Islamophobia has reared its ugly head again. As author and journalist Linda K. Wertheimer noted in her previous post, education about world religions couldn’t be more important in today’s climate. Education about other religions comes not only from the classroom, but also from the life stories of others. In his book Acts of Faith, interfaith leader Eboo Patel writes about the time he spent with his devout Muslim grandmother in India. In this excerpt, he recounts the invaluable lesson his grandmother gave him in what his faith stands for.
In The Jew in the Lotus, Rodger Kamenetz writes that many young people view religion as an old man saying no. Growing up, my “old man” was a woman—my grandmother, with whom I was now staying in Bombay. She would come to the States every few years and live with my family, occupying the living room from midmorning to early evening watching Hindi films. I avoided her as much as possible. “Are you saying your Du’a?” she would ask if she caught me before I managed to reach the back staircase. If she woke up earlier than usual and saw me at the breakfast table before I left for school, she would say, “Are you giving your dasond?” referring to the tithe that Ismailis give. She was disappointed that I had no close Ismaili friends when I was a teenager. “You will marry an Ismaili, right?” my grandmother would ask, catching my arm, as I was sneaking out. I am embarrassed to say it now, but I dreaded her visits and did my best to avoid her.
It's not a surprise that our favorite this year is from Eboo Patel, speaking at Elizabethtown College. What's not to love? Eboo is a visionary and a engaging writer (see Acts of Faith and Sacred Ground for confirmation), and here he's praising the intro to James Baldwin's Notes of a Native Son, another book that we are tremendously proud to have published.
But our appreciation of the speech goes beyond the mere pride that a Beacon author was moved to write about a classic Beacon book. Eboo illuminates the revelations and anxieties in Baldwin's text—the feeling of being driven to write, the conflicts inherent in being present in a dominant culture that attempts to exclude you and your experiences, feeling both pride and discomfort in identity—and he shares how that piece of writing helped shape his own growth as a young activist and author. In short, it made us pause and think about all the reasons we love bringing books to readers. Enjoy!
In every phase of my life, there have been texts
that have lit the path. When I was a kid, and sports were king in the
schoolyard, the Great Brain books taught me that being smart had its
uses. In high school, John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, Ken Kessey’s One
Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and the Grateful Dead’s From the Mars Hotel
showed me that the American tradition had a rebel streak. In college, my world
was rocked by Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, essays by bell hooks,
Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and ani difranco’s Not a
Pretty Girl – works that taught me a thing or two about power and identity.
graduation, when I was asking myself who I wanted to be and what impact I hoped
to have, the work I found myself returning to over and over again, the piece
that served as both my prod and my guide, was the opening six pages of James
Baldwin’s 1955 essay collection, Notes of a Native Son. Those six pages,
titled Autobiographical Notes, are an account of how James Baldwin
carved out his commitments and understood their consequences.
the piece for its fury, for its stark take on the world as it is, for its
ability to confront contradiction without resolving it. It reminded me of the
first two Led Zeppelin albums: the energy of the music so powerful you can feel
it literally burst through the skin of the studio production.
lines: “I was born in Harlem thirty-one years ago. I began plotting novels at
about the time I learned how to read … In those days my mother was given to the
exasperating and mysterious habit of having babies. I took them over with one
hand and held a book with the other …”
closely to those sentences. Baldwin is articulating how he first heard the call
of his vocation, how he first felt within himself the beating heart of a
writer. It did not happen on a fancy trip to Europe. It did not happen in the
middle of an advanced course in graduate school. It happened in the living room
of an overfull Harlem apartment, surrounded by squalling babies.
ability to listen to yourself, to tease out the signal from the noise in a
world that is a crashing, clanging cacophony, that’s a treasure that is worth
more than any amount of silver or gold.
Notes was written
in response to a request by Baldwin’s fiction publisher to fill out a
standardized form for their records - date of birth, city of residence, etc.
The very idea of the form pissed Baldwin off, so he turned it around and
started writing on the back. It became the essay that I’m quoting from today.
Makes me look at every boring form I’m handed and wonder how to turn it into a
lasting work of art. Also, it confirms my suspicion that an awful lot of
creativity is at least partially a result of the chip certain people carry on
their shoulder. I know that chip well. So did Baldwin.
“Any writer … feels that the world into which he was born is nothing less than
a conspiracy against the cultivation of his talent - which attitude certainly
has a good deal of evidence to support it. On the other hand, it is only
because the world looks on his talent with such a frightening indifference that
the artist is compelled to make his talent important … the things which hurt
(you) and the things which help (you) cannot be divorced from each other.”
One of my
biggest surprises when I graduated from college was just how indifferent the
world was to me. I suspect I was like many of you here: front row in all my
classes, eager beaver in every possible extra-curricular. College is an
environment that nurtures those qualities, and rewards them. The rest of the
world, not so much. I literally remember thinking to myself a few months after
I graduated, ‘Where are all the people telling me how great my new idea is,
congratulating me for committing to read this classic novel, encouraging me as
I begin a new writing project.’
when I was truly grateful for the faculty and staff who nurtured me through my
liberal arts education. The gift they gave me was helping develop those
capacities and values in the first place, supporting me as I flexed those
muscles. My gift to them would be to continue growing those muscles without
them by my side.
essay helped me realize that I had entered a new stage, a stage defined not so
much by encouragement but by struggle. Nobody was sitting in their office
waiting for me to walk in so they could give me money for my new organization
or extra credit for my new intellectual endeavor. The world was not going to
convince me that I had something worthwhile to offer. I was going to have to
convince it. This meant I first had to convince myself. And that is not
just a question of capacity, it is also a question of identity.
is at the heart of Baldwin’s work. He once told his friend and editor Sol Stein
that he was born with three strikes against him: he was black, he was gay and
he was ugly. The third could be disputed, but the first two were definitely
is blunt about “the tremendous demands and very real dangers of (his) social
situation”. He writes of how being black in America made him “hate and fear the
world”, putting him in a “self-destroying limbo.” So how does he navigate
forward? By adopting a different lens looking back.
the most powerful lines in the essay are when Baldwin cites the great masters
and creations of Western civilization – Shakespeare, Rembrandt, Bach, the
Empire State Building. He points out that these masters are not really part of
his heritage. Some of the people would have happily enslaved him, yet he is
drawn to their ideas and creations nonetheless. So what is he to do?
writes: “I would have to appropriate these white centuries. I would have to
make them mine – I would have to accept my special attitude, my special place
in this scheme – or else I would have no place in any scheme.”
first day as a graduate student at Oxford, some fancy-pants university official
found out I was an American and said, “Oh, how wonderful. Do you know Bill
Clinton? Such a charming man.” I thought to myself, ‘Sorry, you got the wrong
guy. My parents own Subway Sandwich Shops in the Western Suburbs of Chicago.
Biggest thing I’ve ever done is shake Michael Jordan’s hand in the parking lot
of the golf course near my house.’
about that situation screamed to me, ‘You don’t belong here.’ I must say, the
exit sign looked pretty alluring sometimes.
of walking, I took out my Baldwin and re-read that essay. I realized the
tradition would take no note of me slinking away, nor was it about to magically
throw open its doors and let me in. It was my responsibility to shape a special
attitude to it, to knock on its doors, to make my contributions, to not simply
cry foul but to effect change.
dimension of a liberal arts education is a long look back, a listening in on
the great conversations that have threaded through past centuries. But simply
being conversant in what others have said is not the same as being educated,
not at least in the Elizabethtown way.
the question: what is my special attitude to those things that have gone in the
past? Even those dimensions that might have turned their back on people like
me? How might I learn from them, love them, embrace the parts that are
humanizing, change the parts that hurt and marginalize, make them my own? How
can you stand at the crossroads of inheritance and discovery and look both ways
I love Autobiographical
Notes for how it spoke to me at 22, I love it for its jazz and war. As I
stand here this morning, I am fifteen years past the days when I re-read Autobiographical
Notes night after night, seeking new insights into my personal drama. Going
back to it now helps me remember the intensity of that time in my life. Make no
mistake, I envy you the stage you are about to enter.
lines of the essay are different. For all the passion of the previous pages,
the searing talk of racism and America and special attitudes, Baldwin doesn’t
end the essay by making huge demands or issuing earth-shattering proclamations.
He ends with lines that are both simple and modest, lines that sound almost
like a prayer, lines that I believe honor a graduating class of a school
devoted to service and to others.
He wants to
be an honest man and a good writer. He wants to last, and get his work done.
Beacon Press calls Boston home. While we are all back at work this week, we mourn the lives lost in the bombings and the pursuit of the suspects, and our thoughts are with their loved ones and the victims still recovering from their injuries in our area's hospitals. Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick and Boston Mayor Thomas Menino have set up a fund to help those most affected by the bombings: One Fund Boston.
We have found words of comfort and valuable analysis from our authors in the days since the Marathon bombings.
Scott Korb (Light Without Fire) and Suhaib Webb (Imam of the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center) co-wrote this piece for the New York Times answering attacks against American Islamic communities by Rep. Peter King and others:
Mr. King’s hypothesis, and the widespread surveillance policies already in effect since 9/11, assume that the threat of radicalization has become a matter of local geography, that American Muslims are creating extremists in our mosques and community centers.
But what we’re learning of the suspects, the brothers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, suggests a different story, and one that has itself become familiar: radicalization does not happen to young people with a strong grounding in the American Muslim mainstream; increasingly, it happens online, and sometimes abroad, among the isolated and disaffected.
“Children take cues from their parents about how to make sense of all kinds of events in the world,” said Groves. She urged parents to assess their own feelings, and then determine what they will say and how they will say it before having a conversation with their kids. “I think that parents need to just give themselves permission to collect their own thoughts.”
Honesty is critical, she added, noting that opening a dialogue with children signals that it’s OK to discuss a difficult subject. “If parents take the initiative to bring it up, it makes the topic less scary to start with.’”
At Guernica, Rafia Zakaria (whose book The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan is forthcoming from Beacon Press next year) wrote why attacks in America are "far more indelible in the world’s memory" than bombings in other places where they happen more frequently:
There may be fewer victims and less blood, but American tragedies somehow seem to occur in a more poignant version of reality, in a way that evokes a more sympathetic response. Within minutes American victims are lifted from the nameless to the remembered; their individual tragedies and the ugly unfairness of their ends are presented in a way that cannot but cause the watching world to cry, to consider them intimates, and to stand in their bloody shoes. Death is always unexpected in America and death by a terrorist attack more so than in any other place.
It is this greater poignancy of attacks in America that begs the question of whether the world’s allocations of sympathy are determined not by the magnitude of a tragedy—the numbers dead and injured—but by the contrast between a society’s normal and the cruel aftermath of a terrorist event. It is in America that the difference between the two is the greatest; the American normal is one of a near-perfect security that is unimaginable in many places, especially in countries at war. The very popularity of the Boston Marathon could be considered an expression of just this. America is so secure and free from suffering that people have the luxury of indulging in deliberate suffering in the form of excruciating physical exertion; this suffering in turn produces well-earned exhilaration, a singular sense of physical achievement and mental fortitude. The act of running a marathon is supposed to be simple, individual—a victory of the will over the body, celebrated by all and untouched by the complicated questions of who in the world can choose to suffer and who only bears suffering.
In America, just about everyone is some sort of hyphenated hybrid of race, religion and ethnicity/nationality. Irish-Catholic-American, African-American Pentecostal, Jewish-American secular Humanist, and so on. As Walt Whitman said, "I am large / I contain multitudes."
When interfaith cooperation is done well, it not only helps people from different faith and philosophical backgrounds get along, it creates space for the diverse identities within each of us to become mutually enriching rather than mutually exclusive. When interfaith events raise the question, what do I have in common with people of different religious and national identities, the natural internal dialogue that ensues is: What do my own diverse identities have in common with each other?
Religious extremists try to separate people's various identities and pit them against each other. The extremists that got to the young London 7/7 bombers somehow convinced them that their Muslim identity was at war with their British identity, and the former had to destroy the latter. While the facts are still coming in, this may also have been the case for the Tsarnaev brothers. It was a clash civilizations in their souls.
In a nation of hybrids, it's important to have loyalty to both sides of the hyphen. What if the Tsarnaev brothers were involved in discussions with people from other backgrounds about how their faith identity was mutually enriching with their nationality and citizenship? Perhaps they would have been less susceptible to the divide-and-destroy tactics of extremists.
At her Being Both blog, Susan Katz Miller (Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family, forthcoming Fall 2013) speaks about her Boston ties and the ways that interfaith communities and families can offer solace:
We do not need to share a conception of God in order to comfort each other. No matter our religious beliefs or lack thereof, we can still pause to sing together, meditate together, hug each other.
I write as someone who chooses to live fulltime in this “interfaith space.” Interfaith families raising children with dual-faith education experience the benefits of interfaith celebration and contemplation and mourning–the synergy, the joy, the healing of reflecting together as an interfaith community–week in and week out. And as we model interfaith love, and radical inclusivity, we hope to play some small part in preventing intolerance, alienation and violence in the world.
At Huffington Post, Rabbi Marc Schneier (co-author of Sons of Abraham: A Candid Conversation about the Issues That Divide and Unite Jews and Muslims, forthcoming Fall 2013) speaks out against the tainting of American Muslims with the actions of the Tsarnaev brothers:
Since Friday (April 19), when the news broke that the likely perpetrators of the bombings, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, were Muslim, many of the top American Muslim spiritual and organizational leaders have unequivocally denounced the Boston Marathon bombings as morally repellent and antithetical to the basic values of Islam. Their passionate comments on this issue; following the hundreds of pronouncements by Muslim leaders in the years since Sept. 11, 2001 denouncing terrorism and violence need to be heard and acknowledged; especially by those who knowingly or unknowingly continue to peddle the canard that American Muslim leaders turn a blind eye to -- or even approve of -- terrorist acts committed by fellow Muslims.
Some of the stories we tell about the nation are delusions that cloak weaknesses and wrongs, which fester unacknowledged. David Ortiz brags that "nobody is going to dictate our freedom," and I assume he hasn't heard of the Patriot Act or warrantless wiretaps, much less the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act. Dennis Lehane can be excused for declaring that "they messed with the wrong city," but don't take seriously his confidence that not much will change: "Trust me," he adds implausibly, "we won't be giving up any civil liberties to keep ourselves safe because of this."
Of course we will. We've been surrendering liberty in the hope of keeping ourselves safe for the past decade. The marathon bombings will hasten our surrender of freedom from the watchful eye of law enforcement. The Boston Globe is already clamoring for additional surveillance cameras, which are sure to be installed to the applause of a great many Bostonians. You can rationalize increased surveillance as a necessary or reasonable intrusion on liberty, but you can't deny its intrusiveness, or inevitable abuses.
On Radio Boston yesterday, Judge Nancy Gertner (In Defense of Women) and Alan Dershowitz spoke about the legal issues surrounding the Tsarnaev case: venue changes, death penalty charges, the definition of weapons of mass destruction, Miranda warnings, and more. Listen here.
Today is also the Interfaith Youth Core's Better Together day, a time to wear blue to raise awareness of interfaith cooperation. Read more about it here.
One hundred years ago, the great African-American scholar W.E.B. DuBois famously wrote, "The problem of the 20th century will be the problem of the color line."
History proved DuBois correct. His century saw the struggles against, and ultimately the victory over, systems that separated and subjugated people based on race—from colonialism in India to Jim Crow in the U.S. to apartheid in South Africa.
No American did more than Martin Luther King, Jr., to address the problem of the color line. He spearheaded the marches that revealed the brutality of segregation, made speeches that reminded Americans that the promise of their nation applied to all citizens and expertly pressured the nation's leaders in Washington to pass landmark civil rights legislation.
But to confine King's role in history only to the color line—as giant as that challenge is, and as dramatic as King's contribution was—is to reduce his greatness. In one of his final books, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community, King showed that race was one part of his broader concern with human relations at large: "This is the great new problem of mankind. We have inherited ... a great 'world house' in which we have to live together—black and white, Easterner and Westerner, Gentile and Jew, Catholic and Protestant, Muslim and Hindu ... Because we can never again live apart, we must learn somehow to live with each other in peace."
This ethos, as King's examples make clear, applies not only to the question of race, but to faith as well. In the same way as the headlines of the 20th century read of conflict between races, headlines in our times are full of violence between people of different religions. Indeed, what the color line was to the 20th century, the faith line might be to the 21st.
Faith as a bridge
King's life has as much to say to us on the question of interfaith cooperation as it did on the matter of interracial harmony. A prince of the black church, deeply rooted in his own Baptist tradition, King viewed his faith as a bridge of cooperation rather than a barrier of division.
When, as a seminary student, King was introduced to the satyagraha ("love-force") philosophy of the Indian Hindu leader Mahatma Gandhi, King did not reject it because it came from a different religion. Instead, he sought to find resonances between Gandhi's Hinduism and his own interpretation of Christianity. Indeed, it was Gandhi's movement in India that provided King with a 20th century version of what Jesus would do. King patterned nearly all the strategy and tactics of the civil rights movement—from boycotts to marches to readily accepting jail time—after Gandhi's leadership in India. King called Gandhi "the first person in history to lift the love ethic of Jesus above mere interaction between individuals to a powerful and effective social force."
Following Gandhi was King's first step on a long journey of learning about the shared social justice values across the world's religions, and partnering with faith leaders of all backgrounds in the struggle for civil rights. In 1959, more than a decade after the Mahatma's death, King traveled to India to meet with people continuing the work Gandhi had started. He was surprised and inspired to meet Indians of all faith backgrounds working for equality and harmony, discovering in their own traditions the same inspiration for love and peace that King found in Christianity.
King's experience with religious diversity in India shaped the rest of his life. He readily formed a friendship with the Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, finding a common bond in their love of the Hebrew prophets. The two walked arm-in-arm in the famous civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery.
Later, Heschel wrote, "Our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying."
King's friendship with the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh inspired one of his most controversial moves, the decision to publicly oppose the Vietnam War. In his letter nominating Nhat Hanh for the Nobel Peace Prize, King wrote, "He is a holy man... His ideas for peace, if applied, would build a monument to ecumenism, to a world brotherhood, to humanity."
In his famous sermon "A Time to Break Silence," King was unequivocal about his Christian commitment and at the same time summarized his view of the powerful commonality across all faiths: "This Hindu-Muslim-Christian-Jewish-Buddhist belief about ultimate reality" is that the force of love is "the supreme unifying principle of life."
We live at a time of religious conflict abroad and religious tension at home. This would no doubt have dismayed King, who viewed faith as an inspiration to serve and connect, not to destroy and divide. During King's time, groups ranging from white supremacists to black militants believed that the races were better apart. Today, the same is said of division along the lines of faith.
King insisted that we are always better together. Indeed, that pluralism is part of divine plan. To paraphrase one of his most enduring statements: The world is not divided between black and white or Christian and Muslim, but between those who would live together as brothers and those who would perish together as fools.
In 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King,
Jr., isolated himself from the demands of the civil rights movement, rented a
house in Jamaica with no telephone, and labored over his final manuscript. In
this prophetic work, which has been unavailable for more than ten years, he
lays out his thoughts, plans, and dreams for America's future, including the
need for better jobs, higher wages, decent housing, and quality education. With
a universal message of hope that continues to resonate, King demanded an end to
global suffering, asserting that humankind-for the first time-has the resources
and technology to eradicate poverty.
by Martin Luther King, Jr. Edited by Lewis V. Baldwin
An unprecedented and timely
collection that captures the global vision of Dr. King—in his own words
Too many people continue to think
of Dr. King only as "a southern civil rights leader" or "an
American Gandhi," thus ignoring his impact on poor and oppressed people
around the world. "In a Single Garment of Destiny"is the
first book to treat King's positions on global liberation struggles through the
prism of his own words and activities.
From the pages of this extraordinary collection, King emerges not only as an
advocate for global human rights but also as a towering figure who collaborated
with Eleanor Roosevelt, Albert J. Luthuli, Thich Nhat Hanh, and other national
and international figures in addressing a multitude of issues we still struggle
with today-from racism, poverty, and war to religious bigotry and intolerance.
Introduced and edited by distinguished King scholar Lewis Baldwin, this volume
breaks new ground in our understanding of King.
Featuring the essay: "Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence."
An inspiring call for Americans to defend the values of
inclusiveness and pluralism by one of our best-known American Muslim leaders
There is no better time to stand up for your values than when they are under
In the decade following the attacks of 9/11, suspicion and animosity toward
American Muslims has increased rather than subsided. Alarmist, hateful rhetoric
once relegated to the fringes of political discourse has now become
frighteningly mainstream, with pundits and politicians routinely invoking the
specter of Islam as a menacing, deeply anti-American force.
In Sacred Ground, author and renowned interfaith leader Eboo
Patel says this prejudice is not just a problem for Muslims but a challenge to
the very idea of America. Patel shows us that Americans from George Washington
to Martin Luther King Jr. have been "interfaith leaders,"
illustrating how the forces of pluralism in America have time and again
defeated the forces of prejudice. And now a new generation needs to rise up and
confront the anti-Muslim prejudice of our era. To this end, Patel offers a
primer in the art and science of interfaith work, bringing to life the growing
body of research on how faith can be a bridge of cooperation rather than a barrier
of division and sharing stories from the frontlines of interfaith activism.
Patel asks us to share in his vision of a better America—a robustly pluralistic
country in which our commonalities are more important than our differences, and
in which difference enriches, rather than threatens, our religious traditions.
Pluralism, Patel boldly argues, is at the heart of the American project, and
this visionary book will inspire Americans of all faiths to make this country a
place where diverse traditions can thrive side by side.
A renowned Muslim activist's personal story of building a global interfaith youth movement that might just change the world. Includes a new afterword by the author.
Acts of Faith is a remarkable account of growing up Muslim in America and coming to believe in religious pluralism, from one of the most prominent faith leaders in the United States. Eboo Patel's story is a hopeful and moving testament to the power and passion of young people-and of the world-changing potential of an interfaith youth movement.
by Quinton Dixie and Peter Eisenstadt. Foreword by Walter Earl Fluker
The first biographical exploration of one of the most important African American religious thinkers of the twentieth century—Howard Thurman—and of the pivotal trip he took to India that ultimately shaped the course of the civil rights movement.
In 1935, at the height of his powers, Howard Thurman, one of the most influential African American religious thinkers of the twentieth century, took a pivotal trip to India that would forever change him-and that would ultimately shape the course of the civil rights movement in the United States.
After the journey to India, Thurman's distinctly American translation of satyagraha into a Black Christian context became one of the key inspirations for the civil rights movement, fulfilling Gandhi's prescient words that "it may be through the Negroes that the unadulterated message of nonviolence will be delivered to the world." Thurman went on to found one of the first explicitly interracial congregations in the United States and to deeply influence an entire generation of black ministers-among them Martin Luther King Jr.
“So which side are they on?” The question was part of a
conversation I overheard on the street the other day, and it was in reference
to people like me—American Muslims.
As several of my country's embassies
have been violently threatened by people of my faith, this seems as good a time
as any to be clear about my answer: I am on the side of all those who seek a
common life together. I believe America's founding creed, E
Pluribus Unum, makes us humanity's best chance to achieve that
possibility. I believe that Muslim values—just like Jewish, Christian, Hindu
and humanist ones—can contribute to that spirit. And I believe, as the violence
and ugliness demonstrate, that building societies where people from different
identities live in equal dignity and mutual loyalty is one of the great
challenges of our times.
We find ourselves in a terrible situation. The evening news in
America is full of Muslims burning American flags and trying to breach
embassies. The evening news in Arab countries is full of stories of Americans
defiling the Prophet Muhammad. And the actions of a thuggish few are
increasingly viewed as representing the sentiments of entire nations and
The sad part is that those thuggish few are not just skewed
representations of the broader whole, they actually stand in violation of their
traditions. I believe as a Muslim that the mob violence we are witnessing does
a greater dishonor to the Prophet Muhammad than the original offense. Muslims
are meant to act in the tradition of the Prophet, who dealt with insults during
his entire mission, responded unfailingly with mercy and commanded his
followers to do the same: “You do not do evil to those who do evil to you, but
you deal with them with forgiveness and kindness...”
Moreover, Islam is a tradition that protected pluralism from its
beginnings. One of the Prophet Muhammad's earliest acts in his adopted city of
Medina was to enact a Constitution that created a single political community—barring
tribal violence, establishing basic freedoms and assuring collective security—between
his growing number of Muslim followers and the various Christian, Jewish and
pagan groups already present in the city. During Islam's expansion, the Caliph
Ali sent his governor in Egypt a letter that said, “All people there are your
equals in faith or your brothers in creation.” The Quran affirms the holiness
of this pluralistic view: “God made you different nations and tribes that you
may come to know one another.”
America, contrary to the strain of ugly Islamophobia that has
become more prominent since 9/11, has a long and positive history of respect
for Islam and Muslims. The Flushing Remonstrance, a 17th century document which
established the precedent of religious freedom and goodwill between different
faiths, explicitly includes Muslims: “The law of love, peace and liberty in the
states extending to Jews, Turks and Egyptians, as they are considered sons of
Adam.” Thomas Jefferson famously owned a Quran and hosted an iftar dinner for a
Muslim diplomat. Benjamin Franklin started a hall in Philadelphia and said that
the pulpit would be open to all preachers, including a Muslim from
Constantinople. An envoy appointed by President George Washington negotiated
the Treaty of Tripoli with a majority-Muslim nation, a document which stated
that “no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an
interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.” The treaty was
later signed by President John Adams.
Current events highlight a harsh reality of globalization. That
people on one side of the world can create something that incites violence on
the other side of the world. But there is a silver lining here: just as ugliness
begets ugliness, so might beauty inspire beauty. Let's not let the handful of
people who seek to spread hatred between faith communities pattern interfaith
relations across the world. Now more than ever, we need to lift up those
stories within Islam and America that speak to the power of pluralism. And we
need to act on those stories, by working together to apply the values of mercy,
compassion and hospitality that are shared across all traditions. I remember
President Obama telling his Inaugural Faith Council, of which I was a proud
member, that he hoped Americans of all faith backgrounds would participate in
interfaith service projects together. This was not just as a way of
strengthening our own nation, it was also an example of diversity leading to
harmony in a world that is increasingly convinced of the inevitability of
In an interconnected world, the only chance we have is a common
life together. If we are to build it, we must insure the bridges between us are
strong enough to withstand the bombs of the extremists. As the American poet
William Stafford wrote, “The signals we give must be clear now ... the darkness
around us is deep.”
“Yeah?” he replied, grinning and taking a bite of his sandwich. “When?”
“Oh,” I offered, realizing I hadn't actually thought about details. “Someday...”
“When?” he said again.
“In five years? Maybe 10?”
He thought for a second, then said, “Why not start now?”
I chewed on my sub, and on his question. Why not now? I came up with several reasons immediately: I'm young; I like to write but have little formal training; I'm really young. But I swallowed those thoughts and said: “Sure. Why not? I'll start writing and see what happens.”
As soon as I started writing, I couldn't stop. Before I knew it I had a book contract, and then a finished book.
While I was writing, so was Eboo. I got a copy of his excellent new book, Sacred Ground—a vital, urgent exploration of America's dark history of both prejudice toward religious minorities but also its principled promise of religious liberty—a few weeks ago. When I read the chapter on interfaith leadership, where he describes some of the journey I share in Faitheist, I was moved.
A story about an atheist in a book like Sacred Ground is good for atheists; it demonstrates that we have a unique contribution to make to America's diverse religious landscape. And it will promote the idea of atheists as largely goodhearted people who want the same things most Americans do to people who might believe otherwise—people whose perceptions of atheists are based on caricature rather than meaningful relationships.
Storytelling can do that. It can connect and inspire us to new ways of thinking, to greater empathy and to increased familiarity with different experiences, identities and values.
I thought more about the power of narrative as I followed the news cycle last Sunday with a broken heart, when a white gunman stalked into a Sikh temple in Wisconsin and shot and killed six people and wounded several others. I surveyed reactions to the shooting and found they were significantly more muted than the response to the Aurora tragedy several weeks before. Perhaps people are becoming more accustomed to awful, violent outbursts such as this, but I wonder if the reactions don't say something about the way we see “others” in this country.
Upon hearing news of the shooting in a Colorado movie theater, many people likely conjured an image in their mind. They could imagine what it was like there, and they could imagine themselves in it. But how many Americans can envision a Sikh gurdwara and what goes on inside? Many people can imagine themselves in a movie theater, but how many can picture themselves, or people they love, in a gurdwara? How many people know about American Sikhs' sacred ground?
This is just one reason why Sacred Ground is such an important book—and why it is so important for people to share their stories. The day after the horror in Wisconsin, my dear friend Valarie Kaur, a longtime Sikh activist, shared her story on CNN. We tell these stories—stories of being Muslim, of being Sikh, of being an atheist and of finding common ground—with the hope that they will accomplish what Sacred Ground suggests: that familiarity with diversity changes how we think about it.
My hope is that Sacred Ground, Faitheist, Valarie's words and work, and the cumulative efforts of everyone who promotes pluralism will build a world where tragedies like the one in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, never happen again. We all—Muslims, atheists, Sikhs and everyone else—have stories to tell, and sharing them with others will help make the world a place where everyone is free to proclaim their beliefs with pride and without fear of violent recourse.
I'm happy to say that we are building that world—in the last week alone, atheist friends donated to rebuild a mosque destroyed by arson in Joplin, Missouri; Muslim friends petitioned to free Alexander Aan, an atheist jailed in Indonesia; religious friends decried Pat Robertson's statement blaming atheists for the shooting in Wisconsin (following a trend of blaming atheists for tragedies such as this, an issue I explore in Faitheist); people of all different beliefs (atheists, Muslims, Sikhs, Zoroastrians, Pagans, Christians and others) joined me at a Sikh gurdwara for a memorial where we shed tears of mourning and of happiness. When a mosque in Illinois was shot at on Friday—just two days after Rep. Joe Walsh said at a town hall meeting just 15 minutes away that there are Muslims in Illinois towns “trying to kill Americans every week”—atheist and religious friends reached out to him and asked him to condemn this act as awful and un-American. So when naysayers claim that building bridges between different communities is impossible or a waste of time—that it is not possible for atheists to be in solidarity with those who believe in sacred ground—I am encouraged by the reality that we are improving the world through the stories and values we share and the actions we take together.
So to you, reader, I ask the question Eboo posed to me over a set of sandwiches: You have a story, and sharing it will help build a better world. Why not start now?
An inspiring call for Americans to defend the values of inclusiveness and pluralism by one of our best-known American Muslim leaders
There is no better time to stand up for your values than when they are under attack.
In the decade following the attacks of 9/11, suspicion and animosity toward American Muslims has increased rather than subsided. Alarmist, hateful rhetoric once relegated to the fringes of political discourse has now become frighteningly mainstream, with pundits and politicians routinely invoking the specter of Islam as a menacing, deeply anti-American force.
In Sacred Ground, author and renowned interfaith leader Eboo Patel says this prejudice is not just a problem for Muslims but a challenge to the very idea of America. Patel shows us that Americans from George Washington to Martin Luther King Jr. have been "interfaith leaders," illustrating how the forces of pluralism in America have time and again defeated the forces of prejudice. And now a new generation needs to rise up and confront the anti-Muslim prejudice of our era. To this end, Patel offers a primer in the art and science of interfaith work, bringing to life the growing body of research on how faith can be a bridge of cooperation rather than a barrier of division and sharing stories from the frontlines of interfaith activism.
Patel asks us to share in his vision of a better America—a robustly pluralistic country in which our commonalities are more important than our differences, and in which difference enriches, rather than threatens, our religious traditions. Pluralism, Patel boldly argues, is at the heart of the American project, and this visionary book will inspire Americans of all faiths to make this country a place where diverse traditions can thrive side by side.
About the author: Eboo Patel is the founder and president of Interfaith Youth Core and the author of Acts of Faith. He was a member of President Obama’s inaugural faith council, is a regular contributor to the Washington Post, Huffington Post, CNN, and public radio, and speaks frequently about interfaith cooperation on college campuses. He lives in Chicago with his wife and two boys.
“Interfaith cooperation is one of America’s founding ideals. It still sets us apart from much of the world. Eboo Patel has lived that value and, in this book, spreads that good word. Uplifting and invaluable, Sacred Ground is essential reading for our polarized era.”—Walter Isaacson, author of Steve Jobs and Benjamin Franklin
“At a time when ignorance and suspicion are holding us back from building true community with our neighbors, Eboo Patel offers a light in the darkness. He challenges the bigotry and intolerance that is seeping into our political rhetoric, reminding us that America is a country built on the pillars of pluralism and tolerance. In both Sacred Ground and his wonderful interfaith work, Eboo offers an opportunity for us to move to higher ground in our relationships with our Muslim brothers and sisters, and to play our part in building a ‘beloved community for all people,’ both in the United States, and around the world.”—Rev. Jim Wallis, author of God’s Politics
“Eboo Patel is a remarkable young man with the wisdom to seek truth and the courage to speak it. One of America’s foremost advocates and practitioners of interfaith understanding, he has written a book that combines timely social commentary with compelling history and a wealth of personal anecdotes. Sacred Ground is a refreshing, thought-provoking, myth-smashing, and deeply patriotic exploration of American identity and ideals.”—Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright
“Sacred Ground is simultaneously a chronicle of religious tensions in post–9/11 America and an account of how to create, through trial and error and critical self-reflection, the most successful interfaith movement in the country. Patel probes like a professor, inspires like a preacher, and writes like a poet. I really loved this book; it is a tale that is truly hard to put down.”—Robert D. Putnam, author of American Grace
“Eboo Patel has been a transformative force in our young and tumultuous century. And he has an utterly original experience of what robust religious identity can mean in modern lives. With this book, he opens the idea of "inter-faith" into a vision of America that is practically informative, refreshingly challenging, and full of hope.”—Krista Tippett, host of NPR’s On Being
Delivered at the Colgate University Baccalaureate.
In the early days of Islam, when the Muslim community was small and fledgling, and being harassed and hunted by the powerful tribes of Mecca, the Prophet Muhammad -- may the Peace and Blessings of God be upon Him -- sent a delegation of his companions to a land called Abyssinia.
When they arrived, the Kingdom's ruler, a man known as the Negus, summoned them to his court and demanded they explain their purpose. Ja'far, speaking for the Muslims, said they were followers of the Prophet Muhammad, believers in the One God, reciters of the Quran -- a divine scripture which, among other things, had deep reverence for Jesus and his mother Mary.
...'I am but a messenger Come from thy Lord, to give thee A boy most pure.' She said, 'How shall I have a son whom no mortal has touched, neither have I been unchaste?' He said: 'Even so my Lord has said; "Easy is that for Me; and that We May appoint him a sign unto men And a mercy from Us"...
The sources say that the Negus and his assembled advisors wept so hard at this recitation that their beards were wet and their scrolls were soaked through. The Abyssinians were Christians, and the knowledge that an emerging religious community would hold as holy what they held as holy moved them deeply.
When I first read that story, it occurred to me that there were many ways that those Muslims could have explained their faith to the Negus. They could have shaken their fists and marked their disagreement with the Christian belief that Jesus is the Son of God. They could have wagged their fingers, and lectured the Negus and his court on the distinct notion of revelation in the Quran. Instead, they chose to extend their hand, to speak of the shared reverence for Jesus and Mary, the mutual belief in the virgin birth, the joint view that Jesus was sent by God as a messenger and as a mercy. In other words, the Muslims chose to highlight common ground.
Honestly, I hate the term "common ground." It just sounds boring. Every time it escapes my lips or gets tapped onto my keyboard, I imagine the audience preparing for a snooze. Passion, everyone seems to agree, lies with the partisans -- those who stand at either pole and volley verbal assaults. The only way to generate audience electricity, the most direct route to expressing personal authenticity, is to mark the territory of difference and erect a barrier.
God, I know the satisfaction in that. I've shaken and wagged so many times that I'm surprised I've got fists or fingers left. And precisely because I've exercised those muscles so frequently, I know intimately the many prices to be paid for singing the song of division, especially when it's put to the soundtrack of self-righteousness.
One price is fewer converts to my cause. All of my shaking and wagging has only ever succeeded in ending conversations, and sending people running in the opposite direction. In the history of the world, I don't know if anyone has ever been truly convinced of anything when staring into a shaking fist or a wagging finger.
The price I've been more attuned to recently is of the relationship lost -- the cost of what we might have learned from each other, what we could have accomplished together -- if I had just led with my hand. Wherever you stand on whatever divisive issue the headlines are screaming about -- however much we might disagree on that particular matter -- I want to reject the instinct to dig in there. I want to nurture the discipline to look elsewhere, to find common ground. The Quran says that God made us different nations and tribes so that we may come to know one another, that where there are differences, we should engage them in the best and most beautiful of ways. The term common ground might lack a little electricity -- and I'd be happy to entertain synonyms from this well-educated crowd -- but the idea is holy, and finding it is a spiritual practice. Let me give you an example.
People ask me all the time why, as a Muslim who is concerned about the intersection between religion and politics in the world, I don't talk more about the elephant in the room when it comes to interfaith relations: the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. It's not that I don't follow it, or that I don't have a point of view. I don't lead with that because, when it comes to the relationship between Muslims and Jews, there are -- stick with me on this metaphor -- other animals in the zoo. I'd much rather talk about those: the similarities between Jewish law and Muslim law, Jewish practices of charity and Muslim practices of charity, Jewish patterns of integration in America and Muslim patterns. To limit the conversation about a 1,400-year-old relationship between two great faiths that has spanned nations and civilizations and been largely mutually enriching to the experience of a few decades on a single patch of land seems to me narrow. When we concentrate only on the elephant, we not only we ignore the other animals, we also distort them. The more we talk and talk and talk about the elephant, the more every animal starts to look like an elephant.
Similarities between the Muslim view of interfaith cooperation and the Jewish view brought me to Ruth Messinger, President of American Jewish World Service, one of the most inspiring NGOs I know. Ruth has been a mentor of mine for the past 15 years, helping nurture me and Interfaith Youth Core along our journey. She came by our offices a few weeks ago and talked about the holiness of common ground. Someone on my staff asked where she got that conviction, and Ruth told this story.
Her first professional experience was in Western Oklahoma in the early 1960s. She was a Jewish woman from New York City with a graduate degree working for the government -- lots there for the locals to be suspicious about. The best place to do her job happened to be at churches. So she went. A lot. She went to formal brick churches on Sunday mornings, she went to Bible studies on porches on Wednesday evenings, she went to backyard praise gatherings on Thursdays.
I imagine Ruth did not agree with everything she heard, was probably offended by some of it. I imagine a few of the people looked at her crosseyed. But Ruth had something a lot more powerful than political and theological disagreement. Ruth had hundreds of children -- abused, neglected, orphaned children. And she needed to find foster families for them. The evangelical ministers in Western Oklahoma considered this God's work. After the sermons and the songs and the altar calls and the amen choruses, they would stand at the pulpits and point at Ruth and say, "This woman has informed me that there are four of God's children in our community who are hurting and need families to take care of them. I need four families to come forth and volunteer to do God's work with her and me and take them in."
"We always got our families, and it never took long," Ruth told my staff.
How many subjects did Ruth Messinger and those Western Oklahoma evangelicals disagree on? Those arguments could have lasted long into the night. But Ruth Messinger chose to extend a hand instead of wag a finger or shake a fist. Hundreds of children in Western Oklahoma grew up in families instead of orphanages because Ruth Messinger stood on common ground.
When I graduated from college, I had this belief that the whole world was going to take notice of my every move. If I was nice to a homeless person, everyone would be nice to homeless people. I would give the signal, and we would end homelessness. There's a Bob Dylan song about that: "Someday, everything is gonna be diff'rent, when I paint my masterpiece." Took me a while to figure out that it was satire.
Will the headlines about Afghanistan or Iraq or the election be different next month if you extend your hand a bit more? Probably not. Will cable news anchors hang it up when you commit to finding common ground? I'd be lying if I said yes. But sometimes you do things because they are important to do, because they are holy.
As William Carlos Williams writes in "Love Song":
Who shall hear of us in the time to come? Let him say there was a burst of fragrance from black branches.
The hashtag #loweshatesmuslims lit up the Twitter-sphere, thousands of people threatened to boycott, mainstream television channels started reporting on the story, star power in the form of Perez Hilton and Russell Simmons jumped on board.
Lots of other people have weighed in on the bigotry at play here. I’d like to comment on a somewhat different dynamic: the Americanization of the Muslim community, especially the immigrant segment. A community that not long ago wanted only the comfort and confinement of its own bubble is learning the great American art of building bridges.
There are bridges of three sorts being built.
The first bridge is to the influence-centers of American society. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, there were hardly any Muslims on television saying, “What you just saw was not Islam, it was just evil.” That’s not because Muslims weren’t thinking those things, it’s just that very few of us knew anything about American media or politics. That’s the moment most Muslims realized the bubble was a mistake. Muslims started becoming writers and organizers, and got savvy about media and politics.
The anti-Ground Zero Mosque campaign showed that it’s not enough to have a bridge to the influence-centers in American society, we needed the ability to respond rapidly. If the #loweshatesmuslims campaign illustrates anything, it’s that Muslims will never be Ground Zero Mosque-d again.
The second type of bridge being built is the internal one, within the Muslim community. All American Muslim generated a lot of controversy amongst Muslims, a good deal of it from more traditional believers who didn’t like the community represented by people sporting tattoos and hanging out in clubs. But once Lowe’s pulled its advertising, even high-profile orthodox Muslims like Yasir Qadhi showed their outrage at the hardware chain, and thus their implicit support for the show.
Muslims, like every religious community, have a dizzying number of internal differences - theological interpretations, political persuasions, levels of observance, etc. These differences have long dominated discourse amongst Muslims, causing ugly divisions and an unhealthy blindness to the gathering storm from without. But now that the storm is upon us, we are banding together. Muslims of one sort who might otherwise actively denounce Muslims of another sort are now finding themselves supporting one another, all under the canopy of what I call ‘Big Tent Islam.’ There is a blessing to the forces of prejudice being so brutal and blatant: it’s uniting Muslims.
Bridges run two ways, especially the bridge to other communities. Muslims are indeed the victims of ugly prejudice, but we are far from the only ones. The vicious attacks on the Mormon faith in the presidential campaign, the continuing bullying of gay kids in schools - there’s lots of ugliness out there. Where are Muslims when it comes to other people’s suffering?
You cannot ask from others what you are unwilling to give. I know that Muslims are grateful that black hip hop visionaries like Russell Simmons, gay pop icons like Perez Hilton and so many others are going out on a limb for us. But that’s simply not enough. You have to offer what you seek.
Having a reality show called All American Muslim doesn’t make you American, not in the George Washington-Jane Addams-Martin Luther King Jr sense at least. Mobilizing to defend your own rights is a start. But if we want to go all the way to the heart of this nation’s greatness, we have to follow in the footsteps of Perez Hilton, Russell Simmons and Chris Stedman. We have to do for others what they are doing for us, at the same scale, with the same profile, even if it’s risky and uncomfortable.
The single most American thing you can do is stand up for someone else.
Ten years on, I'm remembering the literature I read and the music that kept me going in the days and months after 9/11. I had Rumi and Whitman on my bedside table, reading them back to back, alternating between selections of the "Mathnawi" and poems from "Leaves of Grass", sometimes feeling like the two were one, the soul of America and the soul of Islam intersecting at some point beyond where the eye could see:
"Whoever you are, motion and reflection are especially for you,The divine ship sails the divine sea for you."-- Walt Whitman
Come, come, whoever you are,Wanderer, worshipper, lover of leaving,Ours is not a caravan of despair.Even if you have broken your vows a thousand timesIt doesn't matterCome, come yet again, come"-- Rumi
Until then, the Quran for me was a book of personal spiritual guidance, a convening symbol for my religious community. But after 9/11, I viewed it as a balm for my country's pain, especially lines from Ayat al-Kursi: "His throne extends over the heavens and the earth, and He feels no fatigue in guarding and preserving them."
I remember trying to decipher the opening noises of Wilco's "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot," and then having my breath taken away by the understated poetry: "All my lies are always wishes / I know that I would die if I could come back new." In the death of that day, how many wishes went unfulfilled, how many lies went untold, how many resolutions had no chance?
I remember the lift I felt when I first heard Bruce Springsteen's "The Rising," and the light that broke through when I went to the tour and heard him include in a song a bit that sounded like Arabic prayer. I felt like he was saying to the Muslims in the crowd, "You are a part of the us."
I remember the stories that summed up the American spirit in that moment. Salman Hamdani, an American Muslim emergency medical tech, hearing about the tragedy and rushing to the site. He perished there with his fellow American first responders. John Tateishi, head of the Japanese American Citizen's League, heard the news on the radio, felt alarm as the whispers that Muslims were to blame grew louder, saw those whispers easily turning into pointed fingers and worse. He cancelled his appointments for the next two weeks and sent a message to his organization's affiliates around the country: we are making partnership with American Muslims our highest priority. One of John's earliest memories was the day he left an internment camp in the mid-1940s. His father had told him: "Never forget this day, John, and never let this country forget it either. It is too good for what it did to us." John was going to make sure that America didn't commit the same egregious crime again with another minority community.
I visited ground zero a few months after the attacks. It was mid-winter, just past dusk, time for the Maghrib prayer. The lights were glaring at ground zero, the cranes were lifting and placing. There was a big pit in the ground, but that wasn't the main thing going on.
"What did you see," my wife asked when I returned.
Of course, you don't need to be a Unitarian Universalist to appreciate Eboo Patel's writing: Reza Aslan said that, "Acts of Faith is more than a book, it is an awakening of the mind. It should be required reading for all Americans." And former president Bill Clinton called it "a beautifully written story of discovery and hope." Since its publication in 2007, this book has been selected as a school-wide read at numerous colleges, and Eboo Patel was selected by Barack Obama for the Advisory Council in his Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.
Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker and high-profile conservative intellectual, announced today that he is officially in the running for the Republican nomination for president. Along the way he’s been playing the politics of religion.
In the speeches and media appearances he did in preparation for his run, he has emphasized two things. The first is the importance of God and morality in the public square, referencing his own conversion to Catholicism to give him credibility. The second is to rail against the dangers of Islam in America.
This two-pronged approach underscores just how far we have come in America on issues of religious tolerance, and also how far we have to go.
Just a half-century ago, John F. Kennedy’s Catholic faith was widely viewed as a significant liability to his presidential aspirations. Kennedy had to do the opposite of what Gingrich appears to be doing: effectively de-emphasize his faith, and say that it would play no role whatsoever in informing his public acts. “I am not the Catholic candidate for president,” he told the American Association of Newspaper Editors in April 1960. “I am the Democratic party’s candidate for president who happens to be Catholic. I do not speak for the Catholic Church on issues of public policy, and no one in that church speaks for me.”
The irony, of course, is that many of the same slanders leveled at the Catholic Church are now leveled at Islam in America. Catholicism was considered incompatible with liberty, democracy and pluralism. Any inroads made by Catholics into the corridors of power was considered a threat to the American way of life. Catholics were considered loyal to the autocratic Pope, not the American flag. Catholic politicians would enact policies to advantage their Church and hurt American values, everything from appointing an Ambassador to the Vatican to sending public funds to parochial schools.
The ‘No Popery’ signs of previous eras feel remarkably like the ‘No Sharia’ signs of today. The view of the Catholic faith as inherently incompatible with American values mimics today’s view of Islam. And the hysteria about the effects of increasing Catholic influence on American culture sound precisely like today’s fears about Muslims. Norman Vincent Peale, a powerful Protestant minister and a leading anti-Catholic anti-Kennedy voice, put the matter of Kennedy’s possible election in stark terms to a Who’s Who group of conservative Protestant leaders: “Our American culture is at stake.”
The historian Arthur Schlesinger Sr. wrote that anti-Catholicism was the “deepest bias in the history of the American people.” The fact that Gingrich can proudly advertise his conversion to Catholicism as a personal and presidential asset is a sign of how much progress we’ve made. But it is profoundly un-American to replace one bias with another, and even more troubling that a man whose Catholic forbears experienced discrimination because of their religion should turn around and peddle such prejudice himself.
The forces of inclusiveness in America always turn back the forces of intolerance – we’ve seen it in the defeat of anti-Semitism, anti-Catholicism and segregation. Gingrich, who has a PhD in history, is well aware of this. Which makes it all the more surprising that he is willing to risk being remembered on the wrong side of that divide.
The death or defeat of an enemy brings on a difficult moral conundrum: how to resolve our baser instincts or feelings of having achieved "justice" for a wrong with the principles of our religious and ethical traditions. Beacon Broadside asked several of our authors for their responses to the death of Osama bin Laden, and what they feel is required of them by their respective faiths. Today, we have the answers of Eboo Patel, Susan Campbell, and Dan McKanan. Tomorrow, we will post responses from Rev. Marilyn Sewell, Christopher Stedman, and Jay Michaelson. (UPDATE: read part 2 here.)
I read about the assassination of Osama bin Laden as a Muslim with a strong Niebhurian streak. This is to say: we have to be clear-eyed in the recognition of evil, we have to put a stop to it if we have the ability and we have to seek peace in multiple creative ways. Niebhur believed this with regards to America's battle against Nazism, the Prophet did this with regards to the Quraysh tribe of Mecca, who were intent on destroying the fledgling Muslim community.
As has been said about Bonhoeffer, the Christian pacifist who plotted to assassinate Hitler: when you see a crazy man driving a car into a group of children, you have to stop the man.
America did that when it came to Hitler, Milosovic, and now bin Laden. In this case, it happened with targeted precision such that very few others perished in the actual operation. There is little doubt there will be more life (meaning, literally, fewer people being killed) in the future as result of this death.
I love my country, I love my flag, and I find absolutely nothing in the teachings of Jesus that supports the assassination of the terrorist Osama bin Laden.
Bin Laden had, by all accounts, moved to the periphery, and we've been mesmerized by the developments in our Arab spring, where countless citizens were taking to the streets in Tunisia, in Egypt, in Syria, in Yemen, to say that bin Laden was precisely the kind of leader they don't want.
And then we shot him.
Jesus talked about vengeance when He tweaked the notion of taking an eye for an eye. He told followers to match their enemies' evil with prayer and love. The most unthinkable evil (bin Laden) calls us to love.
And that's immeasurably hard, according respect to someone we just don't respect, giving fairness and decency to someone who's responsible for the death of so many.
But that, nevertheless, is the rule. I think those crowds celebrating bin Laden's death outside the White House that night were clinging to the idea that his death would somehow balance the scales. It hasn't and it won't. Killing -- and burying him at sea -- stole our opportunity to bring him to trial, and let him defend himself -- with complete transparency in our judicial system, not a military tribunal. It robbed from us an opportunity to reaffirm that these are our values -- and to remind the world that we are bigger than a terrorist act. By treating bin Laden far better than he ever thought to treat those he killed on 9/11, we could have told the world that even our most despised enemy can expect fairness and decency. We could have told everyone that we are bigger than that.
Or, rather, I wish we were.
Author photo by Marc Yves Regis.
Dan McKanan is the author of Prophetic Encounters: Religion and the American Radical Tradition. He is the Ralph Waldo Emerson Unitarian Universalist Association Senior Lecturer at Harvard Divinity School.
The tenets of Unitarian Universalism do not require me to respond in any specific way to the death of an enemy. Instead, Unitarian Universalism—as would be the case for most other faiths—offers me a rich array of resources for developing an authentic individual response. These resources include the Unitarian Universalist Principles—which are commonly affirmed by Unitarian Universalist congregations but not doctrinally binding on individual Unitarian Universalists—as well as the collective stories of those who have preceded us in the faith.
Two of the Principles shape my own response to the death of Osama bin Laden, as well as the deaths of enemies in general. The first principle, which affirms “the inherent worth and dignity of every person,” suggests that my response to the killing of an enemy should be one of prophetic protest. “Not in my name!” I say to all those who celebrate bin Laden’s death as retribution for the murders he perpetrated on September 11. If all people, those who kill and those who are killed, have inherent dignity, then mourning and reconciliation are better responses to violence than retaliation.
The question, of course, is not specifically about the killing of enemies but more broadly about the death of enemies. What would my response be if bin Laden had died of natural causes at the end of a long life? In that case, I think, the appropriate response would be simple mourning. Indeed, in one sense the death of an enemy is more an occasion for lamentation than the death of a beloved grandparent. My thinking here is shaped by the seventh Unitarian Universalist principle, “respect for the interdependent web of existence.” If all life is interwoven, then every enmity is a rip in the shared web—and the death of an enemy means we have lost our best opportunity to weave the broken threads back together. We often use the phrase “celebration of life” to describe the funerals of our friends, and when those friends have lived full lives those funerals often have a truly celebratory feel. That is as it should be. But even if bin Laden had lived to be a hundred, his death would have been an occasion for sackcloth and ashes if he had remained unrepentant, and thus unreconciled with all those he harmed.
In reaching beyond the UU principles toward the shared stories of faith, I turn especially toward the story of Jesus, because I identify as a UU Christian, just as other Unitarian Universalists may claim Jewish, Buddhist, pagan, or humanist identities. Like other Christians, I find in Jesus’ story reason to hope that death does not have the last word. Some would express this hope in dogmatic claims about resurrection and eternal life; I prefer to speak more tentatively about the experiences of Jesus and his friends. In the face of the death-dealing powers of empire, Jesus lived a full, rich life. Even after the empire killed him, his friends experienced him as still alive in their circle. When they gathered to break bread and tell stories, they felt he was there with them. Curiously, Christians have seldom reflected on what this experience might teach us about the death of our enemies.
I have no way of knowing for sure, but I suspect that some of Osama bin Laden’s disciples and admirers are currently having an experience not unlike that of Jesus’ disciples between Easter and Pentecost. In the midst of their mourning, they may have felt bin Laden’s spirit still moving among them, still inspiring fervent love for their faith and fervent hate for those of us they regard as enemies. Many of us may regard this analogy between bin Laden and Jesus as monstrous. But perhaps what remains alive of bin Laden’s spirit is not so much his hate as his fervent faith. In his own life, that fervor was terribly twisted; as it is carried by his followers, it still has the potential to be untwisted. If death does not have the last word, our mourning of bin Laden’s death should lead us to redoubled efforts to reconcile with his friends.
The people of the United States, of course, have ample opportunities to pursue such reconciliation. Many of bin Laden’s most devoted followers remain imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay. (Many who never had much to do with him are also held there, but here I want to focus on those who are truly enemies—those who committed horrible violence out of twisted love for bin Laden or for Islam.) For ten years we have treated these traumatized and idealistic young people as if they were not part of the interdependent web, as if their suffering could not hurt us, as if they had no gifts to share with the world. Bin Laden’s death can be a time for us to open our ears to their voices and our hearts to their truth. I am not suggesting that we “forgive” them without talking to them, but simply that we start treating them as human beings rather than enemy combatants. Some of them may be more than ready for reconciliation. Others may not—but even for those, a bit of kindness may open up a long path toward repentance.
As I write these words, I am conscious that many of us may feel more visceral enmity toward those who have harmed us personally, or even toward our political rivals, than we do toward bin Laden. It is easy for me to preach about what the U.S. should do in Guantanamo; much harder to pursue genuine reconciliation with my own most intimate enemies. When I mourn bin Laden’s death, I mourn those enmities as well. And, since all life is interwoven, it is likely that reconciliation with those intimate enemies will create more chances for reconciliation with bin Laden and his friends.
Named by US News & World Report as one of America’s Best Leaders of 2009, Eboo Patel is the founder and Executive Director of Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), a Chicago-based institution building the global interfaith youth movement. Author of the award-winning book Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation, Eboo is also a regular contributor to the Washington Post, National Public Radio and CNN. He is a member of President Obama’s Advisory Council of the White House Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, and holds a doctorate in the sociology of religion from Oxford University, where he studied on a Rhodes scholarship. This post originally appeared on his blog The Faith Divide at the Washington Post.
As I listened to President Obama explain the chain of events that led to the killing of Osama bin Laden, I couldn’t help but think of my friend Eric Greitens. Eric’s doctorate at Oxford was on the effects of war on children. Imagine my surprise when he told me that he was training to be a Navy Seal.
“But you know how terrible war is, you have been with the orphaned children,” I sputtered. “How can you participate in it?”
“It is guys with guns that end wars, Eboo,” he told me.
Eric deployed four times over the last ten years, earning a bronze star and a purple heart. One of his missions was to command a Navy Seal cell that targeted al Qaeda. It was likely some of Eric’s buddies - guys he trained with, maybe guys he trained - that got bin Laden.
Eric titled his book,The Heart and the Fist, for a reason. He knows as well as anyone that you may well need the fist to crush evil but you need the heart to radiate good. The fist is fine for defeating enemies, but the heart is what builds societies.
That’s what I liked about Obama’s speech yesterday. He was very clearly our commander in chief - recounting how he told C.I.A. Director Leon Panetta to make the capture or killing of Osama bin Laden his top priority, getting frequent briefings on the relevant intelligence and giving the final order that authorized the fatal mission. His demeanor was focused and serious. ‘I did what had to be done,’ he seemed to be saying.
Vanquishing evil is necessary but insufficient.
Obama seemed most human to me, most American, most presidential, when he spoke of life, not death. He recalled America in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, a nation shocked and grieving, a country focused more on community than revenge:
“On September 11, 2001, in our time of grief, the American people came together. We offered our neighbors a hand, and we offered the wounded our blood. We reaffirmed our ties to each other, and our love of community and country. On that day, no matter where we came from, what God we prayed to, or what race or ethnicity we were, we were united as one American family.”
That line brought to mind two key moments. The first involves George Bush. A lot of Americans think of the fist when they think of the post-9/11 George Bush. But I think at least as defining as his roar at Ground Zero and his boasting of “Wanted: Dead or Alive” posters was his visit to an Islamic Center six days after 9/11. There, he spoke movingly not only of Islam being a peaceful faith but about how Muslim women with headscarves ought to feel safe in this country:
“I’ve been told that some fear to leave; some don’t want to go shopping for their families; some don’t want to go about their ordinary daily routines because, by wearing cover, they’re afraid they’ll be intimidated. That should not and that will not stand in America.”
He went on to make it clear whose side he was on, which America he hoped to build.
“Those who feel like they can intimidate our fellow citizens to take out their anger don’t represent the best of America, they represent the worst of humankind, and they should be ashamed of that kind of behavior.”
The second moment took place nearly a year later, on September 25, 2002 - Bruce Springsteen at the United Center. During the climax of “The Rising,” as Springsteen was singing - Sky of longing and emptiness (a dream of life), Sky of fullness, sky of blessed life (a dream of life) - I saw out of the corner of my eye a young woman in a Muslim headscarf, eyes closed, hands raised.
Woody Guthrie had a message scrawled on his guitar: “This machine kills fascists.”
Sometimes you need the aid of guns in that mission. But when we think of who we want to be, not just what we need to destroy, American guns are second to American guitars.
Named by US News & World Report as one of America’s Best Leaders of 2009, Eboo Patel is the founder and Executive Director of Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), a Chicago-based institution building the global interfaith youth movement. Author of the award-winning book Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation, Eboo is also a regular contributor to the Washington Post, National Public Radio and CNN. He is a member of President Obama’s Advisory Council of the White House Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, and holds a doctorate in the sociology of religion from Oxford University, where he studied on a Rhodes scholarship.
One hundred years ago, the great African-American scholar W.E.B. DuBois famously wrote, "The problem of the 20th century will be the problem of the color line."
History proved DuBois correct. His century saw the struggles against, and ultimately the victory over, systems that separated and subjugated people based on race -- from colonialism in India to Jim Crow in the U.S. to apartheid in South Africa.
No American did more than Martin Luther King Jr. -- whom America pauses to honor today -- to address the problem of the color line. He spearheaded the marches that revealed the brutality of segregation, made speeches that reminded Americans that the promise of their nation applied to all citizens and expertly pressured the nation's leaders in Washington to pass landmark civil rights legislation.
But to confine King's role in history only to the color line -- as giant as that challenge is, and as dramatic as King's contribution was -- is to reduce his greatness. In one of his final books, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community, King showed that race was one part of his broader concern with human relations at large: "This is the great new problem of mankind. We have inherited ... a great 'world house' in which we have to live together -- black and white, Easterner and Westerner, Gentile and Jew, Catholic and Protestant, Muslim and Hindu ... Because we can never again live apart, we must learn somehow to live with each other in peace."
This ethos, as King's examples make clear, applies not only to the question of race, but to faith as well. In the same way as the headlines of the 20th century read of conflict between races, headlines in our times are full of violence between people of different religions. Indeed, what the color line was to the 20th century, the faith line might be to the 21st.
Eid al Adha began yesterday, marking the end of the annual Hajj, or pilgrimage, to Mecca. In this excerpt from Eboo Patel's acclaimed memoir, Acts of Faith, Patel shares a story of pilgrimage, cultural and religious diversity, and compromise from the life of the Prophet.
We humans know violence well. It is a part of each of us. It is precisely the reason I was drawn to religion in the first place. Somehow, the religious people I admired overcame the human desire to hurt others. Tibetan Buddhist masters talked about their struggle to love their Chinese tormentors. Mahatma Gandhi spent his time in a South African prison making sandals for his jailer. Pope John Paul II met with the man who tried to assassinate him, and forgave him.
Dorothy Day once said that she created the Catholic Worker because she wanted a place where people could be better. It was one ofthe key reasons I spent so much time there as a college student. I wanted to overcome those parts of me that would tackle somebody from behind. I wanted to be good.
It was in Islam that I found the clearest articulation of this inner struggle. The story goes like this: As a victorious Muslim army was celebrating its triumph in battle, the Prophet Muhammad told the men they had won only the “lesser jihad.” Now, he said, they had to mov eon to the “greater jihad”—the jihad al-nafs, the struggle against their lower selves. The first time I read that, I felt as if the Prophet was speaking directly to me, as if he could see the thousands of times in my life that my lower self had won, as if he was personally returning Islam to my consciousness.
There is another event in the history of Islam that, for me, defines the religious spirit in the world, and the meaning of lasting victory. It is the signing of the Treaty of Hudaybiyah and the Prophet’s peaceful return to Mecca. After years of defending himself and his fellow Muslims in Medina against aggressive military assaults by the Quraysh, a powerful tribe based in Mecca, Muhammad decided to launch a religious peace offensive. In the year 628, he announced to the Muslim community in Medina that he was going to make a holy pilgrimage to the Ka’aba, the black shrine in Mecca that Abraham built to God. Against the advice of his closest companions, who were convinced that the Quraysh would take this chance to murder him, Muhammad refused to carry arms. He set forth dressed in the simple, white, two-piece outfit still worn by Muslims making the hajj today, uttering the cry “Labbayk Allahuma Labbayk” (Here I am, O God, at Your service). A thousand Muslims accompanied him, many questioning the wisdom of making a religious pilgrimage in the direction of an enemy that wanted war.
The Quraysh sent a war party of two hundred cavalry to prevent Muhammad from entering the city. The Prophet steered his companions toward Hudaybiyah, at the edge of the Sanctuary, where all fighting was forbidden, sending a message to the Quraysh that he came in peace. He reminded his companions that they were on a religious quest and as such should prepare to repent and ask God’s forgiveness for their sins. No doubt some of them were confused about why Muhammad was making spiritual preparations instead of war preparations. But Muhammad, guided by revelations from God, knew that ultimate victory for Islam did not mean violently defeating the enemy, but peacefully reconciling with them. Achieving this required an act of personal humility and self-effacement that shocked even his closest companions.
After being convinced that Muhammad was not going to engage them in battle, the Quraysh sent Suhayl, one of their most stridently anti-Muslim leaders, to negotiate a settlement. The two sat togetherfor a long time, finally agreeing to terms that the Muslims felt were deeply unfair but that Muhammad insisted they accept. The Muslims would be allowed to do the holy pilgrimage in peace, but not now. They would have to go back to Medina and wait a whole year before returning. Also, the Muslims would have to repatriate any Meccan who had converted to Islam and immigrated to Medina to be with the Prophet without the permission of his guardian. One source writes that the Prophet’s companions “felt depressed almost to the point of death” when they saw the settlement. Umar, one of the Prophet’s closest associates, said, “Why should we agree to what is demeaning to our religion?” But the greatest shock was still to come.
When it came time to sign the treaty, Suhayl objected to the statement,“This is what Muhammad, the apostle of God, has agreed with Suhayl ibn Amr.” He said that if he recognized Muhammad as the apostle of God, they would not be in a situation of war to begin with. “Write down your own name and the name of your father,” Suhayl instructed the Prophet. To the utter despair of his companions, Muhammad agreed. He told Ali, his son-in-law who would later become the first Shia Imam, to strike the words “apostle of God” from the treaty. Ali could not bring himself to do it. So the illiterate Prophet asked Ali to point to the words on the paper, took the pen, and struck them himself.
On the journey home to Medina, with the bitter taste of humiliation still fresh in the mouths of his companions, the Prophet received a revelation that would come to be known as the Victory Sura, chapter 48 in the Holy Qur’an. In it, God told the Prophet, “Surely We have given thee / a manifest victory.” The sura states that God Himself was involved in the situation: “It is He who sent down the sakina/ into the hearts of the believers, that / they might add faith to their faith.” The Arabic term sakina loosely translates as “the peace, tranquillity,and presence of God” and is thought to be related to the Hebrew term shekinah. The sura closes with the following lines: “God has promised / those of them who believe in and do deeds / of righteousness, forgiveness and / a mighty wage.”
The following year, as promised, Muhammad returned with nearly three thousand pilgrims to perform the pilgrimage. His enemies, holding up their end of the bargain, vacated the city and watched the Muslims do the ritual circumambulations around the Ka’aba and run seven times between the hills of Safa and Marwah. They were shocked to see Bilal, a black Abyssinian who had been a slave in Mecca before being freed by the Muslims, climbing to the top of the Ka’aba several times a day to give the call to prayer, a position of honor in Islam. Muhammad heard that a woman had recently been widowed and offered to marry her, thus taking her into his protection. He invited his Quraysh enemies to the wedding feast. They refused and told him his three days were up. The Muslims left with the same discipline and grace with which they had entered. It was a powerful image that many Quraysh would not soon forget.
When Muhammad returned to Mecca a year later, those who had taken up arms against him converted to Islam in droves. Muhammad granted a near total amnesty to the Quraysh, despite the fact that many had fought battles against him in the past and regardless of whether they converted to Islam or not. To the surprise of some of his companions, he even gave high office to some of the people who, a short time before, had been his sworn enemies. But Muhammad was not interested in punishment. He was interested in a positive future,and he knew that would be accomplished only by widening the space so that people could enter it.
During this time, God sent Muhammad a revelation about relations between different communities in a diverse society:
O mankind, We have created you male and female, and appointed you races and tribes, that you may know one another. Surely the noblest among you in the sight of God is the most righteous.
For me, the Treaty of Hudaybiyah and the peaceful return of Muhammad to Mecca are the defining moments of Islam. They exemplify the genius of the Prophet, the generosity of God, and the bright possibility of a common life together. It is an ancient example of how a religiously inspired peace movement can win a victory not by defeating the enemy, but by turning them into friends.
As I think now of the civil rights marchers in Selma and Birmingham, Alabama, I cannot help but hear the message of “Labbayk AllahumaLabbayk” in their songs. I cannot help but see the Prophet at Hudaybiyah as I reflect on Martin Luther King Jr. staring at his bombed-out home in Montgomery, Alabama, and calming the agitated crowd by saying, “We must meet hate with love.” I cannot help but glimpse the spirit of the Holy Qur’an’s message on pluralism in the lines that King uttered at the end of the Montgomery bus boycott: “We have before us the glorious opportunity to inject a new dimension of love into the veins of our civilization . . . The end is reconciliation,the end is redemption, the end is the creation of the beloved community.” I cannot help but believe that Allah’s sakina is a force that has reappeared across time and place whenever righteous people are overcoming the tribal urges of humanity’s lower self with a message of transcendence.
"Acts of Faith, a beautifully written story of discovery and hope, chronicles Dr. Eboo Patel's struggle to forge his identity as a Muslim, an Indian, and an American. In the process, he developed a deep reverence for what all faiths have in common, and founded an interfaith movement to help young people to embrace their common humanity through their faith. This young social entrepreneur offers us a powerful way to deal with one of the most important issues of our time." —President Bill Clinton
Eboo Patel grew up outside of Chicago, subject to a constant barrage of racist bullying, and unsure of what it meant to be Muslim. In high school he rejected everything about his Indian and Muslim heritage and excelled in academics in an attempt to be like the white Americans around him. In college, this illusion came undone as Patel discovered the liberatory power of identity politics—and a deep rage at the inequities and hypocrisies of America.
He soon learned that anger is not an identity. As the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, the Atlanta Olympics bombing, and 9/11 occurred, Patel saw how religious extremists recruited young people with similar raw emotions and manipulated them into becoming hate-filled murderers. He, on the other hand, was encountering a set of people and ideas that illuminated a different understanding: an America striving to achieve its core value of openness to all; an Islam seeking to return to its primary teachings of mercy and reconciliation; an India with diversity woven into its original fabric. Patel's most important discovery was not about his relationship with his past but about his concrete responsibility to make the best part of that past—the possibility of pluralism—a reality in the contemporary world.
Beacon Press has just released a new edition of the paperback of Acts of Faith, with a new afterword by the author. Read an excerpt from the book below or on Scribd.
Can you believe that, at one point, women couldn't vote in America? That Japanese American citizens were put in detention camps because of the actions of the Imperial Japanese Navy? That Jackie Robinson was spat upon on the baseball diamond because of the color of his skin? That there were quotas on Jews at Ivy League Universities? That mosques were opposed across the country and a shocking number of people suggested a Muslim should be disqualified from the Supreme Court or the Presidency because of his religion?
Oh yeah, that last one is still happening. But one day, I promise you, we will be as ashamed of the way American Muslims are viewed and treated in 2010 as we are of Japanese internment and Jim Crow. America's promise is meant for everyone or we are not America.
But the tide is turning. Several articles over this past week are shining a spotlight on the forces of division that manufactured the "ground zero mosque" controversy. The piecesreveal a small cabal of professional Muslim haters who gleefully found an issue that resonated with a larger public.
Did American Muslims just get compared to Nazi's on national TV?
The previous line was that moderate Muslims were not doing enough to
stand up against the extremists. Now the category "moderate Muslim" has
effectively ceased to exist for huge swaths of the country. In this
alternative reality, Muslims, by definition, are extreme. All 1.5
billion of us, including your American Muslim neighbor.
Somebody call George Bush. His country needs him. Bad.
Independence Day reminds us not only of our rights as Americans, but also of our rights as human beings on a global scale. This week, our authors have been using their freedom of speech to promote further rights in fields such as education, religion, and LGBT law. Take a look at what they have been up to.
In Steve Wilson's book, The Boys from Little Mexico, one all-Hispanic boys' soccer team surpasses ethnic boundaries and personal struggles to win the Oregon state championship. Recently quoted in Newsweek, Wilson praises the Mexican-American players in the World Cup and their drive for success. The Oregon newspaper, the Woodburn Independent, ran a review for Wilson's book, praising it for taking the local story to a national level.
In his book From the Closet to the Courtroom, Carlos Ball discusses in rich detail five lawsuits that have affected LGBT rights for Americans. In a poignant article for the Huffington Post, Ball poses the question "Is it time for gay federal judges?" Diversity Inc. posted a short interview with the author and the Advocate.com recently ran an excerpt from the book on the topic of high school harassment. An outstanding review of the book was recently posted on Lambda Literary stating "[Ball] appeals to the hearts of his readers by fleshing out the human players in each chapter without sacrificing scholarship."
Harassment often led to violence for our next author, Geoffrey Canada, whose memoir Fist Stick Knife Gun recounts the dangers of growing up in the South Bronx. Waiting for Superman—a new documentary on America's failing education system featuring Canada—was mentioned in Entertainment Weekly. As buzz for the film begins to grow, Geoffrey Canada speaks in a brief interview about his personal feelings towards his childhood when his ideal image of Superman was rocked by the harsh realities of life.
Education is failing in both American schools and juvenile penitentiary systems according to David Chura, author of I Don't Wish Nobody to Have a Life Like Mine. Listen to an interview with Chura on KPFA's Flashpoints(starting 43 minutes into the program) discussing the realities of juvenile incarceration. Listen to another interview with Chura on WMUA Writer's Voice where he describes how the war on crime is synonymous with the war on kids.
Finally, in celebration of UUA's General Assembly in Minneapolis, Beacon authors John Buehrens and Rebecca Ann Parker appeared on the radio program State of Belief to discuss their views on social activism and religion. In their book, A House for Hope, the authors describe a shared momentum among religious progressives and the impact they have on the 21st century. Eboo Patel, author of Acts of Faith, also appeared on the show, discussing his interactions with the Dalai Lama in strengthening Buddhist-Muslim ideals.