Monthly Archives: January 2015

Lessons from History

On this day, the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in southern Poland,  I am reminded of the senselessness and bizarre nature of violence in the name of religion.  I visited Auschwitz in 1988 and was deeply moved by the spectre of what occurred there so many years ago.  The thought of men, women, and children murdered simply because they existed were haunting.  At the time of Auschwitz’s liberation, the horrors that came to light seemed to hold the promise of shocking some sense into the world.

However, as time passes and the events of the Holocaust fade further into the past, it seems as if the human race remembers nothing.  Have we forgotten the lessons of the past?

The recent events in Iraq and Syria involving the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and in Nigeria involving Boko Haram are of great concern to the West and rightfully so.  ISIS has singularly proven itself to be one of the most brutal and bloodthirsty organizations the world has ever known.  The horrifying images of hostages being brutally beheaded on video in the name of Islam threaten to further fan the flames of sectarian conflict in the Middle East.  A secondary, but no less troubling, byproduct of these images has been the hostile reaction of many Christians in the United States toward Islam, believing that Islam is accurately represented by the barbaric acts of ISIS.

As part of a Church symposium on Christian-Jewish relations in 1996, Pope John Paul II spoke of the historical misinterpretation of Christian theology used to demonize Jews.  He decried the moral “numbness” this caused in the larger Christian conscience as part and parcel of the lack of Christian resistance to the Holocaust.  Similarly, questioning the true nature of Islam in the context of the brutality of ISIS is heating up, especially in the United States against the backdrop of the September 11 terrorist attacks.  There have been examples of politicians, religious leaders, military officials, and celebrities publicly calling into question the integrity of Islam.

Public statements by some who align themselves with conservative Christianity, such as that of Retired General and Vice President of the Family Research Council Jerry Boykin, seem to encourage sectarian strife between Christians and Muslims in the United States.  Boykin recently implored Americans to “…have more babies and populate this country with red-blooded Americans” to counter the population growth of Muslims in the United States.  Boykin’s statements imply that Muslim Americans are not patriotic which follows a common fear among some conservatives of a massive conspiracy among American Muslims to infiltrate American society in the hopes of establishing Islam as the dominant ideology.

The precursor to Kristallnacht in 1939 Nazi Germany was the assassination of German diplomat Ernst von Rath by a young Jew despondent over his family’s forced emigration from Germany to Poland.  Hitler used this act by one person as a pretext to increase wholesale persecution of an entire race writing, “for once the Jews should get the feel of popular anger”.

While the publicity that some public figures have received recently is concerning in terms of the impact their generalizations may have on uninformed listeners, I believe there is an opportunity to foster interfaith dialogue in this hostile environment.  The brutality of ISIS and Boko Haram is prompting Muslim advocacy groups in the United States to disassociate themselves and their understanding of Islam from the twisted theology these two groups use to justify their actions.  There has been a significant increase in such statements from Muslim groups since ISIS began to receive widespread media attention.  This has occurred despite the claim among many conservatives that Muslims remain silent in the face of these atrocities and, therefore, are somehow complicit with them.  As the acts committed in the name of Islam become more ghastly, the logical question becomes how can a faith produce both terror and beauty?  I encourage the reader to realize that true faith, any faith, does not produce brutality and oppression.  It is the misuse of religion to force political and social change that results in the acts of hatred we see on our computer screens.

German Christians largely allowed complacency to mute their opposition to the Nazi persecution of Jews.  As American Christians, let’s not miss this opportunity to join the Muslim voices in denouncing terror in the name of Islam as an abomination against Islam and, indeed, against anyone of any faith.

Charlie Hebdo and Interfaith Relations

The latest attack in the name of religion has roiled French society and once again sent shock waves throughout the Western world.  The fear of a deepening clash between Western and Islamic values grows more acute with each such incident.  The January 7th shootings at the offices of the French satire magazine, Charlie Hebdo, targeted the right to free speech, a cornerstone value of Western civilization.  For some, the assertions of inevitable confrontation between East and West made by Samuel Huntington in his classic work, Clash of Civilizations, reflect the unfortunately reality of the post-modern world.

How can we, as Christians in a predominately Christian society in the United States, react to this latest provocation in a positive way?  In a broad sense and most importantly, we must make an effort to identify and combat purposeful misinformation that portrays all Muslims in a negative light based on the actions of a small minority.  This incident, like others before it, will be used by extremists on both sides of the political spectrum to advocate for an extreme response.  The far right element in France, personified by Marine Le Pen, has already seized on the opportunity to paint all Muslims as somehow complicit in the actions of terrorists.  Such xenophobia will only thrive if not confronted by reasonable and well-informed opinions.  Extremism begets extremism and plays into the hands of the terrorists.

The first specific reaction we Christians should have to this terrorist action is to acknowledge and amplify the condemnation from Muslims the world over toward the Charlie Hebdo shootings.  Muslim organizations in France and here in the United States have spoken out quite forcefully against the shootings, disavowing any relationship between the killers’ actions and Islamic values and principles.  Regardless, the notion that moderate Muslims must “take back” their religion is a tired and invalid argument.  Moderate Muslims should not have to feel as if they need to disavow themselves of the actions of obviously misguided criminals anymore than I felt the need to differentiate myself from the genocidal actions of, say, the Serbian Christians against Bosnian Muslims during the Bosnian War of the early 1990s.

Secondly, we must try to understand more fully the sensitivities toward depictions of Mohammed in Islam.  Christianity and Judaism both have elements of rejection of representations of the divine as well so it should not be a foreign concept to us.  Muslims do not believe that Mohammed was divine; however, the early followers of Mohammed did recognize the excessive reliance on icons among their contemporary Christian and Jews of the 6th and 7th centuries and warned against the propensity to worship icons in place of true divinity.  Clearly and without a doubt, the actions of the terrorists in reacting to the defamation of Mohammed by Charlie Hebdo was wrong and is an assault against the Western value of free speech which should be defended vigorously.  At the same time, we Christians also have the right to speak out against such disparagement and defend the sanctity of the faith of our Muslim brothers and sisters just as we would want members of other faith groups to respect the symbols of our faith.

Thirdly, we must remember that the actions of “Islamic” terrorists are indiscriminate in terms of who they target.  One of the victims of the Charlie Hebdo shootings was a Muslim police officer who was assigned the task of protecting those who lampooned his religion.  His sacrifice has been memorialized very eloquently on Twitter under the hashtag #JeSuisAhmed.  The killing of Muslims by “Islamic” terrorists should be a clear indication that their actions have nothing to do with fulfilling their twisted understanding of Islamic values.  Rather it should be understood that these terrorists attach themselves to Islam in order to “legitimize” political agendas or, more simply, to feel empowered to lash out against the dissatisfaction with their own lives and direction.  This is not endemic to Islam – all religions are consistently used to legitimize positions that have nothing to do with religious principles.

We, as American Christians, must acknowledge that there is a certain amount of prejudice inherent in the Western view of Islam.  Prejudice is best countered with knowledge and understanding.  I would encourage my Christian brothers and sisters to seek out true knowledge of the values of Islam rather than automatically assuming that these terrorists reflect true Muslim faith.  We shouldn’t allow ourselves to be sold a bill of goods, especially by criminals.


Interfaith spirituality: Listen to God, hear the other

As a devout Muslim woman who is founded in Islamic education, I feel pleasantly surprised when I enjoy a spiritual experience just by listening to non-Muslim faith experiences. Often, interfaith participants say that one of the benefits of interfaith dialog is a strengthening of one’s own faith. This is true for me; not only my own faith increases when I am speaking about Islam but when I hear other people describe their own spiritual experiences as well.

Last week I surge in spirituality during an event that I attended for the second year. The Multicultural Alliance’s annual Interfaith Retreat for Seminarians is a program prepared by MCA Texas to gather seminarian students and faculty from the three faith traditions, Judaism/Christianity/Islam, for four days of dialog, learning, and compassion. This year’s theme was “Tell Me a Story” where students and faculty from eleven seminaries in Texas, California, Connecticut and Maryland listened to presentations from resource scholars who shared about what telling stories meant in each of the three faith traditions.

After each presentation the group of seminarians dispersed in pre-assigned smaller groups of five to six where they spent time discussing their reflections on the topic. Through these meetings, several people expressed deep personal experiences of faith that evoked echoes of awe throughout the room. Personally, I felt visions of God and His blessings upon His creation as I listened to each story and reinforced my own faith and hope in a better future. As a Christian woman described how her daughter one day surprised her by speaking eloquently about issues of faith, I thought about my own daughter who currently does not show any interest in religious devotion and wondered: “Could she one day grow up from the seed I had planted and surprise me by an indulgence into leaps of faith?” I also listened to a another woman’s story with her husband who was not rooted in faith, yet he was the main spiritual support system in her career as a chaplain and seminarian. She and I had lengthy discussions about how our husbands have been the major tools that God used in order to facilitate our religious missions by making them generate energy, power, and aspiration into our spirits.

Some insightful talks inspired me as a guide of how I may react if put in a similar situation in the future, of how to deal with calamity and life’s trials, or of how to deal with any kind of loss. The young Rabbi’s story of how he was hit by a truck four months before his wedding and how he meanwhile spent his time with pain and temporary disability while tending to an herb indoor garden was mesmerizing. Each one of us has at some point faced hardship and struggled with putting things on hold until one was able to get oneself together. The Rabbi’s experience is a reminder that sometimes you cannot wait for the storm to pass but you need to learn how to dance in the rain. Pain and loss are parts of life but life doesn’t stop at their doorsteps. A Christian woman who lost her husband recently was another example of how life must go on because the Giver of this life is alive. She is attending her first seminary semester and looks forward in a pastoral future despite her severe personal loss. These are examples that I personally value when I wake up every morning from now on, whether the morning is shiny or gloomy.

I shared personal stories and experiences of hope, love and peace that I felt God bestowed upon me during my journey in religious studies. I was surprised that my stories touched the hearts of the Jewish and Christian participants who found them inspiring. I received a lot of confirmation and thumbs up, encouraging me to keep going forward. All this came from people who were total strangers but who in four days became very close. So close that I realized that what they gave me could not have been given by many people who exist in my personal life and shared my Muslim faith. They gave me the spiritual and intellectual support that only people who study religion know about. Living in a secular world with a strong faith is not always easy. People don’t understand why I am keeping up with religious dietary restrictions or prayer or practices. Friends wonder why I seem so distant and unwilling to sacrifice my study time to keep a high profiled social lifestyle. Some family members complain that I don’t spend enough time with them or that I don’t give them enough attention…

Interfaith dialogs are like a savings account: the more you put in them the more you will end up with. And if you sincerely bring God to these conversations you will discover God in new ways. Very few people realize this theology of interfaith but for those of us who know it we can’t live without it. It is our support system. This seminarian retreat has become my spiritual treat and refuge thanks to my Jewish, Christian and Muslim interlocutors who gift me with finding God by listening to their stories.