Monthly Archives: December 2014

Celebrating Amidst The “War on Christmas”

On this Christmas Eve, as I listen to Christmas carols on the radio and read the Christmas Story from Luke to my children, I think about those of other faith traditions, like Dina, who are considered to be faith minorities in the United States.  How do they receive the theology behind Christmas?  Does the religious “Other” feel threatened by the celebration of Christmas in American society?

Dina’s post very eloquently describes her experiences being Muslim during the Christmas holiday.  Fortunately, for those of us who want to see interfaith relations improve in the United States, her comments bring a measure of relief centered on the realization that there do exist avenues toward common religious understanding.  However, I would like to address a negative factor that inevitably is revisited during this time of the year among some American Christians – the idea that Christmas is under attack – the “War on Christmas“.

There is, no doubt, an increasing secularism in the United States that lead some to believe that nefarious efforts are afoot to erase the influence of Christians in the public sphere.  Our society’s secular nature was established by our Founding Fathers with the intent of establishing a government that is not beholden to one particular religion for fear of oppressing others, as had been their experience in Europe. The increasing diversification of the American societal landscape since the nation’s founding has made secularization even more necessary in order to ensure a “level playing field” without favor toward one faith over another. There is no real evidence to suggest that a non-Christian faith group is attempting to willfully eliminate Christian influence in the public square; rather, the so-called “War on Christmas” is simply a fairly benign byproduct of the principles of the separation of church and state that this country was founded upon.

Do I believe that American society would be in a better place if Christian principles were allowed to shape public policy? Absolutely! But I also believe that our society would be better off if Muslim or Jewish morality were exclusively practiced rather than succumbing to the absence of public morality. Unfortunately, the nature of man has proven to lead to the abuse of power in order to promote a certain agenda and, when the agenda has been religious in nature, this abuse has proven to have had catastrophic results in the past. Those that promote religion on the public arena quite often end up casting a negative light on their religion rather than achieving any kind of moral purpose. James Madison, the Father of the United States Constitution, said,

“Every new and successful example, therefore, of a perfect separation between the ecclesiastical and civil matters, is of importance; and I have no doubt that every new example will succeed, as every past one has done, in showing that religion and Government will both exist in greater purity the less they are mixed together.” (Letter to Edward Livingston, July 10, 1822)

Our nation’s diverse society requires a great modicum of respect by faith groups toward each other. Personally, I have never felt physically threatened in exercising my faith in this country and have not met many other Christians who do. A preoccupation with a mythical “War on Christmas” only serves to create a siege mentality among those Christians who believe in it. Christians cannot reflect the teachings of Christ while circling the wagons to fend off attacks and we cannot demonstrate Christ’s most important teaching, forgiveness, while constantly in defense mode.

The meaning of the Christmas season, to Christians, is about the birth of our Savior, Jesus Christ. We should remember, however, that not all of our fellow citizens take the same meaning from the holiday. When it comes to the relationship between Christians and Muslims, particularly during the Christmas season, we Christians would be better served in remembering that Jesus is a central and revered figure in Islam as well as Christianity. As Dina expressed in her post, a Muslim following true Islam will join a Christian in honoring Jesus during this season. So, as Christians, we should put away the armor and sword during this season and reach out to our brothers and sisters in the Abrahamic tradition with a focus on the teachings of Jesus as a bridge over the divide.

I do not celebrate Christmas – but I do celebrate Jesus

One of the hardest things for a Muslim parent in America is to raise children who don’t believe in Christmas. I say specifically “a Muslim parent” because once I reached beyond the childhood stage of my kids it no longer mattered whether we celebrated Christmas or not. But when my kids were in elementary school, it used to behoove me to preach to them the theology of Jesus the way Muslims believe it while their classmates bragged about their Christmas wish lists, presents, trees, and santas!

Muslim Americans are not the only non-Christian group feeling challenged by the theology of Christmas. Many intellectuals call this theology as part of the Christian privilege that Christian Americans enjoy in this land that also enjoys a diverse religious landscape. From Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, to Hindus, Buddhists, to atheists and agnostics, many Americans complain about how they have to go through Christmas every year, including receiving Christmas wishes, without feeling alienated.

However, I don’t feel alienated in America. That’s because I believe in religious pluralism that preaches respect of all faith traditions and their followers. I actually enjoy the holiday season with its decorations, lights, festivities, and joyful atmosphere (including shopping  deals)! Once I taught my children that Christmas was not part of our Muslim theology we became at ease enjoying the cultural aspect of the season. Moreover, Muslims don’t feel “left behind” simply because they don’t celebrate Christmas, for we do celebrate someone who is greater than this holiday: We celebrate Jesus.

Jesus, peace be upon him and his mother Mary, is mentioned several times in the Qur’an. The virgin Mary has a whole chapter in the Qur’an dedicated to her name. The Qur’an teaches that Jesus is the word of God, the spirit of God, and the messenger of God. He was miraculously born without a father, he miraculously spoke to people while in his cradle, and he performed several miracles like healing and giving life to the dead through the will and permission of God. Like all the biblical prophets mentioned in the Qur’an, each Muslim is obligated to believe in Jesus as truth. Without the belief in Jesus Christ a Muslim’s belief is incomplete according to the Qur’an.

The mission of Jesus, the son of Mary, according to the Qur’an, was to bring ease to the children of Israel (the Jews) by reducing some of the commandments that were difficult for them while affirming the truth in the Torah. The Qur’an then narrates that at some point, Jesus felt betrayal from his brethren, so he asked around, “who are my helpers in the way of God?” A group called Hawariyyoun (the Helpers of Jesus) replied that they were his helpers and declared submission to the will of God. Then the Qur’an continues with God talking to Jesus and telling him that He would be caused to die and be exalted unto God. (Qur’an, 3:55) (For the beginning of the story of Mary, John the Baptist and Jesus refer to 3:35 onward).

Even though Muslims believe in Jesus and celebrate him they faced disagreement with Christians. Issues like the trinity, Jesus’ crucifixion which Muslims don’t believe in, and theological matters about the nature of Jesus put the two faith traditions in discord. However, the Qur’an forewarned about this discord and advised Muslims about the way they should do “interfaith” with their Christian brethren. “Interfaith” is interaction between different faith groups, a phenomenon that was born in the twentieth century. Yet, the Qur’an fourteen hundred years ago instructed its followers on the way to interact with Christians:

“Say ‘O, followers of earlier revelation! Come unto that tenet which we and you hold in common: that we shall worship none but God, and that we shall not ascribe divinity to aught beside Him, and that we shall not take human beings for our lords beside God. ‘ And if they turn away, then say, ‘Bear witness that it is we who have surrendered ourselves unto Him.'” (Qur’an 3: 64).

The Qur’an doesn’t tell Muslims to kill, mock, or wage wars against Christians because of their theological differences. Those who misunderstand it are betraying God.

Ferguson and Muslim reactions to racism and prejudice

By Dina Malki

Diversity in creation is divinely willed and planned. It was not coincidental that humans turned out having different colors. Muslim tradition includes a narrative (Hadith) by Prophet Muhammad that explains how God created Adam from different colored clays and, as a result, gave humans different colors. God also willed that humans speak different languages, have different cultures, and form different communities. The Qur’an is very clear about the reason of this diversity:

“And of His signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth and the diversity of your languages and your colors. Indeed in that are signs for those of knowledge.” [30:22]

“O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know each other (not that you may despise one another). Verily the most honored of you in the sight of Allah is the one who is the most righteous. And Allah has full knowledge and is well acquainted (will all things).” [49:13]

Just as Americans, including myself, in the aftermath of the Ferguson events, have been questioning whether they have progressed at all during the last five decades in matters of civil rights, many Muslims, including myself, also have been evaluating whether the 1.5 billion Muslims who live around the globe still live up to their Islamic teachings. Muslims too have sinned with prejudice by “othering” people that belonged to a different race, ethnicity, nationality, and religion. I say “sinned” because they acted against their religious traditions. But are all Muslims sinners? Of course not. And it is the role of interfaith to find like-minded people of faith that belong to different religions and join their voices to create a symphony of peace and compassion.

To focus on the events in Ferguson, take for example the Muslim reaction to the crisis. Muslims for Ferguson is a social media group that was formed to raise awareness among Muslim Americans about the prejudice of the police against protestors who objected the killings of two black men, Mike Brown and Eric Garner.  Muslims for Ferguson saw that the killings represented a “disturbing trend of officers using excessive force against black and brown people,” and urged Muslims “to join a movement declaring that all lives, including black and brown lives, matter.” Moreover, imams (Muslim religious and mosque leaders) all over the country have been preaching against racism and prejudice, describing it as a great injustice to God’s creation.

Among the many ethical values that Islam teaches is unity. Diversity does not essentially create division. Diversity is a valuable asset that creates creativity and growth. Diversity in any nation enriches its national thread with different talents and resources. Diversity within a religious tradition leads to freedom from stagnation. Diversity within an interfaith community builds bridges of communication and cooperation. Prejudice, on the other hand, is a spiritual and social ill that cuts through unity and ignites friction and enmity. A divided nation or community becomes an easy prey in front of its enemies.

So, what is the Islamic solution to division and conflict? Like all other faith traditions, Islam adopts a theology of reconciliation that can take place after justice has been served. Justice is not a tool that the masses or individuals can freely use; it is rather a legal tool by the authorities, whether secular or religious, to give back human rights to those who have been oppressed. As a matter of fact, reconciliation is a duty in the Muslim tradition that narrates how God does not look at people who are having conflict. If God does not look at a people He will not send mercy their way.

Grayson wrote in his post that white Christians needed to listen to black Christians. I say that white Muslims, too, need to listen to black Muslims. A recent initiative has started in the United States to raise awareness among Muslims of the dangers of racism within their own community. The Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative is an effort to remind Muslims that racism is against the teachings of their religion. One of the main things that Islam emphasizes is action. As much as it is important for humans to have a pure heart and a good intention, action is actually required as a proof of faith. This is why it is not enough for Muslims to silently reject racism and injustice; they need to condemn it by action or, at least, by words. Listen to this narrative (Hadith) from Prophet Muhammad:

“Whoever of you sees an evil, let him change it with his hand; and if he is not able to do so, then let him change it with his tongue; and if he is not able to do so, then with his heart- and that is the weakest of faith.”

Prejudice comes in all forms: racism, religious intolerance, stereotyping, othering, etc… Muslims, too, need to question their practices with all people including peoples from other faiths, and see if they are living up to their religious ideals and morals. If they are not, then it is time for them to dust off some of that rust on their hearts.

Ferguson and Interfaith Relations

It seems as if the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri have most people taking sides – either justifying Officer Darren Wilson’s actions or condemning the shooting death of Michael Brown, the young man who Officer Wilson fatefully encountered on a Ferguson street August 9th, 2014.  The emotions around this case are racially charged and seemed to be dictated by the color of one’s skin.  African Americans decry the bias they believe is inherent in the treatment of African American youths by law enforcement.  Caucasian Americans wonder why African Americans can’t see the reason for the their bias in the face of the violence and rioting that occurred after the Grand Jury’s declination to file criminal charges against Officer Wilson.

Whether one view is absolutely right or wrong is as irrelevant as it is a fantasy – as in any conflict, both perceptions of the issue have some truths and some falsehoods.  The false perceptions of motives and inclinations of blacks and whites toward each other in this country spring from the sinful practice of prejudicial thinking.  Prejudice – the preconception of a person or group of persons based on ethnicity, religion, or any other characteristic – devalues the integrity of the person as an individual, unique in his or her own right.  In its worst form, prejudice can be the catalyst for violence.

Jesus Christ warned against assuming the motives of others’ actions in the Sermon on the Mount.  Matthew 5:46-47 recounts Jesus’ clear teaching concerning how we are to treat others that we may be fearful of due to prejudices:

“If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?  And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?”

His approach is one of forgiveness and turning our focus on our own actions, looking ourselves in the mirror and assessing whether we are acting as He would want.

There are lessons in the racial divide caused by such stereotyping of African American youths that can be applied to interfaith relations.  Marc Gopin, professor of religious studies at George Mason University, talks about the concept of “Othering” in his book Holy War, Holy Peace: How Religion Can Bring Peace to the Middle East.  “Othering”, according to Gopin, is defined as viewing another individual or group through the lens of biases that we have developed over years, biases that tend to grossly exaggerate a negative preconception in a sub-conscious effort to counterbalance fear.

When we engage in “Othering”, we dehumanize the individual or group we are targeting.  In our eyes, the “Other” loses his or her human and, most importantly, unique qualities in the fog of stereotyping.  Suddenly, their motives become suspect and nefarious, their raison d’ etat somehow disconcerting and scary.  I personally find it difficult to engage in “Othering” when I know members of the group in question.  Knowing them on a personal scale breaks down the stereotype and applies a human face.

Jim Wallis of Sojourners has written a beautiful piece on the importance of proactive reconciliation to the Christian walk.  He writes, “It’s time to listen — for us white Americans to listen to black Americans; for white parents to listen to black parents; for white Christians to listen to black Christians. This may be the most important thing we have ever had to do: to listen, really listen.”  As Christians, we are commanded by our faith to be peacemakers and reconciliation facilitators rather than dividers, just as Jesus reconciled us to our heavenly Father through His death and resurrection.

The incident in Ferguson, Missouri should give us pause to consider whether prejudices influence how we view the religious “Other”.  In the highly-charged American political climate, simple misunderstandings of other religious traditions are exploited to fuel fear and further political agendas and, in doing so, legitimize these misunderstandings as truth .  All people of faith must be on guard to avoid allowing fear and unfamiliarity of other religious traditions and, in some cases, years of learned and unchallenged bias, influence behavior toward others.

If we take the time to listen to one another on faith issues as well, rather than jumping to conclusions and automatically casting the “Other” is a demonizing light, we are in obedience to God’s commands and we may learn a few things along the way.