Washed in the blood of the lamb, etc. (A response to Pamela Geller).

Pamela Geller, she of the terrible hate-mongering anti-Muslim subway ads (and much other anti-Muslim hate-mongering besides) has apparently decided to put up new ads, in response to those placed by Rabbis for Human Rights and the Council on American Islamic Relations meant to counter her hate. In the new ads, she will quote a particularly inflammatory line from the Quran. Following is a piece I wrote about a year after 9/11 for the Chicago Tribune, in which I addressed this tendency we all seem to have to cherry pick words from Scripture (those of others as well as our own) to prove a point.

*****

Those of us who see the struggle for peace and justice as a spiritual act often quote our Scriptures to validate our efforts. We talk about “true” Judaism, Christianity or Islam and decry how our religions have been distorted. We adorn our walls and bulletin boards with beautiful quotes, words we believe God gave to humanity: “Seek peace and pursue it,” say the Psalms. “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you,” Jesus exhorts his followers. “Those who keep from evil will dwell amid gardens,” we read in the Koran. “In their wealth, the beggar and outcast had due share.”

God, we say, is all about peace and justice.

What, then, are we to do about the other words in our books, words we often choose not to discuss?

“As for those peoples that warred against Jerusalem,” reads Zechariah 14:12, “their flesh shall rot away while they stand on their feet.” Or this passage from John, where Jesus talks to “the Jews”: “You belong to your father, the devil. . . . The reason you do not hear [God] is because you do not belong to God.” In the fifth chapter of the Koran: “The only reward of those who make war upon Allah and His messenger . . . will be that they will be killed or crucified, or have their hands and feet on alternate sides cut off . . . in the Hereafter theirs will be an awful doom.”

Usually, people like me ignore these passages. We push them aside, or counter with quotes we like better. When we do this, though, we are lying.

An individual’s understanding of the Creator comes from life experience; so it is with communities.

Each of the world’s religions–monotheist, polytheist, animist, druid–came into being in the framework of a particular culture. Many arose in response to perceived failures of another faith. Some focused on establishing a discrete community on this earth; others sought to transcend the earth; many juggled both colossal tasks.

There were political struggles and bloody battles to fight, slights to overcome, the weak-willed to encourage, traditions to establish and pass on.

So the Israelites institutionalized slavery. St. Paul made wives subordinate to husbands. The Koran recommends amputation for thieves. We can look it up chapter and verse–it’s really there, in all its sordid glory, flesh rotting, Jews being of the devil, infidels crucified.

I was born a Protestant and moved to Israel as an adult. I decided about 13 years ago to convert to Judaism. Temporarily back in Chicago, I decided last year to become bat mitzvah at 38, which happened in September.

The scriptural portion I was assigned was Zechariah 14, and I found myself learning to chant the verse quoted above–and as a fluent speaker of Hebrew, I understood every word. My portion covered the whole chapter, so I had also to contend with pack animals dropping dead and plunder being snatched.

These verses almost literally stuck in my craw. I found they took me days to learn, and I would often stumble, forget the tune, as I came up against them in practice. The music was lovely; the words horrific.

I found comfort in Zechariah 14:9, a reference to the messianic age: “And on that day, the Lord will be One and his Name One.” That is what matters to me–the notion that we will one day grow beyond our differences and worship at the same altar. This other stuff, this war stuff–I’ll learn it and move on.

But I couldn’t, if for no other reason than that I sang the words in practice every day, for months. Terrible images of war and retribution, and a bitter, vengeful God, over and over again. I found I couldn’t deny that these ideas are also part of my heritage, as legitimate as the soul-stirring ideas that guide and comfort me–undeniably, incontrovertibly there.

And then it came to me–and as a person of faith, I do believe that this was a blessing, not something from my own limited wisdom–that “as legitimate” doesn’t mean “decisive.”

The prophet who set down those words was writing from within the midst of a broken, vanquished people who had in recent memory seen battles as horrific as those he described.

In spite of the horrors they thought inevitable, the prophet and his people could envision something beyond the brutish existence they knew. “And on that day, the Lord will be One.” We learn at the end of the chapter that the time will come when all the peoples of the world will come to Jerusalem to worship–not as Jews, but as who they are.

I would submit that our challenge today is to deny nothing in our Scriptures, but to learn from them how to acknowledge the times in which we live and transcend them. If we aren’t honest about reality we will not be able to transform it.

For me, an Israeli Jew who longs for an end to our war with the Palestinians, I believe this means I must pray for the wisdom to see the evil done on both sides and look past it. To fight for real justice, a solution that acknowledges the suffering and supports the dignity of Palestinian and Israeli alike. To do any less would be an affront to God.

“He has told you,” we read in Micah, “what is good and what the Lord requires . . . only to do justice and to love goodness and to walk modestly with your God.”

Reform and Conservative Jews = “Haters of the Lord.” FYI.

My latest at Open Zion/The Daily Beast:

The notion of ahavat yisrael, “love for the Jewish people,” is lovely, but let’s be frank: As a people, we Jews haven’t all loved each other since roughly the Golden Calf.

We’re a people like any other. We split along ideological lines, family lines, class lines—witness the anger emanating from Israel’s ultra-Orthodox over the possibility of state recognition for a small number of non-Orthodox rabbis, or the mere vision of women praying in public (or even riding the bus with men).

And you know what? That’s cool—I don’t much like ultra-Orthodoxy either. I have a lot of very powerful opinions about how that community interprets Scripture and what those interpretations ultimately mean for many of their number. I don’t need them to like me and mine, and I certainly don’t need their approval to know that I’m a good Jew.

What’s not cool, however, is that unlike any other Jews, Israel’s ultra-Orthodox actually have the power to legislate and enforce their value judgments. The problem isn’t the Jewish people’s fissures, or the opprobrium of one side for another—the problem is that in the Jewish state, one very narrowly defined community of Jews is paid out of state coffers to lord their version of Judaism over everyone else.

For instance: Israeli ultra-Orthodox Rabbi Shlomo Amar is sufficiently rude and ignorant to have recently written the following about Reform and Conservative Jews:

…to read the rest and get to the “haters of the Lord” part, you’ll just have to click here

What does it mean to be a person of faith?

Cory Booker

Two quotes that pretty much say it all for me:

Before you speak to me about your religion, first show it to me in how you treat other people. Before you tell me how much you love your God, show me how much you love all His children. Before you preach to me of your passion for your faith, teach me about it through your compassion for your neighbors. In the end, I’m not as interested in what you have to tell or sell as how you choose to live and give. - Newark mayor Cory Booker

and

[I]f Judaism isn’t a movement for social justice — if it’s not concerned primarily with loving others as you love yourself and upholding their dignity — then there’s no point in being Jewish. - social activist Daniel Sieradski (aka @mobius1ski)

The entire Torah on one foot, or …(wait, I’m counting)… one hundred and thirteen words. BOOM.

Karma.

I don’t believe in it.

I don’t believe in karma in either the strict Hindu or Buddhist religious sense of the total effect of a person’s actions and conduct during the successive phases of the person’s existence, regarded as determining the person’s destiny (American Heritage Dictionary, 2000), or in the loosely-held American culture sense of karma-as-payback/reward. Neither do I believe in monotheistic notions of heaven and hell as places of reward/punishment (it bears noting that Judaism doesn’t traditionally share this essentially Hellenistic understanding of life after death — ideas about the afterlife and the extent to which people are rewarded or punished are a bit up for grabs and open to interpretation).

I’m not particularly clear on what I do believe — it could be that (as John Lennon said) death is just getting out of one car and into another; it could be that (as the pastor conducting the funeral for Canadian politician Jack Layton put it) we are not physical beings with souls, but rather souls who briefly put on physical form; it could be we just die and are done. I honestly have no idea, though I’m kind of hoping for some kind of carrying-on.

But regardless of All That We Cannot Know, I am pretty clear that the other stuff, the ideas of payback-and-damnation and/or crowns-of-heavenly-glory-and-really-good-parking-spaces, are simply powerfully human ideas that we’ve constructed because it’s just too painful to consider the possibility that those who hurt us will get away with it.

Indeed, I’ll take it a step further:

I often say that people who live ugly lives have to live with themselves and that’s punishment enough — but the truth is that even that’s not always true. If you’re Paul Ryan, for instance, or an Israeli settler, but are kind and loving within your own circles, true to your convictions and, I don’t know, make really good cake, any suffering you undergo as a direct result of the ugliness to which you’ve dedicated your life likely doesn’t read as punishment to you. It likely reads as That Which You Are Willing to Nobly Shoulder in the Name of the Cause. Just as I think of myself and my advocacy for social justice and against Israeli settlements.

There’s simply not a lot of recourse in our lived reality. Beyond the obvious questions of legal codes and courts of law — you know: sending folks to the hoosgow when they deserve it — I honestly think that all we can do is stop worrying about whether or not others get their comeuppance and focus entirely on our own lives.

Does this bring me joy? is a good place to start, but there is a lot that I do that brings me no joy at all and yet it must be done. Into this latter category falls a broad variety of things, from thinking about finances, to consistently doing the laundry, to continuing to advocate for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (which, it should be noted, is kind of my job). Moreover, there is a whole lot of life, and there are a whole lot of lives, in which “joy” is at best a distant hope. Mostly there’s a lot of getting through our days and seeking a little bit of pleasure.

But there are moments when we get to choose – this way, or that way? Smile at the lady in our path, or keep our head down? Do the thing that we know needs doing, or let it slide until it’s past being doable? Take action on that thing that breaks our heart, or back away?

I don’t believe there’s any extra-curricular reward for choosing A, in any of those cases, nor do I believe there to be any punishment for Thing B. It’s true that when we treat people well, we are often treated well in return – but not always, and not exclusively. If we’re being nice in order to gain niceness, we’re going to be disappointed a lot.

But the only life I have is this one, right here. In this head, in this skin. It matters to me that I lay my head down at night, or at the end, believing myself to have tried my best. And in the end, that’s all I have control over. Even if I take revenge on someone who I believe deserves it — what do I know about how they see that revenge? And what does that tell me about me?

So, yeah: heaven, hell, karma-in-both-senses — not so much.

But I can aspire to being able to look myself in the eye.

In which I blaspheme: Monotheism’s biggest failure.

Ok, that’s kind of a grand statement. Maybe I shouldn’t claim to have uncovered the single biggest failure of the world’s monotheistic faiths. But for my money, it’s certainly right up there.

As readers of this blog are surely aware, I believe in God.

I furthermore believe that God is loving and good, and that when we say that we’re made in His* image, we mean the best of us. “Our better angels” are, to my mind, those parts of the human spirit that fly up to meet their Creator and attempt to express His love, His goodness, on this earth.

I also believe, in what I take to be a very Jewish sense, that God is everywhere and yet nowhere. We are not God, but reflections of Him. He can be found in our homes and in our hearts, but He is neither in the heavens nor in the depths. He is not corporeal, and when we speak of His arms, or His voice, we are only making use of the only tools we have to imagine the unimaginable — yet should I call upon Him, His is the still, small voice that is as near as my child’s breath, as she whispers in my ear.

God is ultimately unknowable, because He is so entirely Not Us. Bigger, Grander, More Powerful beyond measure — how can it be otherwise, when He created the world and all that’s in it? And yes, I believe that the Big Bang was an act of God, and I honestly cannot understand how the one could possibly contradict the other.

What is God not, then? Where did monotheism get it wrong?

On the “perfect” part.

I don’t believe God is perfect. I don’t believe God is all-powerful, and I suspect that He is not all-knowing. I cannot, and continue to believe that He is loving.

There is too much broken and wrong in this world, too much pain and too much horror, for me to believe that our Creator has the power to fix it, and yet chooses not to.

But that’s what the world’s three biggest monotheistic faiths would have us believe. We try to explain it away — in Judaism, many say that God does only good, we just don’t always recognize it as such; some say that we call down upon ourselves the world’s horrors with our behavior — but I think that most believers choose not to think about it too much, because if we do, the whole thing shatters at the feet of a starving or murdered child.

The failure, then, is not simply in getting something so crucial so badly wrong — it’s in creating a system that demands that God’s creatures find a way to believe something truly terrible. Perhaps if we posit a Satan (in which I do not believe, but for the sake of argument, let’s go ahead and posit) we can lay the world’s woes at Satan’s feet — but then we’re positing a genuine rival to God. We’re saying that there’s someone else out there, as powerful or nearly-as powerful as God, whom God is unable to defeat. Because if God is loving and can save us from Satan’s evil hands — why the long game? Why not just be done with it?

It’s  my experience that when people in the West reject God, they’re more often than not (not always, of course, but pretty often) rejecting organized religion, and more to the point, organized Western religion’s vision of a God who is all-powerful, and yet isn’t overly concerned with starving, bloodied children.

So here’s our choice: God – all powerful, perfect and all knowing? Or loving?

I’m sticking with loving.

(And to those who would argue that I’m going pretty far out on several limbs simultaneously, I can only say: Why do you think they call it “faith”?)

*****

*I’m comfortable with the English-language cultural convention of referring to the Divine in the male singular, but I don’t for a minute think that S/He/It is actually anything like any human. 

Passover 2011, pt II: On the whole Passover dealio, let’s be honest.

It really does seem that every year, Passover goes by faster. One minute I’m hyperventilating over the inhuman amount of cleaning, the next minute I’m all “what, it’s over?” But here we are. Tonight is the start of the second holiday, the one that closes the week, and then boom – it’s back to bread*. What this means for you, dear reader, is that I won’t be posting on Monday (it being a holiday and all) – so instead, here I am on Easter Sunday, writing one more time about Passover.

Moses appears to be a bit doubtful that this is going to end well.

On the whole Passover dealio, let’s be honest.

Anyone who knows anything about Passover (and is over the age of 10) already knows the main message: Let my people go, freedom from slavery, big-ass crackers instead of fluffy bread for a week, etc and so on. (And by the way, if you’re under the age of 10, you really shouldn’t be reading this blog).

However! There are other messages that emerge from the story, if you poke around and look a little, messages that are also powerful and necessary.

Like the fact that people can change. That even the worst dregs of humanity can turn their lives around — can, perhaps, become heroes.

Like Moses.

Do you know who Moses was before he became the dude who stared Pharaoh down, the great prophet, the redeemer of the Israelites, the fella who got to go up to the mountain and chat with The Holy One Blessed Be He?

He was a confused princeling with anger issues — and a murderer, to boot!

Moses was ultimately raised in Pharaoh’s family, but he was cared for early in life by his biological mother, and he knew he wasn’t really Egyptian. One fine day, he “went out to his kinsfolk and witnessed their labors” — which is to say, there he was, all dressed up in his royal finery, watching the slaves go about their business (survivor’s guilt, anyone?). Seeing an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, Moses did what any of us would do: He turned to his adoptive father and asked that reforms be instituted.

No, no! I kid!

He killed the dude. And hid the body. (Exodus, chapter 2, if you’re wondering).

Discovering the next day that there were witnesses (and I have to ask: How was this a surprise, exactly? Dude was a prince. How exactly did he think he would not be noticed in the act of killing someone?), he runs away to the land of Midian, where he becomes a shepherd, a husband, a father, and a prophet (in that order).

So, to recap: Moses is a murderer. And then he becomes the savior of his people.

We don’t really know what happened to Moses in the intervening years, up until the point where “a long time after that, the king of Egypt died. The Israelites were groaning under the bondage and cried out; and their cry for help from the bondage rose up to God” — but I’m guessing quite a lot. One doesn’t move from life as a prince to life as a shepherd, or abandon murderous anger for hesitant, self-effacing leadership, without undergoing an internal change or two.

But no matter who you are, or who your enemy is, or what that annoying asshole at work or in elective office did or said — there is always room for change. As long as there is life, there remains the possibility for genuine, even earth-shattering redemption.

And I’ll go one further: Sometimes our heroes are the people we most despise.

Sure, Moses is the prophet. Sure, he was the one who turned his life around and saved his people.

But he would never have gotten the chance if it weren’t for Pharaoh’s daughter — the actual child of the evil emperor.

When you read the story of Moses-in-the-bullrushes (Exodus 1), it emerges that five women (I’ll just repeat that: FIVE WOMEN) are the real heroes here:

  1. The two Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, who refused to kill the baby boys despite Pharaoh’s decree
  2. Moses’s biological mother, who hides him at home and then hides him where he might be found and kept alive
  3. Moses’s sister Miriam, who stands watch over him and has the courage to offer her help to Pharaoh’s daughter
  4. Pharaoh’s daughter, who plucks Moses out of his basket, agrees that Miriam should find him a wet-nurse, and then pays Moses’s mother to care for him.

Reading the story, it becomes blindingly obvious that the daughter of Pharaoh — who, let’s just recall, was heinous enough to order the mass murder of infants — knew exactly what she was doing. And that without her, the efforts of the other four women would have been for naught.

She says, straight up: “This must be a Hebrew child.” Then another child, who could only have been equally recognizably Hebrew, pops up out of the bullrushes and offers to find a wet-nurse — and then a wet-nurse is instantly found.

Pharaoh’s daughter had to know — and she went with it. She saved the baby, gave him back to his mother for as long as she could get away with it, and then raised the child as her own.

So on top of the freedom-from-slavery thing (which is, don’t get me wrong, a very, very good message), here’s another message that I get out of Passover:

No one’s life is predetermined. We cannot know what people are capable of, we cannot know who will save us. We cannot even know about ourselves.

We can only open the basket in the reeds. We can only listen to whatever voice of goodness and grace we hear, whether by water’s edge, or while moving sheep from point A to point B. We can only make ourselves available.

And believe that redemption is real.

***********************

* Though we live in America, we’re Israelis-in-exile, so we observe the holidays in keeping with the customs of Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel), which means a seven-day Passover. Most observant Diaspora Jews keep eight days — that is, through Tuesday.

Judeo-Christian is wack.

Hard boiled eggs on the holiday - we were doing it before you!

From the outside looking in, one might be forgiven for thinking that Christians and Jews have gotten past all that once separated our communities. And, in some ways, one would be right.

But in other ways, one really wouldn’t.

Here it is Lent, with Passover days away — our shared holy season — and the fact remains: Two thousand years later, we Judeo-Christians still really aren’t sure we can trust each other.

And lest you think I’m just talking about paranoid talking heads of the Tea Party and/or Anti-Defamation League variety, I’m not. I mean us, you and me, rubbing shoulders daily. Apparently, we still make each other nervous.

Among some members of my community, the Jews, it’s almost an article of faith that if you scratch a Christian, you’ll find an anti-Semite (not, of course, the Christians you know, but the ones who might be in the press).

Likewise, many Christians approach Jews with an almost comically  exaggerated wariness (not the Jews they know, of course, but the public Jews, the ones who are always so suspicious).

Of course, the distrust itself is an act of hostility, and we can’t deny that both anti-Semitism and paranoia are alive and kicking. But perhaps the more significant truth is this: We are, in fact, very different.

Indeed, I would argue that the term “Judeo-Christian” does a kind of linguistic violence to both faiths.

Yet in modern-day America, many of us are taught to believe (or act as if we believe) that we’re all (in some Free-To-Be-You-and-Me kind of way) “the same.” And if you expect me to be “the same” as you, but I go on insisting on being me — who can blame you for getting a bit tetchy?

I’m here to suggest that rather than strive for sameness, it would be far more more useful to acknowledge our strangeness, learn to value it – and, dare I say, respectfully disagree on occasion.

How else will we ever learn anything? If we spend our time fighting about how to create some ill-advised single vision, we won’t be able to see each other’s coexisting truths – and we may very well miss entirely the wisdom we have to teach each other.

Some time ago, finding myself at Catholic-run hospital, I idly picked up a flier about the pre-Easter season. Intended for those observing Lent, it was a list of alternate understandings of the fast: “Fast from discontent,” it read, “feast on gratitude,” and so on.

This struck a cord for me.

At Passover, Jews are commanded to eat no hametz, or leavening, for a week — a fast from yeast, if you will. On a literal level, a strict cleaning regimen has developed, expunging everything from dinner rolls in the pantry to crumbs (real or suspected) between one’s bathroom tiles and on one’s shelves (and yes, I do — in fact, I just took a break from this year’s scrubbing extravaganza in order to put up this post).

But “leavening” has also taken on subtleties far beyond this.

We’re encouraged to cleanse ourselves of the heart’s hametz – bitterness, egotism, fear.  “The search for hametz and its removal,” we read in The Book of Our Heritage, “becomes a symbol of the struggle against the evil inclination,” and the prosaic act of preparing the home takes on mystical overtones: “The physical has been created,” writes Rabbi Chaim Levine “as a visceral mirror for abstract spiritual concepts.”

Thus, at points, my Lent list sounds familiar: “Fast from anger,” it reads, “feast on patience. Fast from complaining; feast on appreciation” — surely these ideas informed Jesus’ understanding of Passover, and the Seder meal that Christians know as the Last Supper.

“This is my body,” he said of the unleavened bread — and with stunning imagery, asked his followers to literally em-body the qualities the matzah symbolizes, the qualities his mission exemplified.

Yet it must be said that matzah also symbolizes a very particular, historical event for the Jewish people: The moment when the Israelites went from slavery into freedom.

Just as Christians wouldn’t invite me to take communion, as it is an act of Christian faith, we Jews are refering directly and only to ourselves when we say that “in every generation it is a person’s duty to regard themselves as though they went forth from Egypt.”

Our stories meet and separate, inform and exclude. Cultural Christians and Jews who don’t believe in a Divine Creator find their own meanings and lessons, and each of these also differ from each other. As they only can.

Jews and Christians will never be Judeo-Christian. We will always see any one event or symbol with our own eyes.

Perhaps, though, as humans, we can develop the faith that when certain experiences separate us, others will bring us back.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.

On February 13, members of a faith-based charitable organization gathered in Yorba Linda, California to raise funds to support women’s shelters, help the homeless and combat hunger.

This same organization is active in interfaith outreach. One of its leaders offered the opening prayers at the recent inauguration of the governor of Illinois, and it will be holding its annual banquet in Chicago this weekend, the theme of which is “Fighting Fear, Teaching Tolerance.”

You can understand why, then, on February 13, a handful of elected officials — specifically: Yorba City councilwoman Deborah Pauly, US Congressman Ed Royce, and US Congressman Gary Miller — joined a group of a few hundred protesters (shouting such things as “Go back home!” and “USA!” and, for good measure: “Fuck you!”), in order to declare the faith-based philanthropic event “pure, unadulterated evil.”

Oh wait. Perhaps that’s actually utterly incomprehensible — nay: batshit crazy.

By now, of course, you’ve understood that — oh! It must have been Muslims! Because if it had been Christians or Jews or Hindus gathered to do social justice work, at this point in American history, there would have been no angry, spittle-flecked faces.

No, no, it must have been Muslims, because Muslims — men, women, little boys, little girls, all of them dressed in their finest, hair brushed, party shoes on little feet, come together to help those who cannot help themselves — are clearly, unequivocally, “evil.”

Natch.

What red-blooded American elected official would not, under such circumstances, declare her pride in her 19 year old son, a Marine, and suggest — I’m sorry, not suggest, but rather, say flat out — that there are “quite a few Marines” like her son who “will be very happy to help these terrorists to an early meeting in Paradise” (to the delighted laughter of the crowd).

What group of self-declared “patriotic Americans” who announce that they “love our Constitution” wouldn’t yell at Americans of faith on their way to a social justice event: “One nation under God, not Allah!” (patriotic Americans can’t be expected to know that the word “Allah” is simply Arabic for “God,” like the Hebrew “Yahweh,” a word patriotic Americans often use in Christian rock ditties).

What patriotic Americans wouldn’t yell at these other Americans (still on their way to help battered women and the homeless and the hungry): “Your hands are bloody! Your money is bloody! Get out!”

Indeed, what sitting member of this nation’s legislative branch wouldn’t reach out to a group of patriotic Americans screaming (and I do mean screaming) curse words at children and parents on their way to a charity event in order to say to the screamers: “I am proud of you, I am proud of what you’re doing.”

It was, after all, Muslims.

What do they expect, what with their headscarves and their beards and their belief in one God and the imperative to do good and their American citizenship and their trust in this nation’s founding documents, including that one bit that talks about freedom of religion? How dare they think they can just walk on into some building in California and raise funds for those in need? How dare they think they can bring their children and expect their children to learn about a life of good deeds and holy behavior? How dare they think that their government representatives (local and national) might not suggest that they are ripe for killing — I mean: ripe for being sent by members of their own military to “an early meeting in Paradise”?

How dare they.

The simple truth of the matter is that I’m ashamed to share citizenship with those protesters, and yet more ashamed to know that Deborah Pauly, Ed Royce and Gary Miller have any power, of any kind, in the nation that is my home.

But this isn’t the first time we’ve seen these spit-flecked maws and the venom they spew. We saw them in 1943 when they joined Lt. Gen. John DeWitt in declaring that “we must worry about the Japanese all the time until he is wiped off the map”; in 1951, they provided names of the innocent to Senator Joe McCarthy as he and the House Un-American Activities Committee destroyed American lives; in 1960, they stood on sidewalks howling “Nigger!” at six year old Ruby Bridges, as she crossed the color line to go to school; in 1979, they savagely assaulted Sikhs and Mexicans for looking like Iranians, and again in 2001, for looking like Arabs.

They are the worst that this country has to offer. They are the dross of our society, the black hearts and empty shells against which the Framers sought to protect us in our founding documents. They are ignorant, they are dangerous, they are a blight and a stain — and they are, whether we like it or not, us.

I might not want to call these unholy miscreants “American” — but American they are. They are American, they are human, and however much I would set walls between us, I can’t.

I cannot wish them away. I cannot impose holiness upon them. I cannot force them to take on the mantle of the American values they currently trample with such glee.

I can only confront them with the truth, push the ignorance into the smaller and yet smaller corners, and build on the certain knowledge that they will not win the day.

Today, Japanese-Americans serve in the Administration of a black President, and the name “McCarthy” is shorthand for a time universally recognized as one of the darkest in American history.

Today, Americans of good will, of all colors and stripes, are horrified by the events in Yorba Linda. Across the country, across the airwaves, on the internet, in homes and in conversation, we are raising a hue and a cry, declaring our loyalty to our Muslim brothers and sisters in solidarity and faith.

Our union is not yet perfect, and it will likely never be.

But as we face down the remains of centuries of bigotry and hate, and bring our better angels to bear against the underbelly of American society, we make the union better. Stronger. More perfect.

“We the people” means all the people — and if a few hundred ill-informed bigots and their spectacularly un-American elected officials don’t know that, then it’s up to us, Muslim and non-Muslim Americans of good will, to let them know.

This is a moment on which our children will look back, and boggle at what innocent people had to face. It’s a moment in which some will shine as heroes, and others will go down in ignominy. It’s a moment that will help define our nation and our future, and it’s in our hands to decide if we will act in support of the American Idea, or stand idly by.

This is it. There’s work to be done, and we’re the only ones who can do it.

*****************

The event I describe above can be seen in the following video. It’s infuriating and more than a little disturbing, but I urge you to watch it — there’s something to hearing the tenor of the hate, and seeing the dignity with which people under verbal assault go about their business, that clears the mind and sharpens the senses.

Click here to learn about some of the many, many responses of Muslims categorically rejecting terrorism; click here to hear the words of a Muslim 9/11 first responder; click here for a ideas [update: including sample scripts and letters] on how to respond to America’s current rash of Islamophobia.

Crossposted at Angry Black Lady Chronicles.

Combating Islamophobia & responding to Rep. Pete King – some ideas.

UPDATE, March 4, 2011 : I wrote a much more detailed list of ideas, including sample scripts and letters today: How to support Muslims. It’s a better place to start on this, I assure you!

I’ve called US Rep. Pete King’s (R-NY) office a couple of times in the past two weeks to try to determine when he’s planning on launching these abhorrent hearings of his into the “radicalization of the Muslim community” in America. My hope was to act on the ideas that I floated here, or help others with possible responses that they were working on, and though I’ve reached out to a couple of Muslim-American organizations for leads and ideas, I’ve heard nothing back (I’ve decided to chalk up this up to people being very, very busy, because, you know: Bottom line, my credentials for this sort of thing are fairly well established, both in terms of work experience in the communication and PR industries, and my own writing skills and background).

Two weeks ago or so, I was told the hearings would start “in late February or early March,” but when I couldn’t figure a way into efforts to respond to this rather vivid attack on American values (I have this funny notion that “We the people” means all the people, “liberty and justice for all” means for all-all, the First Amendment means what it says, so on and so forth) and other, equally worthy work came up (not to mention: Worthy work for which I was being paid!), I let it slide.

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Re-up: Muslim responses to extremism.

I posted the following almost precisely as it appears below two months ago, but given that ABC’s “This Week” is hosting a round table today on whether or not Americans need to fear Islam, I thought it was a good time to re-up it, give it a fresh airing, and once again, let Muslims speak for themselves:

Ever since the 9/11 attacks, the world’s Muslims have been called upon to address the issue of violence perpetrated by other Muslims. On the one hand, this strikes me as unfair — why on earth should person A have to explain person B’s behavior? — but on the other, it also strikes me as pretty human. That day of horror seared us all, and for non-Muslims, the question seems to boil down to: “Hey Muslim person, why I shouldn’t fear you?” Unfair, perhaps, but human.

So, I often write, here and elsewhere, in defense of Islam and Muslims — or, as I see it, in defense of the American values of equality, liberty, freedom of religion, and so on. I have a Masters Degree in Middle Eastern Studies, and have read and reviewed several shelves-worth of books about the faith and the lands in which Islam is the majority religion, and all this provides me with some useful background. But bottom line: I’m not Muslim, and can’t represent the faith.

Actually, even if I were a Muslim, I doubt that I could “represent the faith” — I don’t imagine, for instance, that I can represent Judaism, Jew though I may be. But of one thing I am certain: As I don’t represent Islam, neither do al-Qaeda, or the Taliban, or the Revolutionary Guard.

The voices of extremists may be the loudest emerging from the Muslim people, the ummah, right now — or: these voices may be the best amplified by our fears and the people who have reason to feed them — but they don’t represent the ummah.

And here we arrive at my point: Don’t trust me — trust the Muslims who say so in their own words.

Consider first this passage from Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think, by John L. Esposito and Dalia Mogahed:

Only 46% of Americans think that “bombing and other attacks intentionally aimed at civilians” are “never justified”…. Contrast this with data taken the same year [2007] from some of the largest majority Muslim nations, in which 74% of respondents in Indonesia agree that terrorist attacks are “never justified”; in Pakistan, that figure is 86%; in Bangladesh, 81%; and in Iran, 80%.

And then consider the following, a small (very small) compendium of Muslim responses to extremism that I have found. You’ll note that some are recent, and some date back — because even though we don’t hear much about it, the world’s Muslims have been continuously condemning extremist violence for some time.

  1. This past March, a leading Pakistani theologian, known and revered around the world, issued a positively scathing fatwa against terrorism: “Terrorism is terrorism,” Sheikh Dr. Muhammad Tahir ul-Qadri wrote, “violence is violence and it has no place in Islamic teaching and no justification can be provided for it, or any kind of excuses of ifs and buts.” I posted about this fatwa at the time; you can read about it here.
  2. Three days after the 9/11 attacks, Shaykh Muhammed Sayyid al-Tantawi, the Grand Imam of the al-Azhar Seminary in Cairo (one of the Muslim world’s oldest and most influential institutions) said: “Attacking innocent people is not courageous, it is stupid and will be punished on the day of judgment. … It’s not courageous to attack innocent children, women and civilians. It is courageous to protect freedom, it is courageous to defend oneself and not to attack.”
  3. Twenty North American imams issued a fatwa against terrorists this past January, equating attacks on North American targets with attacks on Muslims themselves: “These attacks are evil and Islam requires from Muslims to stand up against this evil…. Muslims in Canada and the United States have complete freedom to practice Islam…. In many cases, Muslims have more freedom to practice Islam here in Canada and the United States than many Muslim countries…. There is no conflict between the Islamic values of freedom and justice and the Canadian/US values of freedom and justice. Therefore, any attack on Canada and the United States is an attack on the freedom of Canadian and American Muslims. Any attack on Canada and the United States is an attack on thousands of mosques across North America. It is a duty of every Canadian and American Muslim to safeguard Canada and the USA.”
  4. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, British-Muslim author Shaikh Abdal-Hakim Murad published an essay called “Recapturing Islam from the terrorists,” in which he wrote “Terrorists are not Muslims. Targeting civilians is a negation of every possible school of Sunni Islam. Suicide bombing is so foreign to the Quranic ethos that the Prophet Samson is entirely absent from our scriptures.”
  5. Professor of Islamic Law Khaled Abou El Fadl wrote in late 2001: “It would be disingenuous to deny that the Qur’an and other Islamic sources offer possibilities of intolerant interpretation. Clearly these possibilities are exploited by the contemporary puritans and supremacists. But the text does not command such intolerant readings. Historically, Islamic civilization has displayed a remarkable ability to recognize possibilities of tolerance, and to act upon these possibilities…. [T]he burden and blessing of sustaining that moral trajectory—of accentuating the Qur’anic message of tolerance and openness to the other—falls squarely on the shoulders of contemporary Muslim interpreters of the tradition.”
  6. In response to an al-Qaeda bombing of a centuries’ old synagogue in Tunis in 2002, Islamic scholar Dr.Youssef Al Qaradawi told the press: “Anyone who commits these crimes is punishable by Islamic Sharia and have committed the sin of killing a soul which God has prohibited to kill and of spreading corruption on earth.”
  7. In 2005, Muslim scholar Shaykh Muhammad Afifi al-Akiti issued a fatwa against the targeting of civilians, pointing out, among other things that “there are more than 100 Verses in the Qur’an commanding us at all times to be patient in the face of humiliation and to turn away from violence, while there is only one famous Verse in which war (which does not last forever) becomes an option.”
  8. And this, my personal favorite: American Muslims speaking directly to American Muslims, rejecting extremism of all kinds: “Injustice cannot defeat injustice.”

For many, many more sources on Muslims speaking out against violence and extremism, I highly recommend this site, The American Muslim, starting in particular with this post, “Selective Hearing of Muslim Voices Against Extremism and Terrorism.”

We have collected 105 fatwas from Islamic scholars, 75 statements by Islamic Organizations (many of these signed by anywhere from 50 to 500 scholars from around the world), and 142 statements by individual Muslims.  These are from 30 countries including:  Afghanistan, Australia, Bangladesh, Belgium, Britain, Chechnya, Egypt, France, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Malaysia, Mauritania, Morocco, New Zealand,  Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Spain, Sweden, Syria, Tunisia, Turkey, UAE, U.S., Yemen.

They speak clearly against terrorism, suicide bombing, kidnapping, harming civilians, harming places of worship, weapons of mass destruction.  They clarify the Islamic position on minority rights and apostasy.  Some directly condemn al-Qaeda and bin Laden, and specific acts like 9/11 or the Madrid bombing.

Finally, it seems I should spare some space for the Qur’an itself, and for the Prophet Muhammad:

By God, he is not a true believer, from whose mischief his neighbors do not feel secure. (from the Hadith [sayings] of the Prophet Muhammad, transmitted by Bukhari and Muslim)

Goodness and evil are not equal.  Repel evil with what is better.  Then that person with whom there was hatred, may become your intimate friend!  And no one will be granted such goodness except those who exercise patience and self-restraint, none but people of the greatest good fortune. (Qur’an 41:34-35)

Whosoever kills an innocent human being, it shall be as if he has killed all mankind, and whosoever saves the life of one, it shall be as if he had saved the life of all mankind. (Qur’an 5:32)

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