Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Islamic Fundamentalism: Self-Reflection for Both Muslims and Christians?

Since nearly the entire world is parsing the strengths and weaknesses of Pres. Obama’s speech in Cairo, I’ll pass on that for now.  But Obama brought up some history that OUGHT to lead to (painful?) introspection on the part of both Muslims and Christians.  Many Americans are blissfully unaware of it (because our knowledge of history is notoriously TINY), but the European Dark Ages were marked by a Christian Church that discouraged learning.  The rebirth of learning in the High Middle Ages and the Renaissance was largely sparked by ISLAMIC philosophers, scientists and poets.

The 7th and 6th Centuries C.E. are known to historians as the Islamic Golden Age.  They made many advances in science, engineering (including the arch and the flying buttress), mathematics (we now use Arabic numerals, the zero was invented in Arabic civilization, and Muslim mathematicians invented algebra), medicine, and astronomy.  Christians in Europe adopted these discoveries (sometimes building on them) when Arabic troops invaded Europe and again when Europeans invaded the Middle East (Holy Land) during the Crusades.  The scientific revolution of the 17th C. would not have been possible without the advances of the Renaissance that paved the way–and those depended on very forward looking Muslim scholars.

Muslim-majority nations throughout the Middle East had universities, some offering graduate and postgraduate degrees, before European nations started them (usually under the influence of the Christian Church).  They had a higher rate of literacy and were educating women as equals or near equals long before the Christian West.

Many of the Western advances in philosophy and theology also owe their roots to Medieval Islam.  The great flowering of Catholic theology came from St. Thomas Aquinas’ interactions with Aristotelian philosophy. (Originally, this was considered controversial and some called Thomas a heretic. Plato was the approved philosopher and Aristotle was suspect.) But Aristotle’s writings had been lost in Europe.  They were saved in Arabic lands, both before and after the rise of Islam.  The Islamic philosopher Averroes (the Latin version of Ibn Rushd) was not the only Islamic Aristotelian, but because he wrote much of his material in Latin (not just in Arabic), Thomas could interact with it.  Thomas also used translations of Aristotle into Latin.  (Thomas was also influenced by Jewish philosophers, but that’s a topic for another day.)

The Islamic contributions to the arts (especially architecture and calligraphy), poetry, music, and drama were also many and dramatic.  Because of their ban on alcohol, and their kashrut food restrictions, they worked to create new culinary delights–including coffee, without which I would not be civilized.  Women as well as men contributed to the flourishing of Islamic societies.

But all this came crashing down about the 17th C.  Today, almost all Muslim-majority nations are poorer, less-educated, and extremely conservative.  The rise of rabid Islamic fundamentalism has increased this trend, with incredible oppression of women, minorities, and religious dissent.  Obama’s brief recitation of some of this history, along with his critique of the current state of many Muslim-majority nations, should be the cause of deep, even painful, reflection by Muslims–not by the extremists, but by the progressives, centrists, and non-extremist conservatives. 

But I think this should also serve as a cautionary tale for Christians.  I KNOW that ultra-right Christian fundamentalists hate being compared to Islamic fundamentalists, but there is much in common.  And the rise and threatened domination of fundamentalism among Christians has brought with it a terrible hatred for the equality of women, for religious liberty and diversity, and a fear of science and the arts.  Too much of Christianity today is not open and does not welcome debate, dissent, or education.  And, both Islamic and Christian fundamentalists foster violence and terrorism in pursuit of totalitarian theocracies. 

Now the “new angry athiests” would conclude that faith and religion are themselves toxic.  I do not.  But fundamentalist forms are and the problems that Islamic fundamentalism has brought to Muslim-majority nations should be troubling both for contemporary Muslims (who need to throw off fundamentalism and reclaim their progressive past) and Christians (who need to defeat the fundamentalist forces among us).

June 6, 2009 Posted by | Christianity, faith, fundamentalists, Islam, progressive faith, Reformation, Religious Social Criticism | 14 Comments

No Salvation for “Terminator” Film Series

A friend took me to the new Terminator: Salvation today.  I went because it was free for me and to spend time with a friend I hadn’t hung out with in awhile.  But I have to say, my review is bad.  Despite my disdain for Arnold Schwarzenegger’s (lack of) acting skills, I really liked the first two “Terminator” movies, Terminator and Terminator II: Judgment Day.  Both used an old theme (going back at least to the gothic novel Frankenstein) of technology gone amuck–which could also be read as fear of globalization, of like out of control, less human.  Both first two films featured a very strong female lead (Linda Hamilton) and in the second film, she has no love interest and rescues the men.  The second film is also more openly anti-war and deals with the theme of a machine designed to kill learning the value of human life (Can humans learn it in time?).

All this disappears in the third Terminator.  The female Terminator is nearly voiceless and simply an excuse (as he later said in an interview) for Schwarzenegger to violently attack a woman with impunity. (“When else can you put a woman’s head in the toilet and get away with it?” Nice guy, the Governator.) The third Terminator was just an excuse to blow things up on film.

This is even more the case in the latest edition.  There is no real plot.  No strong characters, female or male.  Just lots of killer machines and explosions.

No wonder James Cameron quit as director after the second film.  Sigh.

June 6, 2009 Posted by | arts, science-fiction | Comments Off on No Salvation for “Terminator” Film Series

“Truth” Beats “War” in Fighting Terrorism

The Bush administration had fantastic dreams of a “Global War on Terrorism” (war on a method?) or even a “Global War on Terror” (war on an emotion of fear?) that could be won by simply killing terrorists everywhere–and never mind the civilians caught in the struggle.  Of course, this ended up creating terrorists faster than we can kill them–as was widely predicted by everyone other than the neo-cons.  The Obama administration has a more realistic view of the limits of military force, but still thinks military violence a necessary component of the fight against terror networks and their safe havens in Afghanistan and Pakistan.  The Obama administration recognizes the risks of killing innocents and that they could actually strengthen the extremists’ hands–it’s been very open about this, which is a refreshing change. Yet, frustratingly, infuriatingly, the Obama administration also seems stuck in the “logic of death” that is military thinking. It cannot see a way to end the threat of al Qaeda or the Taliban without military violence.

But strong truthtelling seems to work better.  As this BBC report shows,  the Taliban are losing the hearts and minds of Pakistanis in the conservative Swat area after global exposure of a video of the beating of a girl.  Maybe showing more videos of the cruelty and injustice of the Taliban all over Pakistan and Afghanistan will help them lose ground.  But photos of dead children, hit by unmanned drone bombs, will undermine this.  Civilian deaths, which can be minimized but not eliminated in war, will play into the hands of the extremists.

So, why not try a “war of images,” instead? Truthtelling, bearing witness, speaking truth to power–these nonviolent strategies do not prevent  terrorist acts per se, but they go much further than violence in eliminating the support for terrorist groups–and without that support, they whither and die.

June 6, 2009 Posted by | terrorism prevention | 3 Comments