When Worlds Collide: Countering Islamophobia

Preface: See Rev. Josh’s May 30th blog post on the annual conference of the Islamic Circle of North America and the Muslim American Society here.

“Moderation in religion…offers no bulwark against religious extremism and religious violence.”[1] The words of Sam Harris[2]: American pubic intellectual, best-selling author, blogger, one of the so-called “New Atheists,” and co-founder and CEO of Project Reason, a nonprofit foundation devoted to spreading scientific knowledge and secular values in society.[3] “Moderation in religion…offers no bulwark against religious extremism and religious violence.”[4] I disagree. He says: “The problem that religious moderation poses for all of us is that it does not permit anything very critical to be said about religious literalism.”[5] I disagree. In fact, religious moderates, by whatever name we call them—they have many names and many denominational identities including Unitarian Universalism—when acting courageously; when speaking truthfully in response to religious extremists; when living out of and into a prophetic vision of religious pluralism and interfaith cooperation; when using the tactics of nonviolence grounded in the ethic of “love your neighbor and your enemy as yourself; and when nurturing (as we heard earlier in the Islamic Circle of North America’s Interfaith Statement[6]) a politics of justice, an economics of fairness, and a covenant of community; when doing all these things; when functioning as we ought to be functioning, when living as we ought to be living, religious moderates offer, in my view, the only serious, long-term, sustainable bulwark against religious extremism and religious violence.

I had heard of Sam Harris; I’d never felt compelled to read his work. Then Stan McMillen purchased a sermon at our 2010 goods and services auction and e asked me to preach in response to Harris’ 2004 book, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason. Stan had two intersecting ideas in mind. First, he accepts Harris’ view that religion—especially in its fundamentalist and extremist forms—can and often does wreak havoc in the world. Second, while Harris has no love for any religion, he holds unique—and what I consider to be misguided—contempt for Islam. Stan wanted me to address this aspect of Harris’ thinking out of his own deep concern about the rise of Islamophobia in the United States. Thank you, Stan, for this suggestion.

I begin with Islamophobia. Our Muslim-American friends live today with a pervasive sense of anxiety, fear and anger due to widespread and increasing anti-Islamic activities and sentiments. The most recent increase has come in the wake of House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee Chairman, Peter King’s hearings on what he calls the “radicalization” of American Muslims. Those hearings began in March.[7] King points to the increase in home-grown terrorist plots, including an incident last May when a Connecticut man drove a car bomb into Times Square. King’s opponents, among whom I place myself, contend it is not fair to single out an entire religion for such high profile interrogation. Yes, there are terrorists who are Muslims, just like there are terrorists who are Christians or Jews. But a hearing like Representative King’s turns this equation around, sending a not-so-subtle message that all Muslims are worthy of interrogation, that Muslims in general are—or, at least could be—terrorists. This blanket stereotyping of all Muslims is one face of Islamophobia.

There are many more faces. You likely remember the loud chorus of Anti-Islamic sentiment that swept through the nation last summer as debate raged over the proposed building of an Islamic cultural center and mosque near the site of the 9-11 terrorist attacks in lower Manhattan. Mark Williams, then-chairman of the Tea Party Express, called the proposed prayer space “a mosque for the worship of the terrorists’ monkey god.”[8] Again, turning the equation around.

You likely remember the Rev. Terry Jones of the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainsville, FL, threatening last fall to burn a Koran and then finally doing it this past March. You may remember last September when Imam Kashif Abdul-Karim of the Muhammad Islamic Center of Greater Hartford was invited to pray for the opening of a Hartford City Council meeting, and then uninvited due to the protests of a few local hot heads. You may remember last summer when members of Operation Save America held a protest at a mosque in Bridgeport, confronting worshippers and shouting “Islam is a lie” and “Jesus hates Muslims.” Flip Benham, the protest leader, yelled at worshippers with his bullhorn, “This is a war in America and we are taking it to the mosques around the country.”[9] This particular protest gained notoriety as one protestor yelled “Murderers!” at a group of young children who were leaving the mosque.

These are a few examples of what we encounter in the media. There are many more that are not so public. Last fall, when our “Neighboring Faiths” class visited the mosque in Berlin, CT, home to the Islamic Association of Greater Hartford, our young people were stunned to hear stories from Muslim children about regular visits to their homes from FBI agents. Imam Kashif confirmed for me that such visits to mosques and homes are a regular feature of Muslim life in Connecticut.

Then there is a 2011 report compiled by Thomas Cincotta of Political Research Associates that finds that United States “government agencies responsible for domestic security have inadequate mechanisms to ensure quality and consistency in terrorism preparedness training provided by private vendors; public servants are regularly presented with misleading, inflammatory, and dangerous information about the nature of the terror threat through highly politicized seminars, industry conferences, trade publications, and electronic media. In place of sound skills training and intelligence briefings, [an] influential sub-group of the private counterterrorism training industry markets conspiracy theories about secret jihadi campaigns to replace the U.S. Constitution with Sharia law, and effectively impugns all of Islam—a world religion with 1.3 billion adherents—as inherently violent and even terroristic.”[10] The equation gets turned around. Some terrorists are Muslims so quickly and unreasonably becomes All Muslims are terrorists. And it’s worse than that. The report describes one trainer, Walid Shoebat, saying in a speech to the International Counter-Terrorism Officers Association in Las Vegas last October, that the way to solve the threat of violent, militant Muslims is to “kill them, including the children.”[11] The report warns that such messages will result in law enforcement officers conducting biased intelligence analysis, stereotyping and profiling, unlawful searches, illegal surveillance, hate crimes and silencing free speech.[12]

There’s much more, but I’ll stop there. For me, all of this confirms that American Muslims are quite justified in feeling fear, anxiety and anger. Islamophobia is increasing in the United States and, friends, it is wrong. Its presence in our public discourse, in the halls of government, in the media, in our counter-terrorism trainings, on street corners in front of mosques; and in unnecessary FBI visits to the homes of law-abiding citizens reflects our nation at its worst—at the height of its arrogance and the depth of its ignorance. In the very least I feel called to work with my Muslim colleagues and friends to nurture a United States that is more welcoming towards Muslims, more knowledgeable about Islam, more nuanced in its appraisal of what constitutes an enemy, and far less beholden to the false assumption of its own purity and exceptionalism.

Sam Harris would say, “Hold on Rev. You need some nuancing as well. You sound like a typical religious moderate. You’re positioning yourself in solidarity with Muslims, you’re celebrating religious pluralism, you’re demanding that law enforcement officials not engage in religious and racial profiling, you’re saying all the politically correct things. But you’re ignoring the full extent of the violence in the Koran (just as so many religious moderates ignore the violence in the Bible). If you’re unwilling to challenge the call to violence in the sacred books which so many proclaim to be the unerring, unchanging word of God, then you offer no bulwark against religious extremism and religious violence. In affirming Muslims in the way that you do, you tacitly affirm the violence against unbelievers and so-called infidels to which the Koran incites them.” That’s not a direct quote, but it is essentially what Harris says in The End of Faith. The scriptures say what they say. As long as religious moderates fail to challenge the more problematic passages; as long as we fail to hold extremists accountable for their murderous behavior; and unless we are willing to say definitively and forcefully in a sustained and organized way that the passages that incite some of the faithful to violence do not meet the moral standards for a civilized society, then religious extremism will thrive. I believe this is what Harris would say.

I have a few responses. First, certainly Harris is correct—and it doesn’t take a Ph.D. in anything to understand—that there are passages in many sacred books that appear to unambiguously call on the faithful to commit acts of violence against those who believe differently. Such passages are, in the very least, the fuel religious extremists use to maintain the fire of their rage and their desire to achieve their destructive ends.

Second, while this is true, Harris goes too far when he turns the equation around and holds all Muslims responsible for acts of violence committed by a few extremists. This is egregiously unfair. This is Islamophobia. Imagine if our congregation held our friends at Center Congregational Church in Manchester responsible for Operation Save America yelling “murderers!” at Muslim children in Bridgeport, simply because they are Christians. Imagine if we held them responsible for the Oklahoma City bombing because the bomber had Christian leanings. It doesn’t make sense. And worse, it yields no effective strategy for countering religiously-motivated violence.

Third, in the encounter with people of faith who ground their lives in sacred texts that include problematic passages—passages that call for violence, for destruction of unbelievers, for oppression of women and gays and people with disabilities—and when one’s intent it to build relationship and community with them, rather than force them into a theological corner, I think it is fair to ask, “What do you make of those passages?” “How do you read those passages and interpret them so that they do not incite violence and oppression?” Engaging in such dialogue across faith lines seems essential in building communities that have the capacity to hold religious extremists in check. I asked Imam Kashif this question. I am deeply grateful for the time he took to be in dialogue with me. He said something similar to what many moderate, liberal and progressive Christians and Jews say about the problematic passages in the Bible. He said you have to read those passages in their historical context. He reminded me that the early Muslims, including the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), were themselves oppressed by the ruling Arab elites of the day. They were hunted, attacked and killed. They were forced to flee their homes. He said these passages must be understood in the context of early Muslims defending themselves from persecution in the 7th century. They speak not to the need for aggression, but to the need for self-defense. Knowing the history helps our understanding. Listening helps. Being in dialogue helps. Asking fair questions helps.

Finally, with regard to Harris’ statement, “moderation in religion offers no bulwark against religious extremism and religious violence,” I am willing to concede that both globally and locally, moderate, liberal and progressive people of faith do not today offer a powerful alternative to those individuals who might be convinced to commit acts of terror in the name of religion. (We also don’t offer a powerful alternative to young people on our city streets who might be convinced to join street gangs.) I am willing to concede that. But I am not willing to concede, as Harris seems to, that it cannot be done. It can. We—all of us—Muslims, Jews, Catholics, Protestants, Hindus, Buddhists, Unitarian Universalists—all of us who care about the quality of our communities, who care about and value religious pluralism, who take seriously the proposition that it is possible to love your neighbor and your enemy as yourself, who want to live in societies that prioritize a politics of justice, an economy of fairness and a covenant of community—we can and must come together. We can engage in dialogue. We can honor and respect each other. We can break bread and celebrate with each other. We can struggle for justice together. We can feed the hungry together. We can comfort the sick together. We can heal our broken communities together. We need to engage with each other in all these ways because that is how we offer a powerful alternative to those who might otherwise pursue violence.

And when arrogance and ignorance rise up to insult, interrogate, injure, frighten, harass and oppress as they are now doing to our Muslim friends in the United States of America, we must confront them courageously with a resounding no. No Islamophobia on our watch. No Islamophobia in this nation that claims to be a peace-loving nation. No Islamophobia in this nation that claims to be a justice-seeking nation. No Islamophobia in this nation that claims to be a democratic nation.

Amen and Blessed Be.

Rev. Josh Pawelek
Parish Minister
Unitarian Universalist Society: East
05/22/11

[1] Harris, Sam, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2004) p. 20.

[2] More on Sam Harris at http://www.samharris.org/site/about/.

[3] More on Project Reason at http://www.project-reason.org/.

[4] Harris, Sam, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2004) p. 20.

[5] Harris, Sam, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2004) p. 20.

[6] See the statement at http://www.muslimcoalitionct.org/resources/interfaith-statement.

[7] More on Rep. King’s hearings athttp://articles.latimes.com/2011/mar/10/nation/la-na-muslim-house-hearing-20110311.

[8] See http://articles.nydailynews.com/2010-05-19/local/27064852_1_muslims-ibrahim-hooper-ground-zero.

[9] http://www.ctpost.com/news/article/Angry-protesters-descend-on-mosque-606515.php.

[10] Cincotta, Thomas, Manufacturing the Muslim Menace: Private Firms, Public Servants, and the Threat to Rights and Security (Somerville, MA: Political Research Associates, 2011) p. 1.

[11] Ibid., i.

[12] Ibid., p. 4.

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