A friend told me the other day that her son had asked her, in the wake of the recent horrors in Paris, “What are you grownups doing about all of this?” The question troubled her deeply and she told me she didn’t have a good answer.
We discussed this and came to a sad conclusion. There are a slew of answers along the lines of “we’re fighting terrorism,” “we’re promoting freedom of speech,” and “we’re showing solidarity,” but I don’t find these satisfactory answers. In the end I gave my friend my own answer which is much in line with hers: we grown-ups are divided among ourselves and our response is worse that unhelpful: I believe we are fueling terrorism and making the world a scarier place. I am confident that much of what I have to say is controversial, but here goes:
- It is routine for me to hear concern that moderate Muslims, by not speaking up, are tacitly supporting terrorism. I find this specious on two grounds: the first is that moderate Muslims are speaking up (to a remarkable degree, actually, given how fragmented and decentralized the faith is), but the media don’t seem very interested in reporting what they say (see below for more on this); and the second is that holding all Muslims accountable for the acts of terrorists is like holding all Christians accountable for anti-Semitism, the IRA, the Crusades, and every incident of pedophilia in the Catholic priesthood;
- I believe there is a tendency to over-simplify the cause of terrorism, and specifically to attribute it exclusively to Islamic fundamentalism. I read a stimulating article the other day that suggested its roots are abject poverty and systemic humiliation (A Message From the Dispossessed), and that those in this place grasp anything that might give them a sense of dignity and purpose. I think this argument has considerable merits. But whether you agree with it or not, hopefully it at least opens up the possibility that terrorism might, in the first instance, draw from something other than Islam; and hopefully it challenges you to wonder if, just maybe, there is no unifying cause;
- Most Americans are blind to our own Imperialism and to the way this is seen in the rest of the world. We are familiar with the cultural imperialism of Hollywood and Coca Cola, but we are less aware of our political and economic imperialism, which most recently manifests in the export of democracy (in a form, incidentally, which I do not think would be recognized by the US Founding Fathers) to those parts of the world in which we have strategic interests – notably the Middle East with its concentration of oil and the nation of Israel. We are also blind to the hypocrisy of our own human rights violations and corruptions, and to our own acts of terrorism: imagine growing up as a teenager under the constant threat of a drone dropping out of the clear blue sky onto your home!
- It’s easy to be prejudiced about an argument and, by characterizing it one particular way, be blind to how others see it. I find classifying our domestic medical debate as being about “health insurance” accomplishes this! In Islam, caricatures and cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad are blasphemous and highly offensive, so this is about more than free speech. In the US the flag is treated reverentially and 48 states passed legislation to prevent flag-burning. These were overturned by our judicial system, but this debate is not over. And Pope Francis recently pointed out another analogy: Insulting one’s Mother. I’m certainly not condoning violence and murder as a response, but as the Pope says, insulting another’s religion is asking for trouble. We can make arguments of freedom of speech, but surely we can also learn to treat others with respect and dignity.
- Terrorists want nothing more than attention. Terrorism only works if relatively small acts are seen by a lot of people. And global coverage of beheadings, bombings and shootings terrorizes very large numbers of people. Unfortunately this is what sells newspapers and air time, so our coverage is going to continue; but this coverage also incents and incites more terrorism, so that’s going to get worse, too. In short our obsession with instant global coverage of acts of terror is almost guaranteed to create an escalating situation.
Cultural ignorance of Islam conflated with a fear-driven culture, a media that ruthlessly monetizes that fear, and a human tendency to tribalism, is serving to fuel the flames of terrorism. The more we publicize terrorism, the more people are drawn to it; the more we see it as homogeneous, the more we train ourselves to ignore its underlying nature; and the the more we react against it and try to fight it, the more it will fight back. In short I fear Western culture is headed into an escalating conflict against an amorphous response idea that we can’t beat; and I fear that by ignoring its underlying realities and causes, we are ignoring those very things that could help us bring this response to an end.
I want to return in closing to the first point I made: that moderate Muslims are speaking out against terrorism. Here is a recent example which was covered by CBS in Los Angeles. And I append to this post (underneath my signature block) a wonderful piece written some weeks ago by Rabbi Josh Lesser. Josh is a remarkable man and I encourage you to read his thoughtful piece carefully.
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Honoring Abraham: The Truth of Muslim Partnership
Our Torah portion this week, Hayei Sarah, reminded me that the reverberations of the High Holy Days still rebound more than a month later. The persistent violence in the Middle East has many of us trapped in flight patterns of fear rather than walking a grounded path of relationship. One reverb that has clearly struck a chord in the chaos is a sermon by my colleague Rabbi Shalom Lewis. Just last week, it ended up in my email box as it had the six times before, alternately branded as genius or depraved. While I respect Rabbi Lewis and his significant rabbinate here in Atlanta, this sermon troubled me greatly. It was a 4 alarm sermon with no water to offer to extinguish the blazing fear. Rabbi Shalom Lewis wasn’t the only rabbi in America to be speaking about the threat posed by the group calling itself “the Islamic State.” But his Rosh Hashanah sermon, published online and shared around the world, uses language that is dangerous to our Muslim neighbors and inaccurately condemns their silence. This matters to me as I believe it should for all Jews. This is not the time for finger pointing but for opening our eyes and ears.
In our weekly Torah reading, “…Abraham breathed his last breath and died at a good old age, an elder, full of years; he was gathered to his people. His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah…” (Genesis 25 8-9) This shared moment of grief and familial responsibility uncovers a tension in Torah. Alongside the Biblical challenges of the ancestors of our peoples (Isaac the father of the Jews and Ishmael of the Muslims), there are also moments of resonance and mutuality. Embedded in our history is not solely conflict but the desire for repair and the recognition of common experience. In this part of the Torah, two half-brothers embroiled in conflict find reunion in the solemn responsibility of honoring their father. For Jews and Muslims who seek to find common ground, this brief line in the Torah has been a foundation for our desire to honor our shared heritage and humanity.
In Proverbs, the rupture between siblings is described as a near insurmountable obstacle. “A brother wronged is more unyielding than a fortified city; disputes are like the barred gates of a citadel.” Proverbs 18:19. Moments like the shared burial in our Torah that point to the possibility of healing such great rifts lift us out of the stalemates that block our common suffering. The voices of the prophets urge us to awaken to envision what a healthy, repaired world looks like and to activate our voice for justice. We can confront what we find to be evil in the world, but we must be cautious lest we increase hostility or worse create it. A healthy world demands relationships with integrity. When following in the footsteps of Isaac and Ishmael, strong Jewish leadership is not being naive about the threat posed by violent extremist groups; rather it is building a foundation to challenge the wrongs that are done in the name of any of our faiths.
When people ask “Why are Muslims being silent?” The question begs another, “Are those asking encouraging and building relationships with people of other faiths to inspire and support our mutual call for justice?” If they were, they would know this claim is untrue. We must not let the obscured view from our self-created silos inform our sense of righteous indignation when accusing others of being silent. It takes having fostered those bridges to know that Muslims across America and around the world have not only been speaking out against IS, they’ve been on the front lines of fighting against IS, and they are the religious group most under attack by IS. So when rabbis and other leaders say that the majority of Muslims are silent, they are simply wrong. This is dangerous. Media Matters for America have covered thoroughly the way every mainstream Muslim organization has spoken out against ISIS and IS in their article “Muslim Leaders Have Roundly Denounced Islamic State, But Conservative Media Won’t Tell You That” as has the respected interfaith website Beliefnet in their piece “ Think Muslims Haven’t Condemned ISIS? Think Again.”
Accusing Muslims of being silent misleads our Jewish community into thinking we do not have a partner when indeed we do—and not challenging that perspective endangers that partnership. It is incumbent upon us to strengthen those alliances. And not just because it is the universally right thing to do; it is good for the Jewish community. During my time as the president of the Faith Alliance of Metro Atlanta, I felt any time the local Muslim community was attacked, I needed to respond as a Jew, both because I have chosen to be an ally but also because the same mindset threatens our community too.
In our Atlanta community, after our national tragedy on September 11th many people of faith recognized that the divisions and silos in which our communities were situated allowed for similar dangerous rhetoric to flourish. Jewish, Muslim and Christian religious leaders reached out to each other to better understand and support one another. This counterintuitive act is the kind of prophetic justice that our faith traditions expect and underscores our interdependence. We must rely on the web of our relatedness and create those connections when they are absent.
In the Brookings Study, “What It Means to be an American Muslim: Attitudes in an Increasingly Diverse America Ten Years after 9/11,” it uncovers that the vast majority of Americans have little if any substantive experience with Muslim America. In fact, many have no opportunity to speak to a Muslim person even on occasion. Rabbi Nancy Fuchs Kreimer, the Director of the Department of Multifaith Studies and Initiatives at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College believes this is a ripe opportunity. She noted in a recent Gallup poll, that Muslims were designated as the most disliked religious group in America. “We tend to dislike what we do not know.” When we foster relationships and get to know each other, people begin to see the “other” as friend and as family. She reminds us that we can shift these views through connection. Her understanding of the landscape is a remedy to this 4 alarm crisis, it is vision that is hopeful and instructive. We will discover that our Muslim partners are not silent and we have common hopes.
To quench our fears further the Pew Study done in 2011 confirms there is no increased Muslim extremism in the United States of America as the name of the study implies “Muslim Americans: No Sign of Growth in Alienation or Extremism“. To imply otherwise is to incite needless fear and create boundaries where we should be encouraging interactions. This greater understanding compels me to challenge the mischaracterization of people who are often partners in grappling with the larger issues in the world informed by the wisdom of their tradition and convictions of what is ethical. We must recognize that we have Muslim neighbors, that there is much common ground and that we have a role to play in raising up voices that aren’t on the front page of the newspaper.
When I think about the reunion of Isaac and Ishmael, I am saddened that this bond is created from the tragedy of losing their father, rather than out of the opportunity for renewal. Like these two siblings, let us be guided to forge a connection by acknowledging what is real and not imagined lest our fears prevent us from seeing the world the way it is or the way we would like for it to be. Let’s not wait for the further tragedies to force us together, but rather be encouraged by a vision for what is possible.
Rabbi, Congregation Bet Haverim
Founder, SOJOURN Southern Jewish Resource Network for gender and sexual diversity