I’ve stated many times that I hold no set religious belief — I can’t fit myself into dogmas and theologies created by other humans trying to understand something that remains at least in part a mystery. I am heartened by similarities across faiths, and a sense that there is a spiritual, even divine side of existence, even if God — or Allah or Brahman — remains incomprehensible to the human mind. I believe in a unity of experience — or Tawhid or Nirvana or union with the Holy Spirit — that transcends our daily travail. I’m convinced that this world is only a reflection of something spiritual and transcendent.
Yet we are in this world, at a given time and place in history, and we have to deal with the problems of our experience in the now in the world at hand. I suspect that if we try to escape it through mystical retreat, drugs, fantasy or even suicide, we’ll just re-experience the same sorts of problems until we confront them.
After the 9-11 attacks I decided to learn as much as I can about the Islamic faith. I expected to find something extremely harsh and rigid. Instead, the more I learned, the more I came to respect and admire Islam, its teachings and its history. At its best, like Christianity, Islam is a beautiful and exquisite faith. Islam unites a community in a sense of belonging and caring that is to be admired and respected.
Last summer this led me to start a blog series called “Islam and the West,” which had six posts between mid-May and July 17th, when part six appeared, Jews, Christians, and Muslims. By July the excitement of the 2008 election and the subsequent economic crisis drew my attention away from that task, and I even took the “page” off my index (it’s back on there now). As we grapple with economic woes and serious problems in the West, it’s important we don’t lose sight of the fact that our future success is predicated on our ability to forge a respectful partnership with the Muslim world. So I am restarting that series, hopefully to regain the pace I had last year of about a post a week dedicated to the series (in general I aim for four to six posts a week).
Islam began as a movement to reform Arab customs and replace a harsh polytheistic cacophony with a clear monotheistic faith. Muhammad’s work is impressive. Either he was divinely guided as Muslims believe, or he was a genius who brought together aspects of Christian, Jewish and Zorastrian thought, but his teachings were clearly designed to produce a social revolution in Arabia, benefiting especially women and the poor. Even the poorly understood and often misrepresented concept of jihad was meant primarily as a personal struggle against temptation, akin to St. Paul’s admonition that Christians “fight the good fight of faith.”
Yet as beautiful and profound as each faith may be, religion is something that can be manipulated by the fanatical or ambitious to get people to do their biding. It might be the Christian televangelist who hauls in massive donations — and then is caught with prostitutes or engaged in corruption. It could be the angry Arab Muslim who believes his land is being controlled by greedy westerners — and then supports violence and terrorism. It might be the sociopathic US Congressman who advocates hitting Mecca with a nuclear bomb should al qaeda hit us with nuclear terror. That was Tom Tancredo, who apparently feels just as comfortable in the soulless extremist role as does Bin Laden.
These people do not reflect the true wisdom and virtues of their respective faiths. Throughout history people have used the beauty and intuitive pull of spiritual faith to propagandize and warp religious expression. It could be the Christian Salem witch trials, the Arabs undercutting Muhammad’s reforms in their interpretation of the Haditha, Savanarola in Florence or Cromwell in Great Britain. It could be Arab Kings who used Islam to justify expansion of their empires, or the Ottomans who embraced Islam to lend legitimacy for their military dictatorship. As I noted in the a post last year “The Violent West,” no one in the West has any justification to feel our culture superior to that of the Muslim world. No culture has a history of such violence and lack of concern for other cultures than the West.
That doesn’t mean the West is uniquely evil, as a Bin Laden would claim. The West also brought about the enlightenment, individualism, and certain notions of universal human rights. Scientific progress blossomed in Europe, and the West ultimately overcame slavery, the lack of rights for women, and an early capitalism that was originally oppressive and vile.
So I ask readers of all faiths — Muslim, Christian, Jew, Hindu, Buddhist, Atheist, whatever — to endeavor to put aside the cultural arrogance that so often leads people to think “we” are somehow better and closer to the truth, while “they” are strange and warped. That kind of thinking creates biased interpretations of reality which foster miscommunication and misunderstanding. Rather, let’s start from the assumption that while there are evil and ignorant people in all cultures and societies, most of us are good people, want to live in peace, believe that love is more important than theological differences, and hope for a world of cooperation.
If the good, peaceful people across the planet can reach out to each other and cooperate, then the evil, fearful, hateful folk don’t have a chance to succeed. I’m under no illusions that my blog’s exploration of these issues makes a huge difference, my readership is small. But we all know the butterfly effect — a butterfly flapping its wings in the Amazon can ultimately ignite a series of changes that alter weather patterns. If we all do our part, whether in blogs, donations, community events, efforts in mosques, churches or synagogues, teaching, and reaching out to others, then who knows how the world might change.