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In a recent Wall Street Journal article, terrorism analyst Evan Kohlmann said that anti-Muslim rhetoric in America is bad news for anti-terrorism efforts: “We are handing al Qaeda a propaganda coup, an absolute propaganda coup.”
By many accounts, the man who could blunt the power of that coup is Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the religious leader behind the planned Islamic Center near Ground Zero. The imam has been surprisingly mum on the issue while he travels in the Middle East. What message of faith could he offer to Muslims and non-Muslims alike that could turn this moment of division into a time of healing?
Far be it from me to tell another person of faith what their faith REALLY says or means. As much as I may study Islam, talk with Muslims, and travel in Muslim lands – I will never be as ‘fluent’ in Islam as one, like the imam, who has been steeped in the tradtion from birth and has made it his life to live and interpret the faith. And given the climate in the United States today, I doubt whether anything the imam might say would change much of anything. If 20% of the population still thinks President Obama is a Muslim, in spite of incontrovertible evidence to the contrary, what hope do we have? Unfortunately, too many are of the same opinion as the former congressman from my home sate of Indiana who, when presented with the incontrovertible evidence that President Nixon was, indeed, complicit in the Watergate cover-up, responded with, “Don’t bother me with the facts; my mind’s already made up.”
That said, I do also have to be true to my own “native language of faith,” Quakerism, and hold to the belief that there is that within all people which offers the potential for transformation and “coming into the Light.” So, with that hope, I would offer this advice to the Imam:
First let me offer my own apologies for the intolerance towards Islam displayed by many in my own Christian tradition. I know that it is not characteristic of all Christians, and I hope that you understand that (as I’m sure you do, given the many people of all faiths who have rallied to the cause of promoting genuine community, understanding, and the promise of religious freedom). Little can be said to convince others of the heart and soul of authentic Islam if their hearts and minds are already made up to see the religion only through the experience of the tragic violence perpetrated by a few misguided Muslims.
I sometimes have to defend Christianity to those who see it only through the experience of a tragic history of Crusades, witch-burnings, Inquisitions, racism, homophobia, sexism, abuse, slavery, and other intolerable acts. They do not see the beauty of Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount or the Gospel of grace, forgiveness, wholeness, and G-d’s unconditional love. I spend a good deal of time, especially with the college students with whom I am privileged to work, apologizing for those who have misrepresented Christianity – and those who have been less than “ideal” Quakers as well (How do I explain John Dillinger and Richard Nixon?!). I try to point out that any faith can be twisted, misused, and made into a tool of oppression, hatred, and violence, but that if one looks at the core of the great Wisdom Traditions of the world such as Islam, much that is life-affirming and salvific can be found.
In what ways might you be able to point out the incongruency of the 9/11 perpetrators’ actions with authentic Islam? Putting aside for a moment your legitimate point that the United States is not innocent of ever having engaged in world empire or violence to others, can you state unequivocally that NOTHING justifies the kind of response unleashed by the 9/11 planners and hijackers? A good, honest, heart-felt apology for the wrongs committed in Islam’s name might help – as might a similarly heart-felt entreaty to those using an interpretation of Islam to mask oppression and marginalization of others to consider a different understanding of the faith.
This is tricky business, I admit! Some would have Muslims deny justifiable complaints and grievances and force an abdication from legitimate struggle against wrongs done. I would hope that you could both apologize for tragically misguided attempts at addressing those wrongs – and call attention to effective, nonviolent means of “unmasking” those wrongs.
If my experience is any indication of the success you might have in treading that tricky path, you will find that some people of good will might be led into an experience of convincement. Others…well; not so much! Their minds are already made up.
Best wishes. May people of good will of ALL faiths come to see the wrongs perpetrated in their religion’s name, uphold the best in those traditions, and find a way forward – together – to apply the best in our religious faith to removing the impediments to human fulfillment and the earth’s well-being.
In fact, Peace to ALL of us!