Levellers

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).

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

Afghanistan’s Law Allowing Marital Rape

As you may have heard, the Afghanistan legislature passed a law last week that requires married women to have sex with her husband up to four times per week unless she is ill or unless sex would aggravate an illness!  At European and American objections, President Karzai promised to review the law (which the United Nations is calling a legalization of marital rape) has promised a thorough review of the law, but so far “doesn’t find anything objectional.”  The law is causing problems for the U.S. and NATO as we send both more civilians to help nation-build and more troops to hunt al Qaeda, protext civilians, and train Afghan military and police–an escalation I object to and predict will backfire. (By the way, anyone notice that the supposedly successful Iraqi “surge” is coming undone?)

When asked, Pres. Obama called the law “abhorrent” and I agree.  I think we should pressure Afghanistan to reverse this horrid law.  But before we in the West start to act superior and call this an illustration of how backward Afghanistan is or how patriarchal and sexist Islam is, etc., let’s use this nasty legislation as a time for a good hard look in the mirror.  In MANY Western countries “marital rape” is still unknown AS A LEGAL CONCEPT.  And before we act shocked at this Afghan law, let us remember in how many cultural contexts it would be assumed that wives give up all right to say no to their husband’s sexual advances.  How many of your own relatives, especially of a certain age, would speak of constant sexual availability as among a wife’s “marital duties?”

Here in Kentucky, we passed a law outlawing marital rape for the first time in the late 1990s.  Speaking with attorney friends, I can tell you that the law has proved unenforceable.  A wife appealing to it sometimes incurs domestic abuse–the opposite of the law’s intention.  And getting a KY jury to convict a husband of raping his wife has so far proven impossible.  It’s been tried 12 times since the law was signed. Zero convictions.  And many other U.S. states (including many which have far more liberal reputations than my adopted home here in KY) do not yet even acknowledge marital rape as a legal concept.  And conservative Christians are among those who most often respond to polls by denying that wives can morally refuse their husbands.

Sure, legalizing the inability of wives  to  say no, as the Afghan law does, is even more horrible.  But maybe we better start by acknowledging just how patriarchal and sexist our own religion and culture is, how far from sexual equality are the heterosexual  marriages in OUR cultures, before we act as if the Afghanis (or their Islamic heritage) is uniquely anti-woman.  Protest this law? Yes. Stand up for women everywhere and against the kind of cultural relativism that would sweep this under the rug? Definitely.  But not out of false  feelings of moral superiority–only with humility and a renewed determination to stand up for women, including married women, in our own lands and cultures and faiths, too.  Anything less is just hypocrisy.

UPDATE:  Good News:  Karzai has scrapped the law, for now.  Bad News:  The law’s failure will probably be a recruiting tool for the Taliban. Sigh.

April 6, 2009 Posted by | Afghanistan, Christianity, family, feminism, Islam, sexism | 11 Comments

Muslim Family Kicked Off Plane

I was really hoping that the new year (and the election) meant that we were leaving this kind of garbage behind. On New Year’s day a large ( 9 member) Muslim-American family was kicked off an airline when passengers heard them discussing the safest places to sit and misconstrued the conversation to mean they were plotting something bad! The FBI cleared the family, but the airline still refused to seat them or give them a different flight! They are naturally considering suing the airline and I think they should since this kind of guilt-by-association must end and is clearly illegal.

January 2, 2009 Posted by | civil liberties, human rights., Islam | 33 Comments

Fight Savage’s Anti-Muslim Hate Speech

It’s time to stop the anti-Muslim hate speech. We begin with super-bigot demagogue Michael Savage. Yes, I believe in freech speech. Yes, I love Voltaire’s dictum, “I may disagree with everything you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” But we don’t have to pay for it. Hate speech creates an atmosphere of fear that leads to crimes created by a mob mentality.  In the 1930s, Henry Ford bought a newspaper and used it to spew anti-Jewish propaganda–that was so vindictively anti-semitic that Adolf Hitler praised Henry Ford in Mein Kampf and later gave him a medal. The renegade Catholic priest, Fr. Joseph Coughlin, used a radio show to spew such anti-semitic bigotry across the airwaves. So successful was this anti-Jewish propaganda here in the land of the free that, even as the Nazis began their anti-Jewish campaigns in the ’30s, polls showed that 50% of Americans believed Jews brought at least some of this treatment on themselves! (Source for that statistic: The Jewish Americans series on PBS.  It is worth watching.)

Now, this same kind of bigotry campaign is targetting Muslims. We cannot stand back and let it happen.  Those of us who are Christians have specifically religious obligations to stop it: including the commands against bearing false witness, the commands to love neighbors and enemies, the command to treat others as we would want to be treated.  Some of us come from traditions that have known our own persecution–and in that history we would have wanted others to speak out on our behalf. Now our Muslim sisters and brothers need that kind of courage from us.  This is not about whose religion is right or wrong. This is not about questions of soteriology (exclusive, inclusive, etc.), but about simple truthtelling and defending the rights and dignity of our neighbors and fellow citizens.

We begin by taking on the demagogue Michael Savage.  See the following video. Then go to NoSavage.org and take action: email him and call his talk show to protest. Contact his sponsors and urge them to pull out or we boycott their products–we do not have to pay for his hate speech. (One major sponsor has already pulled out.) Does Savage have free speech? Absolutely. In this country, he can spew whatever bile he wants without fear of arrest. But we DON’T have to give him a microphone. Do something. Fight back against this bile, now.

January 18, 2008 Posted by | civil liberties, interfaith, Islam, peacemaking, prejudice, religious liberty, U.S. politics | 6 Comments

NPR: The Partisans of Ali

National Public Radio’s Morning Edition news program has been running a series on the deepening Sunni-Shi’ia divide in Islam and its modern history beginning in 1979. The series, called “The Partisans of Ali,”is definitely worth hearing. The series shows how Western policies in the Middle East, especially the U.S.’ role, has deepened this divide, though we are not the sole cause for the intra-Islamic violence. This is the kind of reporting the media should do more often. Had this kind of reporting been done prior to the Iraq war, the public and Congress would probably have been more opposed, if not the administration of George W. Bush. Understanding “what’s going on” is the first step to figuring out, “what do we do now?”

February 15, 2007 Posted by | interfaith, Islam | Comments Off on NPR: The Partisans of Ali

Muslim Leader Speaks Out Against Holocaust Denial

We often hear that Christians and Jews will speak out against OUR extremists, but that Muslims won’t. It’s not true and the following proves it. [ BTW, I know Ibrahim Ramey since he was previously the head of the Disarmament Program of the Fellowship of Reconciliation and, prior to that, lived in Louisville, KY where we both served on the steering committee of the local F.O.R. chapter. I am blessed with having some of the coolest friends.]

In the Name of Allah, the Most Gracious, Most Merciful

True Muslims Must Never Deny the European Holocaust
By Ibrahim Ramey
History will recall the tragedy of the genocide that slaughtered some six million European Jews between the rise of Adolph Hitler and the Nazi Party in 1933 and the culmination of the Second World War in Europe in May, 1945. The evidence of this crime, and the horrible magnitude of this killing, is irrefutable. From sources as varied as Nazi war records, film documentation, and most importantly, the testimony of survivors and witnesses, we know that the mass murder of European Jews was, indeed, the single greatest crime of genocide in the twentieth century.
Yet the world now witnesses yet another wave of historical revisionism and Holocaust denial, this time emerging not from European Anti-Semites, but from none other than the President of Iran. Indeed, this head of state has taken the unprecedented act of hosting an international conference of anti-Semites, Holocaust deniers, and even white racists like former Klan leader David Duke, to gather in Tehran to deny the magnitude, if not the very existence, of this barbaric act. As a Muslim of African decent in the United States, whose ancestors were victimized by the enormous crime of slavery, I object. And I believe that all Muslims, like other human beings who value compassion and truth, must vigorously object to this gathering as well.
Like many in the global Muslim community, I regard the occupation of Palestinian land and the policies of the State of Israel as issues of extreme importance. I am certainly among those who believe that the occupation of Palestinian territory and the denial of full human rights to Palestinians, and even to Arab people regarded as Israeli citizens, is deplorable.But I find it to be morally unconscionable to attempt to build political arguments and political movements on a platform of racial hatred and the denial of the suffering of the human beings who were victimized by the viciousness of Hitler’s genocidal rampage through Europe. President Ahmedinejad should recognize that the issue of the Palestinian people must not, and cannot, be transmogrified into the ugly and spiritually bankrupt context of racial hatred. The cause of freedom must never drink from the well of hatred and racism. And indeed, as the Holy Qur’an compels Muslims to demand justice for the oppressed, we are also called to witness against ourselves when we are in error. And in this case, the President of Iran most certainly is.
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The writer is the Director of the Human and Civil Rights Division of the Muslim American Society Freedom Foundation

December 15, 2006 Posted by | holocaust, human rights., Islam | Comments Off on Muslim Leader Speaks Out Against Holocaust Denial

A Sign of Peace?

Belief.net has posted a story about Muslims in Florida who have sent $5,000 (and are raising more) in seed money to Palestine to rebuild burned Christian churches. The Muslim group notes that, according to the Qu’ran, churches are to be protected. This is a wonderful example of the Just Peacemaking practice of taking independent transforming initiatives for peace. Now, how can Christian groups reciprocate? Can this start a snowball downhill that will generate numerous interfaith independent initiatives that undermine both non-state terror groups and imperialist military machines? Please God, may it be so. Amen.

September 26, 2006 Posted by | interfaith, Islam, just peacemaking | 11 Comments

Christian/Muslim Interfaith Dialogue

I consider interfaith dialogue to be both a genuine way of witnessing to the gospel of Jesus Christ (a way of conversation that listens and expects to learn and doesn’t just drown out the other), and a necessary part of peacemaking. In our current context the most urgent need is for greater Christian/Muslim dialogue and understanding. This needs to go on at the grassroots level with groups from local mosques and churches gathering to inform each other about beliefs, customs, rituals, etc. Only by truly knowing our Muslim sisters and brothers can we keep from bearing false witness against them.

When I have made such statements on other blogs, I have been accused of either believing in universal salvation (that is for God to decide, not me), in believing that “all religions are equal,” whatever that would mean, or in denying the Good News of Jesus Christ. This is not true. I am a Christian. I would be overjoyed if every Muslim became Christian–just as every Muslim I know would be overjoyed if we Christians (whom they consider to have some truth, but to be imperfectly worshipping and serving God) would convert to the “Straight Path.” As far as I can understand, Islam and Christianity, though holding to several common beliefs, also hold mutually incompatible ones. We disagree over some very important things: Although Muslims believe in Jesus’ virgin birth, they deny that he was God incarnate and deny his Sonship (“God has no sons.”). They deny both the crucifixion and the resurrection. They deny the Trinity and, like our Jewish sisters and brothers, suspect that the Trinity either means that Christians cannot do math or that we aren’t really monotheists.

These are significant areas of disagreement. I don’t want to minimize them. Nor do I wish to avoid discussing them–although sometimes it helps to build relationships of trust before tackling really strong differences.

My concern is to defend the religious liberty of Muslims, to avoid bearing false witness against Islamic neighbors by sweeping generalizations that compare the best of Christianity against the worst exemplars of Islam, and to work together with Muslims for justice and peace in the world.

Currently, I see a debate going on WITHIN the major world religions over whether the pursuit of justice (as each sees it) or the advance of their faith can use violent means. The question of whether Islam is or can be nonviolent is something only Muslims can decide. I know which side of that debate to cheer for; I’m pulling for my friends in the Muslim Peace Fellowship and similar organizations and for the heritage of Khan Abdul Gaffer Khan, “the Frontier Gandhi” who led a nonviolent army of Pathans along the Indian Afghanistan border (in the area now between Afghanistan and Pakistan) that was the most disciplined part of Gandhi’s nonviolent movement. But I cannot, as a Christian, say which group is heretical according to Islamic teachings. I can say that, from the inside, about Christianity. The nonviolence of Jesus and the early church was RIGHT and the abandonment of this nonviolence and embrace of “just war theory” by the later church constitutes a massive heresy. Yes, for 16 centuries now, the MAJORITY of Christians have been heretics. I work to call the church universal to repent and re-embrace the nonviolence that Jesus taught and practiced.

We Christians have an advantage in seeking to reform our faith: Throughout much of the Christian world, there is widespread literacy. People can read the New Testament and see that they violent false preachers like John Hagee are blowhards who don’t have a clue. By contrast, illiteracy is widespread in the Islamic world, making the average Muslim even more vulnerable to manipulation by fanatics posing as scholars. Considering how widely Christians confuse militaristic nationalism with the gospel, I believe we should spend less time criticizing Muslim violence and more time criticizing our own compromises with violence–and praying for the success of reform movements like the Muslim Peace Fellowship.

Meanwhile, we need to continue to seek better understanding among all faiths, especially the three monotheistic faiths.

September 21, 2006 Posted by | evangelism, interfaith, Islam, religious liberty | 6 Comments

Separating ‘Fanatics’ From Real Muslim Grievances

I’m going to do something I don’t usually do: Compliment Pres. George W. Bush. I made this compliment right after the event happened, but I didn’t have a blog then, so it bears repeating. Bush showed more wisdom than his base shortly after 9/11 by reminding the nation and the world that the terrorists who want to kill us are extremist fanatics who twist the teachings of Islam–not all or even most Muslims. While Christian leaders who should have known better (e.g. Franklin Graham, Jerry Falwell, etc.) were busy fanning flames of hatred, Bush reminded the nation that Islam is a religion of peace. Muslim terrorists were and are no more representative of genuine Islam than cross-burning Klansmen are representative of genuine Christianity. Although some of Bush’s policies reinforced the fear among Muslims that the U.S. had declared war against Islam itself, much of Bush’s early rhetoric denied this. That was both wise and good.

Unfortunately, it hasn’t lasted. In the wake of the month-long war between Israel and Hezbollah, Bush has begun to use the term “Islamic Fascists,” a variation on “Islamo-fascists,” a term long favored by rightwing pundits and bloggers. Fascism, which Mussolini defined as state power plus corporate power, has little to do with the ideology of the Islamic terrorists. The term seems to be a propaganda move–intended to bring the Nazis to mind and reinforce the Neo-con view that the so-called “war on terror” constitutes World War III–lasting for years and justifying all kinds of suspensions of civil liberties. This doesn’t seem accurate at all, unless we make it so. There are real threats out there, but it is important that they be named and described accurately, if we are to respond in such a way that actually deals with the threat effectively.

Writing in the Guardian, Max Hastings points out the folly of Bush’s recent remarks that indicate a global Islamic conspirancy against the West. Some, like al-Qaida, are fanatic madment. Others have legitimate beefs against Western policies (e.g. failing to push Israel for the creation of a viable Palestinian state and supporting autocratic dictators like the House of Saud) and failing to address those could send them into the arms of some terrorist group. Painting all Muslims with one brush makes it all the more likley that we get a self-fulfilling prophecy. In Hastings’ words:

If the United States insists upon regarding all Muslim opponents of its foreign policies as a homogeneous enemy then that is what they become.

 

Is that what we really want? Do we love war and alerts and the militarization of everything so much? In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Bush rejected this path as foolishness. Now, he has apparently embraced it completely. That is both foolish and dangerous. The nation and the world could have reason to wish Bush had remembered his earlier wisdom. Call the White House comment line and remind him today. Ask the president to separate the legitimate Muslim complaints (which should be addressed quickly) from the irrational hatred of the terrorists–and to reject global conspiracy theories and misleading terms like “Islamo-fascist.” 1-202-456-6213.

August 15, 2006 Posted by | interfaith, Islam, terrorism prevention | 7 Comments