Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Infidel: Troubling Insights from a Muslim Woman's Story

Just before Christmas I finished reading Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s memoir Infidel in which she recounts her personal journey out of the oppressive form of Islam she grew up with in her native Somalia. Ali recounts in vivid detail the mutilation, abuse and degradation of women and girls that were sanctioned and allowed by the Muslim faith of her youth. Because Somalia was in the midst of a civil war, at different points in her childhood Ali was a refugee living in Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia and Kenya. At age 22 her father arranged for her to marry a Somali man living in Canada she had never met. En route to join her new husband, Ali escaped to Holland, where she concocted a story that enabled her to gain refugee status and eventually become a Dutch citizen. Through the largesse of the Dutch welfare system Ali was able to earn a masters degree in Political Science and eventually she was elected to the Dutch parliament.

From her political position Ali called attention to the ongoing degradation of women that was occurring in the growing Muslim community in Holland (mostly from Morocco) and the complete lack of interest on the part of most Dutch Muslims to become integrated into Dutch society. Through the openness and tolerance of European countries toward other cultural and religious groups, Ali contends that Muslim communities in European countries are allowed to continue the barbaric and horrific practices toward women that she experienced growing up. When she made her views public through the production of a short film called “Submission,” the producer of the film was assassinated and her life was threatened. She fled to the United States where she now lives and works as a researcher with the American Enterprise Institute.

Ali’s story is troubling on two levels. First of all, she describes in graphic and horrifying detail the brutality she experienced in the form of female circumcision, beatings and extreme limits on her ability to grow and develop; she contends these acts toward here were common experiences of all Muslim women and girls in the places where she lived.[To see a video interview with Ali about these practices go to this link.] Second, her story challenges all the Western notions of pluralism, multiculturalism and religious tolerance. Attempts at creating religious dialogue, such as Karen Armstrong’s Charter of Compassion, depend on people of various religious groups having a mutual respect for each other’s right to believe in their own way. At the same time such efforts assume that people practicing those religions have a level of freedom and dignity within the contexts of their faith. For instance, Armstrong contends that compassion is at the heart of all the world’s great religious and therefore is a standard around which people of all different faiths can gather. However, Ali points out that while Islam teaches compassion, that call to compassion is meant to apply only to those within the Muslim faith, while those outside the faith are considered worthy of death.

Now Ali’s experience of Islam is quite different than that reflected by the Muslims in this country I have known and talked with. For instance, Muslims I have had in my classes have been very open to dialogue and don’t see Islam as degrading to women (though many of them still wear the veil and long robes), nor do they ally themselves with the radical elements of Islam. Moreover, a 2007 Pew Forum study revealed that Muslims in this country where generally pleased with life in the US and did not support terrorism. However, a more recent Pew Forum study found that nearly 70% of the world’s population lived in countries with “high restrictions on religious freedom.” Translated this means that 70% of the world’s people live under religious systems that do not abide by such values as respect for difference, tolerance and dialogue. Ali rejects the notion that such intolerance of others’ views is a result of suffering and poverty and claims instead that such closed views to outsiders is intrinsic to Islam and central to the teaching of the Koran.

There is no question that Christian history has its share of repression through the crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, pogroms against Jews and Muslims, enslavement of African slaves, genocide against American Indians, and the blessing of repressive colonization throughout the developing world. We still are dealing with the effects of this history. Moreover, there are still Christian groups such as “The Family” that mix conservative politics with Christian beliefs and seek to control and oppress others in the name of their faith. Likewise certain dimensions of Zionism would like no better than to completely remove all Palestinians from Israel. So this is not an indictment of only Muslims, but of all religious groups that leave no place for dialogue and respectful interaction.

When on Christmas yet another radical believer sought to martyr himself in the name of his God on a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit, I find myself deeply troubled by the current intolerance that seems to span our globe. While I want to be open to the views of others, when those views include the mutilation and abuse of women, the restriction of basic freedoms and a lack of respect for difference, such views can not be endorsed or permitted. For all their faults the societies of the West, including the US, at their best strive to be open to a variety of lifestyles and beliefs. This openness is something we must continue to uphold in the face of fundamentalists near and far who would obliterate others in the name of their God.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The World As it is....?

On December 20 as we Philadelphians were digging out from a 12-20 inch snow storm (depending on where you were and what station you listened to), the Philadelphia Inquirer’s headlines announced that the Senate had garnered the 60 votes needed to move forward on the health care legislation. If passed it is expected to cost $871 billion and cut $132 billion from the deficit over the next 10 years. Quietly tucked away on page 6 was another article that the Senate had passed a defense bill worth $636 billion (of which $130 billion was for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan) for the next year that did not include another $30-40 billion needed for the additional troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Apparently, Senators who had to be driven through the snow to get to the Senate chambers paused during the health care debate to pass the defense bill 88-10.

I had to stop and wonder why the Senate, so deadlocked on passing a bill that would provide health care for its own citizens, seemed to have no problem passing a bill that continues our war efforts around the world in the name of “protecting” those citizens. How about protecting those citizens from poverty, disease, and death? I had to wonder if these politicians and the President are operating between two different worlds.

During his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech President Obama talked about “reality”. He said:

I am mindful of what Martin Luther King said in this same ceremony years ago — “Violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: it merely creates new and more complicated ones.” As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. King’s life’s work, I am living testimony to the moral force of nonviolence. I know there is nothing weak — nothing passive, nothing naïve — in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King. But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: evil does exist in the world. A nonviolent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force is sometimes necessary is not a call to cynicism — it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason. [emphasis mine]

As Brian McLaren pointed out in his recent blog, Obama says there is ‘nothing naïve” about the way Gandhi and King dealt with the world, but he must “face the world as it is.” What world is he talking about? The world where violence begets violence, or where the myth persists that peace comes through war and violence? Is it a world where the hard-nosed reality of evil is confronted with the force of truth (Gandhi’s terms satygraha) and unrelenting unconditional love (King’s favorite term) or where we capitulate to the devices of our “enemies” and thus become no better or effective than them?

So what is the “world as it is” to which Pres. Obama refers? I am reminded of the closing lines in the movie "The Mission". After the Roman Catholic bishop has consciously collaborated with Portugese and Spanish conquistadors to nearly destroy an indigenous Indian tribe, he laments at the destruction that has been wrought in the church’s name. His Portugese companion tries to console him by encouraging him not to lament the Indians' destruction for “for the world is thus.” However the bishop responds simply by saying, “No, thus we have made the world.” In other words “reality” or “the world as it is” is a social construct. The assumptions and values we highlight determine what we consider to be “reality” and what is “unrealistic.”

The “world as it is” says war and war-making is a priority and inevitable, but providing health care, eliminating poverty, providing decent education both here and abroad are “unrealistic,” too expensive, and impossible to accomplish.

McLaren quotes the recognized World War II military commander Gen. Douglas MacArthur who said:

In the evolution of civilization, if it is to survive, all men cannot fail eventually to adopt Gandhi’s belief that the process of mass application of force to resolve contentious issues is fundamentally not only wrong but contains within itself the germs of self-destruction.

In other words, we can continue down the “realistic” path that leads to greater polarization and disparity in the world, or we can choose a different way. My prayer this Christmas season, as always, is that one day, we might see that the way of peace, justice, sacrifice and service is far more practical than all the guns and bombs will ever be.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Paradoxical Hope in the Age of Obama

Last year when Barack Obama was running for president the overriding theme was Hope. He had even written a book called The Audacity of Hope that outlined his vision for the United States. Many if not most the people who voted for him saw his election in almost messianic terms in that it was believed that Barack Obama would bring significant changes both in terms of government policies at home and our image and interaction with peoples around the world. Apparently the Nobel Peace prize voters thought so too, as it is widely agreed (even by Obama himself) this being given that award was not so much for what he had done, as for the hope and expectation his election to the presidency represented to the world.

For the last year Pres. Obama has been working to enact the agenda he campaigned on in spite of a crippling economic recession that reached its lowest point just as he assumed office. He has taken or proposed actions to stimulate the economy, hold financial institutions and big business more accountable, challenge people adapt to the realities of global warming, and pass comprehensive health care legislation. His vision and hope for change have clashed head on with the realities of conservative resistance and liberal dithering at home, and the brutality, oppression, and violence abroad.

Most recently Obama made a decision to send 30,000 more troops to fight an unwinable war in Afghanistan. I, like many others believe our approach there needs to be less military and more focused on education, building infrastructure and developing the economy. As Greg Mortenson points out in his book Three Cups of Tea, the best way to fight the Taliban is to build more schools. Our current approach simply kills more innocent civilians and therefore creates more “terrorists” whereas helping the common folks with their basic needs will not only raise their prospects but also draw them in to friendship.

Now to Pres. Obama’s credit, during his campaign he consistently said he would send more troops to Afghanistan. So no one should have been surprised at his decision. That’s why the Nobel Peace prize folks got a speech on just war theory because that is how Obama saw our involvement in Afghanistan. As he was deliberating these past months, I admit I was hoping that he would change his mind, but in the end he did not. So I was not surprised even though I was deeply saddened.

Despite Pres. Obama’s argument to the contrary, Afghanistan is very much like the Vietnam War: an unwinnable war, against a small and illusory enemy, supporting a corrupt government, in an effort without clear and measurable objectives. As Yogi Berra might say “It’s déjà vu all over again.”

All of this has gotten me wondering: Where is the hope we had so counted on and vote for?

Like many Americans I have generally believed in history as progress – that idea that as a nation we are slowly evolving toward higher levels of understanding and functioning that as our politicians often tell us, “Our best days are still ahead of us.” Moreover as a Christian I have generally subscribed to the idea that God is active in human history and moving humankind toward some glorious and positive conclusion, that the Kingdom of God is breaking into our world and at some point God will send Jesus to bring that process to completion.

Not any longer.

I have pretty much chucked those ideas now. I don’t see history as progress, nor do I see God moving us toward some millennium. I now see history, like I see my life, as a series of recurring patterns. The awareness of these patterns gives me the opportunity to learn and possibly change. However, the reality is that those patterns are so deeply ingrained that often change is difficult to achieve, and when it does occur, it is usually partial and inadequate. So for instance in my personal life, I find that the older I get the more I become like my parents in ways I find both rewarding and disconcerting. When it comes to events on the world stage, I see humankind repeating patterns, such as we are with Afghanistan, a pattern that reminds me disturbingly of the tragedy of Vietnam.

The even larger pattern I see is that empires fall. Persia, Egypt, Rome, Great Britain and the Soviet Union once were all great empires that dominated large parts of their world. Today those former empires are shadows of themselves. The United States as an empire is also destined to fall; it is part of an historical pattern. Whether it will happen in my lifetime or the lives of my kids, I can’t say. However, the decision about Afghanistan, along with the worldwide economic crisis triggered by Wall Street, the environmental challenges of global warming, and the growing disparities of wealth and poverty at home point to signs that US empire is beginning to crumble; we are repeating many of the same patterns of empires before us.

Despite these seemingly dire circumstances and my admittedly pessimistic perspective on our nation’s prospects, I still am a person of hope.

I am a person of hope not because I think we will break the pattern, but because I believe we survive and sometimes even thrive as a human race despite those patterns. My hope is not in the United States or Barack Obama or some romantic notion of human evolution, but rather in a God whose very Spirit gives the human race the capacity to somehow endure dramatic and often drastic changes. It concerns and saddens me greatly that millions of people suffer humanity’s arrogance and ignorance, and un willingness to learn from our mistakes. Nonetheless, it is the perseverance of those who struggle, who are oppressed, and who are neglected and maligned by the powers that be, who at the same time somehow are able to celebrate and dance. My hope is in God’s gift of resilience. My hope is in God who has sided with the dispossessed and marginalized against the powers that be, and who remains constant despite the recurring patterns of history.

As Jim Wallis writes : “Hope is the door from one reality to another. Things that seem possible, reasonable, understandable, even logical in hindsight….often seemed quite impossible, unreasonable, nonsensical and illogical when we were looking ahead to them. The changes, the possibilities, the opportunities, the surprises that no one or very few would even have imagined become history after they’ve occurred.” (quoted in Bass, The People’s History of Christianity, p. 310).

In short my hope in this age of Obama is not in our innovative and courageous president, nor a myth of human progress, but rather in the paradox that by grace God walks with us from this reality to next not because of our efforts, but often in spite of them.