Arabization as well as Islamization - Turkey, Iran, etc - were able to maintain their traditional languages. Weaker societies - Egypt and the countries of North Africa - saw their traditional languages obliterated and replaced by Arabic.

The Muslim pirates of Somalia are simply carrying on a time-honored tradition hallowed by the example of their Prophet. In their mind, they really deserve the wealth of the people they plunder.

Do poverty and lawlessness, as suggested by the NPR reporter, play a role? Of course. Are the "Christian" countries I mentioned, Uganda or Ethiopia or others in the region, glowing examples of Christ-like character and behavior? Not by a long shot. But at the same time I think it is a mistake not to acknowledge the fact that it is the life of Muhammad, not Jesus, that provides a model for attacking the wealth of others and appropriating it as something that you deserve. And that, not only poverty and lawlessness, is at the heart of Somali piracy.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Georgetown's Common Word Conference

I recently attended John Esposito's Common Word conference at Georgetown University. Listening to charismatic and eloquent speakers took me back three decades to being mesmerized by the lectures of Dr. Ismail Al Farouki and Sayyid Hossein Nasr as a student of Islam at Temple University. And now as then, it was only afterwards that I realized I was left with many more doubts than assurances.

One of the speakers was Bob Roberts, who blogs here and is pastor of the Northwood Church in Dallas. He engages the Muslim community there, and is going turkey hunting with the Imam this Saturday. He informed us that when he meets Muslims who remind him that according to their religion he is going to hell, his response is that according to his religion they are hellbound as well. "Now that we've gotten that behind us," he urges them, "Let's be friends."

Does Pastor Roberts really believe that, or was he just being cute? If he does, it stands to reason that his desire is for Muslims to escape hell by accepting what he believes about Jesus. I wonder how successful he has been. How many of his 2000-plus congregation are ex-Muslims? What would happen to his vaunted relationship with the Muslim community were he to appoint an ex-Muslim from that community to a position of leadership within his church?  Would he have the courage to do so?

Another participant was Nigerian diplomat John Gana, a Christian whose ancestors converted from Islam as a result of  Christian missionaries. Emphasizing the fluidity of Muslim and Christian relationships in his country, he informed us that his younger brother had converted to Islam to marry a Muslim woman. He seemed not at all concerned that his brother was forced to change his religion to marry the woman he loved, nor that their children would be raised Muslim without the freedom to change their religion back to Christianity even if they wanted to.

Henry Izumizaki, a Japanese American who is CEO of the One Nation Foundation, told us about the millions of dollars his foundation spends to improve the image of Muslims in America. He said he is neither a Muslim nor a Christian, and that one of the early productions of his company was the movie Muhammad: Legacy of a Prophet.

Am I the only one who found it ironic that the man who produced the Legacy of a Prophet does not believe that Muhammad was a Prophet? As not even part of the Ahl Al Kitab, the People of the Book, does Henry Izumizaki know what Muhammad said about him? Does he realize that none of his Muslim co-panelists would allow their daughters to marry his sons?

Shamil Idriss of Soliya described the Muslim-non-Muslim relationship as akin to people throwing sparks into a tinder dry forest. He was not the only person to bring up the TJ factor - no, that is not Terrorist Jihadi but Pastor Terry Jones. Shamil did not bring up the more appropriate analogy that a spark dropped in a tropical rain forest causes no reaction at all. Why is attention focused on the person dropping the spark rather than changing the nature of the forest?

"As I condemn Terry Jones for burning the Quran," continued Shamil, "I condemn President Karzai in Kabul for exacerbating the situation." It seems that even when Muslims criticize the response of other Muslims, they draw a moral equivalence between the initial act and the riposte. I draw a cartoon you don't like, you respond by killing my son, but in your mind the two acts are morally equal? Ya Shaikh!

Other panelists assured us that "studies all show" that poverty breeds extremism, and that "nobody in America" wants Sharia law. It is simply not true that the hundreds of Jihadi foreign fighters in Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, and a host of other locations are there because of poverty. And if the panelists truly do not want the path of Allah and his Apostle to be followed in the West, it is only because they have become "Westernized, Christianized Muslims" who have strayed a long way from their Prophet.

Three freedoms I grant my daughters are to be whoever they decide to be (including lesbian), believe whatever they want to believe (including atheism), and marry whomever they choose (regardless of religious creed or lack thereof). Islam grants women none of those choices. If the panelists truly granted their daughters those freedoms, I might believe they were free from the binding grip of Sharia. I might question, however, if they were still Muslim.

Professor Bart Ehrman at the University of North Carolina grew up as an evangelical Christian. He attended the best fundamental and evangelical Christian schools, the Moody Bible Institute and Wheaton College. Somewhere along the way he lost his faith. He no longer describes himself as a Christian, and does not believe the Bible is the Word of God nor that Jesus is the Son of God.

Would John Esposito have the courage to bring a "Muslim Bart Ehrman" unto the staff of his Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding? Someone who like Bart Ehrman had really believed and attended the best Muslim universities, but who like Ehrman "let the scholarship take them where it would" and reached the conclusion that Muhammad was not a Prophet of God, the Quran was not a book from God, and Islam was not true? I would like to believe the answer was Yes, but I have my doubts.

In spite of the considerable amount of money spent to bring in speakers from all over the country the conference seemed sparsely attended with many empty seats. Was the lack of attendance due to a lack of interest, or did others sense as I did that conversations would only go in one direction and not very far at that?

If I were to summarize my take-away for the entire day, it would be that there is an increasing problem in America betweeen Muslims and non-Muslims, but always to be blamed is the ghayr Muslim - the non-believer. It's the fault of Pamela Geller, Newt Gingrich, Barack Obama for flipping on Afghanistan and Guantanamo, birthers and anti-mosquers, Tea Partyers and Terry Joneses. The list is endless. Am I the only one asking the question, "Who's this big guy sleeping in the hallway that everyone is gingerly stepping around but no one is talking about? I think his name is Muhammad."

Tuesday, April 12, 2011


It's been a weekend of emotionally-draining movies. First was Of Gods and Men, about which I wrote here. That was followed by Miral, the story of four Palestinian women whose lives intersected in Jerusalem over a period of several decades.

The movie literally left me speechless, but with a strange feeling of hope. It took a day or so for my emotions to process to the point that I realized why a movie that was depressing in many ways would leave me hopeful. I then understood it was the emphasis that was placed upon the education of women in general and Palestinian Muslim girls in particular. One of the main characters of the film is a Palestinian Christian who dedicated her life to the education of these girls including the main character Miral.

Dr. Izzaldin Abuelaish, about whom I write here and here, argues that the key to a successful future for the Palestinians is the education of Palestinian girls, and Miral presents a visual example of that argument.

By coincidence - although I don't believe in coincidence - I had a most interesting conversation today with a young woman from a Brahmin family in India who is now an American citizen. One of the formative experiences of her life was being taught by Catholic monks as a young girl in Bombay. Again, it's the story of young girls being influenced and benefited by dedicated Christian educators.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Of Gods and Men

Cet apres-midi j'ai vu le film francais Des Hommes et Des Dieux, l'histoire incroyable des pretres en Algerie qui etaient tues...oops, sorry, I'm reliving my days of college French. Anyhow, this afternoon I saw the movie Of Gods and Men, the story of French monks in Algeria who were killed during the uprising of the 90s. It is a powerful film, and I encourage everyone to watch it.

The sadness I felt watching the film was probably different than the emotions experienced by most of the others in the theatre. What caught my attention as much as the devotion of the monks was the concentrated effort made by the film producers to make a distinction between "Islam" (good) and the "Islamism" (bad) of the extremists who murdered them. The pattern is so common it is predictable. Verses quoted from the Quran are peaceful, references to non-Muslims are positive, and terrorists are presented as people who know nothing of Islam, the Quran, and their Prophet Muhammad.

It is simply not true. Even grammatically the distinction between "Islam" and "Islamism" does not exist. Islam is an Arabic word meaning "to surrender". (Muslims who argue that it comes from the verb meaning "peace" are not quite telling you the truth; in Arabic the "peace" arrives after the surrender has been made; peace is a result of surrender). The Arabic verb is Aslama, to surrender, and the gerund or verbal noun is Islam, the act of surrender. Although neither the verb nor gerund originally had a religious meaning, by extension they have come to mean surrender to Allah. Since Muhammad never told anyone to obey or follow Allah without adding on himself as well, Islam now means to surrender to the will of Allah and his Apostle. The word "Islamism" does not exist in any original Arabic text.

The Salafis and the Jihadis, not the moderates, are the ones who have the Quran, the Hadith, the life of Muhammad, and Islamic history on their side. The distinction to be made is not between "Islam" and "Islamism", but between Islam and Muslims. It is peaceful Muslims who do not really understand Islam, the Quran, and Muhammad, not the extremists. The greater the distance between these moderate Muslims and the Prophet they think they follow, the better off we all are.