Monday, November 30, 2015

Colonialism, new and old

Here’s a different way of looking at how the world has changed since 1950. It’s a bit circuitous, but I think it illuminates something. Malidoma Some experienced a very direct effect of the colonialism as an African in a country occupied by the French and their missionaries. The colonial period was ending and he ended up attending the University at Sorbonne. Western countries now frown upon such colonial practices.

Western countries still do enforce their power over less developed nations, but it’s much more subtle. How those less developed nations respond is also complex and varied. I’m not going to attempt to sort out all of those factors, but I will make a broader comparison from the old Western colonialists to the current super powers. They are acting differently and how they are opposed has evolved.

Malidoma talks about the value of indigenous culture and how it can be applied to the modern world. I’m taking that and applying it to the relationship to the Muslim world. Hopefully I explain enough of his story to make this blog coherent. This is the story I’m referring to:

This book describes a major shift in the relationship of the 1st and 3rd world that occurred in the middle of the last century. It does it by telling the story of one man, from his perspective, as he experienced that shift. He was a boy in an African village and was kidnapped by a French missionary and forced to go to their school. The French would train these boys to be priests who would then return to their native villages and attempt to convert more souls to Christ. First, imagine that happening today, and what the world’s reaction would be.

Compare this indoctrination to the indoctrination happening in the Madrasas today. Those African boys in Christian missionaries received a complete education, the actual history of France, all of the corruption and political problems. Young boys in Afghanistan get a very limited view of the world. When they graduated from the French missionaries, they were given the choice of becoming a priest or not, they were not given orders. The Syrian boys might graduate to suicide bomber. The indoctrination was effective enough for most of them. But Malidoma was smarter than average and saw that his teachers could not make good arguments for continuing the French occupation. He saw the changes coming. He escaped back to his village and asked them to teach him their traditional tribal ways.

The closest equivalents we have today to people who have escaped are moderate Muslims. People like Majid Nawaz who once recruited people to the cause of Islamist power but are now progressive and speak against “Islamism”. But people like that learned about Islamic history from “Westernized” “modern” means. There are no traditional villages of Muslims because that religion was born in an empire and it expanded that empire to one of the most successful in history. Islam is not some quaint indigenous culture with ideas about living in harmony with the land. It’s a defeated empire with memories of being defeated by empires that are currently expanding.

The recruiters of terrorism have learned from the history of the colonialists. They aren’t going to teach actual history. They aren’t going to encourage democracy or equal rights or tolerance. They have been training Imams and sending them into the modern world and slowly bringing their version of their religion to the forefront. But they would have lost the battle of ideas if they would have continued to only have a battle of ideas. After a few failed attempts, they have managed to build an army to be reckoned with.

Most of us are not soldiers. But all of us have ideas about what peace is, about what place religion should take in the modern world, about how women should be treated. We can fight those battles every day. We do that by acting peacefully and treating people with dignity. We do that by welcoming strangers and helping those in need. These world-wide struggles for power will continue, but we will always have each other. 

In case you aren't aware of how children are indoctrinated into terrorism:

Monday, November 16, 2015

Faith Without Fear

After my not so flattering posts about Irshad Manji, I thought I should take a closer look. I ordered her episode from PBS series “America at a Crossroads”, titled “Faith Without Fear”. It was a very personal documentary, featuring some intimate moments with her mother. Through that she helps you explore the ideas of faith and tribalism. I can't find it for free anywhere, but it was only $9 and had lots of extras.

Here are her closing thoughts. Although this was done in 2006, they are very timely.
I began my mission wanting to learn how we Muslims can change for the 21st century. Here's what I've discovered. We can no longer live by 7th century tribal culture. It distorts Islam today. I've also discovered that being offended is not the same as being oppressed. In a diverse world, offense is to be expected, so is debate. And we've got a tradition of debate, ijtihad. By honoring it, more Muslims could speak their minds and bust out of tribal conformity. My fellow Muslims, I have faith in our potential to change.

One of the extras is her doing a Q & A after a screening in a very Muslim neighborhood in Detroit. As I mentioned in the earlier blogs, she talks about something called ijtihad, a philosophy of exploration and learning and acceptance of the ideas of other cultures. Someone questions that if this becomes a new ideology of the Islamic world, couldn't it be misused in the same way Osama bin Laden has misused other teachings of Islam.

She completely agrees. But she says, let's do it anyway. Let's let those ideas flower and see what comes of it. I can't know what else she said since I wasn't there and it could be that she was very aware of the somewhat hostile environment she was in at the time. I hope she would have a more subtle or even more critical response to that question if she were in a different environment. 

A tribal and cultural ideology that is open to interpretation and can be used to manipulate is one thing. An idea that can be expressed in different cultures but carries with it universal values of love, peace, tolerance and the promotion of human flourishing and the understanding of the needs of all creatures and the whole planet is something else entirely. I think ijtihad is intended to promote the latter.

Ideas like this address not only religious fundamentalism, they address any oppressor or aggressor. They address the guy in Montana with guns in his basement waiting for the infrastructure to collapse. They address Pol Pot who answered to no god. They address any form of empiralism, no matter what ideological claims of righteous are behind it. 

Sunday, November 8, 2015

That's what I'm saying

I went looking for more on Irshad Manji, the author of the book review that I responded to last week. That led me to the interview below. If you would, read what I have to say, then see what you think about her idea of “reclaiming God's good name.”

The more I listen to so-called moderate believers, the more I find that we are in almost total agreement. They are saying that their prophet, Jesus, Mohammad or Buddha or whomever challenged the earlier prophets. That the religion they created was a step forward for human progress, a movement of love and inclusion and forgiveness that did not exist before they came along. They then use that to justify continuing to study their prophet's words and actions thousands of years later.

I agree, almost. When the New Testament was written, Jews were enslaved, they had no homeland, no army. Rome was a brutally oppressive society with a pantheon of gods and emperors who were claiming to be born of a virgin and claiming they were gods. When the Koran was written, female babies were killed and tribes traded off enslaving each other as power shifted back and forth. Gautama Buddha was born into a wealthy family that kept him isolated from the horrors of the caste system. When his eyes were opened to it, he knew it had to change.

The story of Jesus challenged not only the Romans and their gods, but it directly spoke to the corruption within Judaism. This can be found in the early chapters of the book of Mark, as well in the character of Herod, a puppet Jewish King who cut deals with the Romans and of course Judas selling out to the High Priests. Even ignoring the scripture and just looking at how the early Christians acted shows a break from traditions. They held small meetings in homes where women studied alongside men and they took care of their neighbors, regardless of their backgrounds.

I hear words and passages thrown around when moderate Muslims talk about the Islamic golden age, between 800 and 1200. They may use ijtihad, which has to do with reasoning, or falsafa, meaning philosophy. I'm not sure where exactly these are in the scripture, and when I've seen them, they are mixed with praise for Allah. I don't really care. I note that they are explicitly honored in Islam as opposed to the way philosophy and thinking are denigrated in the Bible, but words from history only matter if they did indeed influence a culture. We know that Muslims built libraries, improved their infrastructure, their agriculture, wrote poetry and generally flourished while Europeans were 99% illiterate and worrying about the end of times.

But of course all this ended. We know more about the tribal aspects of Islam that are left over from before Mohammed than we do about the progressive movement that people would have actually embraced at the time. Conquering was the normal course of events at the time, so the fact that they swept across North African “converting” people was partially due to their military power, but just as important was that the conquered people accepted them as leaders because they did a better job than the idiots they overthrew. And they allowed people to practice the religion of their choice, with restrictions, but it was allowed.

When I say I “almost agree” with these moderates about how their religions are based on peaceful and progressive ideas, I'm not not sure where we actually disagree because they won't talk about why those progressive movements failed. Once you start talking about how the Catholics eventually partnered with the Romans and started burning pagan churches or how the Islamic golden age ended and Jews were expelled from the universities and the death penalty for apostasy was actually enforced, the discussion becomes irrational. You get accused of bringing up the worst aspects of religion or of cherry picking history. This is ridiculous of course because it is they who are refusing to discuss that history and only want to discuss the times and the players in history that promoted what we now think of as modern ethical behavior.

I don't bring up Augustine or Al-Kahzali as proof that religion will always fail, I bring them up to ask the question of why did the progressive movements fail? For that matter, why are they failing now? Right now, we are all hoping that the leaders of the Westboro United Baptist Church will just die and no one will replace them or continue on with that work. They don't allow anyone to have a reasonable conversation with them and I don't know of anyone interested in trying. Once someone has chosen the Bible as their only guide for how to act in the world, it is not possible to use that Bible to change their minds. But just because you aren't a Bible thumping fundamentalist, it doesn't automatically make you reasonable. What is the progressive movement doing to directly address the problems created by fundamentalism? 

The first century was a time when Jews changed how they looked at their own laws by bringing in a new way of relating to god. Slavery ended because the world grew to where more people could see that no single tribe had a special place in the hierarchy and that thinking that way was toxic to the world. Homosexuality is gaining more and more acceptance because we are gaining a better understanding of the mind and we know that just because we don't have certain impulses that doesn't mean other people don't. We have learned to examine right and wrong by examining the whole world, all living things, the entire eco-system and the future of the planet. Soon we will be considering the future of other planets.

Those religious movements failed because they couldn't incorporate new information fast enough. The Islamic movement is the last time in history that a new world view took hold and united enough people to become an empire and last for generations. Cultures were already mixing and oddly enough, Islam accelerated that by taking paper making from China and translating and copying knowledge from all over and spreading it further West. When they got to translating not only the words but the ideas of the ancient Greek texts they reawakened philosophies that had been lost due to the barbarism of the 4th and 5th centuries. After that, people had tools to question why they were being forced to worship a god. They began to expect a logical argument for it.

Where I agree with these moderates is on the amazing work some small groups of people in history have done to bring reason and progress into cultures that were literally killing babies and promoting horrendous acts we would never allow today. What they don't want to discuss is that those same small groups also had some backwards ideas about where the universe came from and how to deal with meat products or what clothes we should wear. We've dealt with many of those beliefs and they don't seem to mind that we all break most of the rules every day, but if you suggest something like their prophet does not deserve to be worshiped or that prayer doesn't work or the resurrection didn't happen, they lose the ability to form a coherent argument, sometimes to form a coherent sentence. If you suggest we shouldn't teach children these things until they are old enough to think critically, they bring up ethics and traditions and community and other issues that to me are completely unrelated.

My suggestion, and I have brought this up with pastors, friends and whomever cares to engage me, is that their prophet had something to say, and so did a bunch of other prophets and philosophers. Why not just include them all? Why fight over which character in a story is the coolest and instead really dig into which ideas can actually bring about progress right now? I have as yet not received an answer. 

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Regressive Liberalism

This blog won't make much sense if you don't read this article first. It's a review of book that is a discussion between an anti-religion atheist and a progressive Muslim. It just came out so I haven't read it yet, but I'm familiar with one of the authors. I’m not familiar with Irshad Manji, or her TED talk, but I don’t deny she’s accurately describing uncivil behavior. I’m sure her positive assessment of Harris’ new book, co-authored by Maajid Nawaz is also accurate.

The article begins where the book does and where the world is at, that is “interpretation is everything”, and there are a lot of people who believe their interpretation is the only correct one. They don’t even accept that their's is an interpretation, but simply a statement of truth that has been revealed and is beyond question. A world with enough weapons to destroy all living things can’t survive with that sort of thinking.

It falls on non-Muslims from secular nations to understand all the distinctions of political, revolutionary and militant Islam and how discrimination exists even in liberal Democratic states and how that affects Islam. I’m less qualified on Muslim culture, but don’t think it is beyond reason to expect Muslims to understand how their own culture is incubating the misinterpretations that lead to what Nawaz calls “Islamism”. Harris, a product of a secular liberal democracy, has no problem pointing out the influence of religious beliefs on a group like the Islamic State, and wonders why more liberals don’t join him.

At this point, Manji goes a bit off the rails of reality and says Harris and other atheists don’t make enough noise about hatred toward Muslims. From what I know of Harris, he has standards and values and he applies them evenly. When Manji says, “The caricature of faith to which some atheists resort is proof positive” (of the irrationality of humans), I think she is pulling the cover back over Islamist extremism. That cover has been used to gain sympathy for decades. It’s one thing to get sympathy for oppressed people, yet another to expect sympathy of cultural differences that break universal norms.

There are clear differences between a violent act that draws attention to the plight of the oppressed and the acts of an oppressor attempting to gain or maintain power. People use faith to justify violence, that’s not a caricature. Manji needs to clarify what she is talking about, because it doesn’t work as support for her argument here.

Manji really fails in her analysis of Nawaz’s solutions. She says “ideas are abstract, a feeble bulwark against the emotional comfort of belonging to tribes”. The “ideas” of human rights and democracy, are much less abstract than believing in a savor or worshiping a prophet. She admitted it’s all about interpretation earlier, but now seems willing to say that’s fine as long it’s comforting. Se commits the fallacy of caricature that she just put down when she says by “secular” Nawaz meant “American separation of church and state”. That is hardly unique to America and hardly the definition of secular. Again she needs to explain what the problem is here, beyond simply saying it can become dogma.

Manji attempts to explain herself using quotes from Jonathan Sacks, a poor choice in my opinion. The quote from him, “no society has survived for long without either a religion or a substitute for religion,” ignores the historic context of what religion has been and why it has had such staying power. There are many people finding meaning and identity and participating in something larger than themselves without reciting a creed that they don’t fully believe every Sunday or Friday or whatever their holy day is. Society has not just survived, it has thrived because we stopped allowing Kings to tell us who to worship and who to kill because they worshiped differently.

She goes on to explain Sacks’ new rereading of Genesis. Something I have grown so tired of I can no longer find the energy to even address. A rereading of ancient scripture does not erase all the other readings. It doesn’t remove the more obvious meaning of the words. Whether or not the obvious meaning is the correct interpretation is not the point. If you continue to treat an ancient story of unknown origin, passed through multiple languages as if it contains a truth that overrides more contemporary philosophy, we’ll continue to have the same problems we’ve always had. We’ll continue to have these cryptic messages lying around waiting to be misinterpreted.

Somehow, Manji admits this while saying Harris is missing the point. She quotes Sacks, “fundamentalists and today’s atheists” both ignore “the single most important fact about a sacred text, namely that it’s meaning is not self-evident.” Trying to interpret the Bible better is not a solution, that’s the problem. The problem is a rabbi can obfuscate a discussion about being civil by saying we should read the Bible, but we should read it the way he says instead of the way a million other people say, and that should end the argument. I don't know why Manji doesn't see this is just starting a new argument.

And that is not the low point of the article. I hang my head when I read stuff like this. Manji continues to say Sacks has the solution, which is teaching more people about his interpretation of the Bible. Although she (Manji) admits, “But as he (Sacks) admits early on, ‘decades of anti-racist legislation, interfaith dialogue and Holocaust education’ have not prevented the mess we are in. Why would it be different now?” What messes are they talking about? The Berlin wall is down, more and more people can vote, I can travel to Iran, there are whole organizations where Jews and Palestinians work together, and fundamentalists are increasingly disparaged. Perhaps the problem is Manji is doesn’t know what success looks like.

If people are reading scripture and finding peace in it, great, but they should do it on their own time and make no demands of others to participate in their study beyond the normal marketplace of ideas. That is, their ideas should stand or fall on their merits. They don't get special considerations because of their age, their cultural acceptance, and certainly not for their claimed divine source.

She does end on a positive note and reminds me to be respectful of her ideas, so I’m open to feedback. I have seen other more supportive statements from her of Harris and Nawaz's work. She also reminds us of how Western Christianity went through brutal wars before it was reformed. That’s a lesson that I think we have forgotten and are learning it again alongside our Muslim brothers and sisters. We can sit idly by and hope they work it out or we can share our stories and work together toward a more peaceful world.