Thursday, January 01, 2009

MEET THE NEW YEAR. SAME AS THE OLD YEAR?

The title of this post expresses the question that, in one form or another, all Americans are asking this morning. And we’re asking it with no modicum of desperation. I can’t recall a year when my nation thirsted more for change. Economically, we’ve fallen apart. Many of us – including my family – lost a lot of money in the stock market. Many others lost their jobs, or their houses. Even for the lucky few that seem to have weathered the storm, there’s the real prospect of another Depression that will threaten their nest egg a year or two down the road. As for national security, we have none. Weapons technology improves by the year, and America’s enemies are surely becoming more sophisticated in using it. Just last week, with the news from Gaza, we were reminded of how many enemies we have. Israel, the “Little Satan,” is perceived as a two-bit hit man, a mere functionary. The real enemy behind the killing of Palestinian children, according to much of the Arab Street, is the “Great Satan” – the protector and defender of Israel through thick and thin. You know him as good ol’ Uncle Sam. I hesitate to think of just how many people in the world today would cheer a second 9/11 if it were announced on the news. I hesitate to think of how many more people would cheer such an event compared to the first 9/11.

Yes, Virginia, times need to change.

Fortunately, the idea of change doesn’t seem nearly as far-fetched today as it has in a long while. Viscerally as well as intellectually, Americans are pinning their hopes on Barack Obama to reclaim our lofty status as the envy of the world and the bastion of freedom, democracy and prosperity. I laughed at the right wingers who mocked Barack during the campaign as “the Messiah,” but ever since the financial markets crashed and the current Administration seemed clueless about how to stop the bleeding, Barack truly has been viewed as a bit of a Savior. The only problem is that Barack doesn’t have superhuman powers. Yes, his arsenal includes a high IQ and seemingly uncanny judgment regarding matters of politics and public policy. But that might not be enough – at least not if he hopes to solve some of our most intractable problems, such as our relations with the Islamic world.

We are at war. Make no mistake about it. Let’s just please understand with whom and what we are fighting. The “enemy” is not the religion of Islam. It is instead a particular perversion of that religion that (a) is based on the willingness to take up arms even against innocent civilians, (b) legitimizes the use of force to expand the scope of Muslim rule to any and all lands that were once controlled by Muslims, and (c) perceives Islam as the sole path to virtue in a world that has clearly forsaken God and his messengers.

All Muslims do not view their religion through that prism. Many would be willing to work with the rest of us to reach accommodations. Some would even be willing to pray with non-Muslims to the God of Abraham regardless of whether He is addressed as “Allah” or “Adonai.” Sadly, though, those more ecumenical Muslims are virtually invisible in the western world. We rarely see them giving addresses at our churches and synagogues. We never see them discussing their religion in the middle of political campaigns. Our mass media doesn’t much seek them out either. They’re not included among the “talking heads” who comment about public policy. In fact, they’re not even shown on the news. Every night, we watch “Muslim” crazies on the street shouting for blood. But how often are we exposed to calm, thoughtful, patient Muslims – the ones who are truly following the teachings of Muhammad? You don’t have to answer that question; it was rhetorical.

Many in this country find the “Muslim problem” maddening. And I agree. The difference is that what enrages me most isn’t the existence of crazy Muslims, but the failure of our cultural institutions to prop up their sane comrades. If we truly want change in this world, we can’t simply rely on Barack to wield a magic wand and eliminate the pseudo-Islamic jihad. We must be the change. We, and I mean all of us, must study Islam and reach out to the members of the Muslim community who have not perverted their religion. They must be given an honored place at our table. And together, we must figure out how to deal with the Muslim world in a way that will marginalize the fanatics rather than turn them into heroes in the minds of their countrymen.

Often, when problems of this magnitude exist, there’s not much that you and I can do about them. I have a degree in economics, but I’m not about to figure out how our nation can climb out of its economic woes, and I doubt you are either. But with respect to the “Muslim problem,” our work is cut out for us. Thankfully. We can all begin by putting away that mystery novel we were going to read, and pick up the Qur’an instead. I recommend the version published by Amana Publications, and edited by Abdullah Yusuf Ali. It is entitled “The Meaning of The Holy Qur’an” and it includes commentary to explain the meaning of many of the verses. Without the commentary, reading the book is almost pointless. After reading the Qur’an, there are several directions in which the student of Islam could go. You who love history could read Karen Armstrong’s “Muhammad.” Students of philosophy could read “Man & the Universe,” by Mostafa Al-Badawi. And those who would like confirmation that “moderate” and “Muslim” are not mutually exclusive could read “The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam from the Extremists,” by Khaled Abou El Fadl. Those are just a few examples. I’ve read a number of other books on Islam and still don’t view myself as some sort of expert on the subject. But believe me, reading any of those books is better than remaining clueless on the subject and allowing the mass media to teach you about Islam instead. Talk about misinformation.

Once you read a bit about Islam, the real work is just beginning. The next step, I believe, is participating in interfaith initiatives that seek a robust dialogue between Muslim and non-Muslim groups. The latter can involve members of other Abrahamic faiths, but it need not. At this point, moderate Muslims are surely starving to speak their peace to anyone and everyone who cares to listen. The question is, do you? Do you want to know what they think? Whether they have a fire in the belly to replace the extremists in the minds of the general public as spokespersons for the Islamic faith? And whether they have a plan to return Islam to a time when it coincided peacefully with other faiths?

Perhaps you will heed my plea and begin your own study of Islam. But as soon as Inauguration Day comes, there will be a temptation to sit back, put away the books, and count on Saint Barack to solve our problems. With our prayers, he will “lean on the Israelis” just enough to pave the way for a real peace with the Palestinians, win the war against Al-Qaeda by partnering with the Afghanis and Pakistanis, and get the Hell out of Iraq as soon as it is safe to do so. All good, right?

Wrong. The deeper problems involving pseudo-Islamic violence will be here to stay for much longer than Barack is in office. And so will the Arab-Israeli conflict. If we hope to solve these problems, we’ll need to be involved. And, as explained above, there’s plenty of work to be done.

Remember how Barack beat Hillary? It was all about ground-up, grass-roots politics. That, too, will be the way we’ll beat the extremists. It’s the only way. The question is, are you willing to do your part? Your bookshelf awaits an answer.

2 comments:

Betty C. said...

Thought-provoking and inspiring, but I'm afraid I'm more of "The End of Faith" ilk.

Happy New Year to you and your family!

Daniel Spiro said...

And a Happy New Year to you and yours as well, Betty.

It's funny you mentioned "The End of Faith." I just finished that book a couple of weeks ago. I'm not sure how I'd react to it. I disagree with Harris on many issues, but at least he appears open-minded on issues of spirituality, unlike certain other "New Atheists." Frankly, some of those New Atheists seem as Fundamentalist to me as the religious fanatics they lampoon.