Sunday, March 27, 2016

An Easter Message of Peace, With a Tinge of Foreboding

In Nazi Germany, and prior to the rise of the Third Reich, there was a widely propagated sentiment that no matter how vehemently a person might protest that they knew one decent Jew, there was really no such thing.  That inside each and every Jew was a war profiteer, a leech upon the jugular vein of German society just waiting to cash in.  Waiting to take over and destroy the fabric of precious Aryan culture and to spread their filth everywhere.[i]  And that as hard as one might try to find one decent Jew, the existence of such an animal was a mere myth.  Today, the parallel to this is that in 21st century America, we have a growing and more vociferous group of people who claim that there is no such thing as a decent Muslim.  That at the heart of their religion is a core of evil that hates Christian society, that hates Jews, that hates America, that hates democracy, and that each and every Muslim is just here in the US to profit from our hard work, and that they—the Muslim, as a category—are just waiting to be mobilized as terrorists, to destroy and kill all of us. 

As a scholar of religion, I have studied many world religions, and have a good grasp on the core values of almost every world religion, some more deeply than others.  And I am a specialist in Early Christianity and Second Temple Judaism, so I am not without knowledge of the core values and the varied, and often highly embarrassing history of each of the two root traditions of the Judeo-Christian faiths.  To speak of Islam as if it were inherently a religion bent on the destruction of Judaism and Christianity, that it is rooted in violence and destruction and subjugation of all non-Muslims, is patently untrue, and is not supported by history.  It is a vicious and nefarious lie, rooted in a willful ignorance—arrogance—the same malignant credulity of mankind that led to the Holocaust.  And frankly, I am fearful that we, as a nation, are on the same exact road as Nazi Germany was on in the 1920s and 1930s—far closer than anyone might expect. 

NO ONE is saying that extremists do not exist within the Islamic faith, just as they do in every faith. But to label an entire religion of 1.6 billion people based upon the actions of perhaps less than a fraction of 1% worldwide, is not only madness, it is bigotry, and it is unacceptable.  As a scholar, and as an activist in the field of interfaith dialogue, I work with, and personally know more Muslims than most non-Muslim Americans will ever know.  I have worked with thousands of them, and personally know hundreds of them.  These are good people, whose religion is a lot closer to Judaism and Christianity than you would ever imagine, unless you were educated in this field. 

Over the last several years, I have brought thousands of my students to mosques, among the many field trips to different houses of worship that they attend, and not a single student, after the fact, has ever felt that Islam was inherently a nefarious religion.[ii]  In fact, I have placed on the IRTPJ blog, which you can read if you like, the academic paper of one such student who was so shocked to see how wrongly the media portrays Islam, that she wants to share this insight with others.[iii] 

There are some friends and acquaintances of mine, who happen to be of a more politically conservative mindset, but are more distinguishable by their bigotry than their conservatism per se—some of these friends happen to feel that all Muslims are essentially evil, that Islam is a nefarious religion, bent on the destruction of Democracy, Christianity, and America, and that deep down underneath, they are all terrorists, just waiting to be activated or awakened from their sleeper cells.  Sound familiar?  Just a few weeks ago, I helped lead a major interfaith march in downtown LA which was attended by throngs of peaceful Muslims whose only hopes were to share with America their love for being in this land, to share that they are peaceful people, and to ask that their neighbors stand up with them against bullies and bigots, and help to reject violent extremism in the name of religion.  And what do you know, not a single major US news source was there to cover it—go figure.  Not the first time that has happened when Muslims are involved.  But who was there?  We had LA Sheriff’s Department there to support, including several LASD deputies who happen to be Muslims themselves. Are they terrorists?  LASD didn’t think so, or they wouldn’t have hired them.  We also had LAPD out in force to support us.  The Captain of the Olympic Division marched right alongside of me in support of Muslims.  Is he cowed by the wiles of terrorists?  What about the LAPD Reserve Officer who is on the board of the Islamic Center of Southern California, which took part in our march and was the final destination?  Or the LAPD officer who is part of Community Affairs interfaith outreach, also a Muslim—is he a terrorist?  And what about my students who are Muslim, some having come from other countries to study here, others born here—are they terrorists?  What about the man who often heads the tours for my students at his mosque, who is by day a cancer researcher whose work has contributed extensively to cancer research and whose findings might one day save your life or that of a loved one?  Is he a terrorist?  Some people claim that he looks like one, since his traditional beard and garb make him reminiscent of Osama Bin Laden.  But he has contributed more to the well-being of our society than many of you ever will in your entire lives.  What about my doctors?  The Iranian Shi’ite Muslim doctor who helped save my life when I nearly died of bacterial meningitis in 2001.  Is he a terrorist?  How about your doctors?  You are likely to have at least one Muslim doctor in the course of your life, just as many of your doctors have likely been Jewish in the past.  Are they all terrorists?  Why don’t you say that to their faces while they are stitching you up after bypass surgery, or administering your chemotherapy. 

I want to address a couple of points here.  Many people throw around terms that they seem to think define Muslims the world over, yet they do not even know what these terms mean.  They have made up meanings for those terms that serve their willfully ignorant views of Muslims, that paint them as the bad guy of some 1980s action film.  Terms like Jihad and Shariah and Infidel are tossed around as if everyone knows what these mean.  I will not launch into a lesson about these here, preferring to handle that another day.  But the concept of being an infidel has surfaced, with many people putting an Arabic character ostensibly meaning “infidel” on their social media profiles, as if to say that they are proudly “owning” their identity as “infidels” as part of their resistance to the onslaught of radical Islam, which is trying to convert or slaughter everyone.  Allow me to remind you that the term “infidel” was always a term used primarily by Christians and in a Christian context, well before the advent of Islam.  And it is not the most accurate way of translating the Arabic word kaafir or kufr—which simply means non-believer and depending upon how one uses the term, can be just as innocuous as the term is in English—“someone not of our faith,” or goyim in Hebrew.  It’s all in the tone of how you use the term.  By putting this Arabic character on your social media profiles, you are not resisting anything except your own education!  You are not insulting anyone except the angels of your better nature.[iv] 

What about these so-called “No-go zones” that have ostensibly appeared all over Europe and America?  As commonly defined by conservative news sources, they do NOT exist in America, and likely not in Europe either.  There is no hard evidence for these existing in America at all.[v]  They are a myth.  Even in Britain, the reports of a no go zone were sparked by the campaign of a radical cleric named Anjem Choudary, now on trial[vi], and his neckbearded leprechaun of a henchman posting decals on lamp-posts around Britain[vii], which have no more authority and enforceability than your teenager posting a sign on his or her door that says “kids only, adults keep out!”  This does not qualify as a juvenile no-go zone.  Most Muslims don’t care what you do with your private time and are happy to be protected by the U.S. Constitution, which is the closest form of government to that which is fostered by the real concept of Shariah, which just means maintaining a Godly and compassionate lifestyle—much like how we understand Biblical values—and not what it is often misinterpreted by bigots the world over. 

And although this kind of bigotry is most commonly practiced by those from Conservative camps, it ultimately has nothing to do with conservatism.  It’s bigotry plain and simple.  I am glad that I have plenty of conservative friends that repudiate this kind of bigotry and realize that it has no place in real Christianity either.  Frankly this kind of rhetoric has a limited lifespan.  My job, both as an educator and as an activist in religious tolerance, is to make sure that it ends with these bigots and doesn’t get passed on to their children’s or grandchildren’s generations.  Even if they’re not willing to see reason, blinded by their own willful ignorance, at least their descendants will see that this is the same kind of outdated thinking that led to the Holocaust and nearly wiped Judaism off the face of this earth. 

All of you listening to this have a choice to make.  You have to decide what side of history you want to be on.  Do you want to be remembered along with the Nazis, as those whose fear of the other, of the unknown, allowed them to preach hatred and violence, all under the guise of protecting your cultural values from the purported violence of another?  Do you want to be reviled by your children and their children as bigots, much like we now ridicule the ideologues of the ante-bellum South who thought that slavery brought immense good to society and provided a civilizing influence to their slaves?  Or how we now shake our heads and cluck our tongues at the outdated sentiments of the post-bellum South, believing that the Black Man, as a category, would bring ruin upon their Lily White society of Jim Crowe and lynchings?  Or how much of the world, even America, was happy to rid themselves of the perfidious Jew, another unwanted category, and how large portions of Christian Europe were happy to glibly stand by and watch as the Nazis rounded up their Jewish neighbors, as if somehow, the Jew had earned this fate by being a “murderer of Christ.”  Is that how you want to be remembered, as one whose place in history is beside these ne’er do wells?  Bullies and bigots alike?  We stand at a crossroads here in America.  If we cultivate these sentiments, we run the risk of having our children shake their heads at our memories, saying, “never again.”  Or we can reject hatred, and do as the Lord asked us, and treat the sojourner with respect.  I know what I choose, and I am not going to allow my friends, my colleagues, my neighbors, Muslims or Jews or Christians or otherwise, to be bullied by bigots.  I will not stand quietly by.  Not on my watch. 

Happy Easter, folks.  Ask yourselves what Jesus would do right now.