I was recently sent a video of Brigitte Gabriel, an American journalist, writer and political figure who came to this country after spending her early childhood in horrific conditions as a Christian in Lebanon during that nation’s Civil War. It was emailed to me by someone who I believe was seeking to show me another side to Islam, a man who perhaps finds me blind to real threats to the US from the Muslim world. I especially appreciate the emailed link, which I choose to interpret as an invitation to conversation (I have reached out to the sender hoping to engage), because it gives me a much-needed pause to reflect on where I stand, and on how I am behaving, and on how others see me as behaving.
I have reflected for some time on this matter and in particular what it means in the context of the hostilities between Israel and Gaza. I have concluded that I must continue to work in the direction that I have set for myself, which is not taking sides. I will continue to take advocate for peace and dialog, for a climate of listening, understanding, and collaborating. I will continue to engage in conversation with people on all sides of the story so that I can educate myself and stay in that difficult unaligned-but-engaged place. I am reminded of the words of an Episcopal minister about his faith: “We keep both feet planted firmly in mid-air.”
I recognize that in taking this path many will misunderstand me and others will find my positions objectionable or unrealistic, but I am resigned to this. I believe this is inevitable in an situation that is as polarized and heated as the current American views of Islam and of the various Middle-Eastern conflicts. Perhaps if I upset people on all sides, I am doing a reasonably good job!
In charting my path I will continue to work on building relationships and friendships with people of as many different beliefs and faiths as I can, for in this lies my only hope of learning and growing and being able to invite people into a larger and more open conversation. I hope that this path will create room, over time, for those with strong opinions on all sides to maybe open up just a little to the possibility that they might not hold the exclusive truth.
An important part of charting this path is to try to deal with the arguments openly and honestly. Since this particular post was conceived in the wake of watching a video presentation by Brigitte Gabriel, let me begin there.
- To begin with, Gabriel does make important points. Most significantly she observes that while it’s easy for Muslims and others (like me) to talk about “the peaceful majority”, nonetheless there is a militant minority who align themselves with the faith, and even if this is a small percentage, a small percentage of 1.3 billion is still a large number in absolute terms – at least tens-of-millions. I’ll talk about this problem and where I think Gabriel points to serious actions required by Muslims in a little bit, but want to begin somewhere else. I don’t hear anything in the presentation that offers us a path towards a solution; more, I hear in Gabriel’s speech a number of polarizing thoughts which I believe require a little balance;
- Gabriel talks of how the terrorist movements that claim Islamic roots are a threat to the US way of life, a statement I’d suggest should be considered in the context of the role Western nations have played in affecting the culture of the Middle East. Two generations ago in the wake of the Second World War, the British Empire (along with France and Soviet Union) exited their Middle East empires by way of (1) creating nation states along clearly defined geographic boundaries; and (2) being power-brokers for the form of government for each nation as well as its leaders. At around the same time the UN carved out the state of Israel. And more recently as de-facto peacekeeper in the region, the US has been a major influence in the way of life in that region of the world;
- I hear in Gabriel’s tone a suggestion that we hold up the US way of life as inviolable, which I find unrealistic and unhelpful. Most obviously this sets up “our way of life” as better than “their way of life”, which history suggests is an approach that does not generally lead to peaceful solutions. And setting up the US way of life as inviolable is also to ignore that the current American Way of Life is not the way of life of the Americans of five hundred years ago; nor is it even the way of life of America in the aftermath of independence, or indeed of America before the end of slavery, before the emancipation of women, or before the Civil Rights movement;
- Gabriel seems to point at the US Muslim population as having moral responsibility for what is happening in a remote part of the world. This seems to me akin to holding the US Buddhist population (of which I am one) responsible for the atrocities being perpetrated in the name of Buddhism in Sri Lanka and Myanmar. I know little of these activities and see no reason why I should be held accountable for them;
- She analogizes with events several generations ago in Germany, Russia and China where totalitarian governments came to power despite peaceful majorities. I agree that there is probably a lot to be learned by exploring these analogies, but there is a very dark side to these analogies, too; I can read them as a call to war against Islam which I find an utterly terrifying proposition, even beyond ethical considerations: the consequences of the Second World War, which was the stand the US and the UK took against German totalitarianism, were horrific; I can’t even imagine the possible consequences of Christendom, western culture, and the USA going to war against Islam;
- In her writings Gabriel argues that Islam is holding the Middle East in the dark ages. This argument seems to go against history. During the middle ages the Byzantine Empire and Islam held primacy in science and education. By way of specific example, Aristotle’s work was actively suppressed by the Church for several hundred years but was revered in the Byzantine Empire, and but for an accident of the Fourth Crusade of the early 1200’s (which accelerated the fall of Byzantium and Aristotle being reintroduced into Europe), Aristotle would have been lost to the world. Certainly the Middle East is undeveloped by US standards today, but this is not a state of being that is inherent in Islam;
Let me return to the actions that I think Gabriel legitimately calls for from the US Muslim population. She points out that Islam is seen, whether rightly or wrongly, as being associated with a terrorist movement. Like Nazi Germany the hostilities of this movement are not isolated to their home country but are being exported and causing great harm in other nations (9/11 in the US being the most immediate to us). And there is a constant threat that this harm will expand. I know that the peaceful majority of Muslims are as opposed to this as I am, but they have not been effective in the larger public discourse either in articulating this position, or in demonstrating that they are engaged in working to end this horror. I don’t have any great ideas for how this can be changed, but I do believe it to be critically important, not just for Islam but for all of us. I personally know many Muslims who are working fearlessly and energetically to accomplish this work, and I urge everyone who reads this to reach out and help them. But although this is wonderful work, and the lack of penetration is in significant measure a result of the US press not wanting to cover it, it is not enough. I fear that if mainstream Muslims, who are surely those best placed to bridge the gaps and help move us towards understanding and a peaceful solution, are not able to do so, then we will move closer to the precipice that Gabriel’s analogy with Germany presents. Notwithstanding the public resistance and entrenched prejudice, American mainstream Muslims and their friends (of whom I am one) must ratchet up their peaceful efforts and try to break through.
My dear friend, Audrey Galex, who I hold up as my role model, is a great example for us all. She has recently led demonstrations for peace adjacent both Palestinian and Jewish rallies; she has arrived early, taken up a place near-to, but not within the demonstration; and she has held up signs inviting conversation about peace, made it clear she is not taking sides and doesn’t know the answer, and invited others to join her. Audrey is Jewish, but also a friend to Muslims and Christians and Buddhists and others, and her calling is the Golden Rule which underpins all of our faiths. Her work mirrors Mahatma Gandhi’s and Rev Dr Martin Luther King’s work, as well as that of the National Reconciliation government of Nelson Mandela. ” Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”
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