Category Archives: The Middle East

Podcast #18: The Truth about Islam


Based on the 14 years of experience that I have working with Muslim students on campus, I have come to see Islam as a faith like any other. It’s sad and unjust that Americans are conditioned to respond to it as something utterly different. Hijab, in particular, is profoundly misunderstood.

On “On the Freedom to Offend an Imaginary God”

Patrick Chappatte, Int’l. Herald Tribune

Sam Harris makes a lot of the same points about Mormonism that I do, but in terms of Islam, I think he’s oversimplifying matters. He says liberals who claim that “it is our policies, rather than our freedoms” that Muslims hate are overlooking the fact that “millions of people actually believe what they say they believe: that imaginary crimes like blasphemy and apostasy are killing offenses.” Does he really think that this is the only reason people are angry? C’mon, Sam. You’re committing an act of anthropological ignorance.  How about some context, for crying out loud?

We have Richard Engel’s fantastic reporting on MSNBC to thank for promoting understanding over judgement. He has given us the relevant cultural information: Muslims in the Middle East do not enjoy the rights of free speech that Americans do. Simply put, if a statement makes it into the media, it must have been sanctioned by the government – or it would have been censored. To this way of thinking, if a film makes it onto YouTube, the American government must have approved it – or they would have censored it. An offensive film about Islam is therefore a piece of federally sponsored propaganda against Muslims, and an implied threat to their safety. The Big Bad American Bully is at it again, adding insult to injury.

Don’t feel bad, Sam. They don’t understand you any better than you understand them.

The Shadow of a People

bipolar cartoon

We are so bipolar.  Left or right, liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican, secular or religious, pro-choice or anti-abortion, straight or gay, NAACP or KKK. We are a nation of diametrically opposed frequent fliers, forever on the right or left wing of something.  We seem to have an inability to hit the middle, or to want to be anywhere near it.

Lately I’m having a hard time understanding the attitude of Congressional Republicans without resorting to a summary dismissal of them all as essentially evil. I’m good, they’re bad; I’m sane, they’re crazy; I’m patriotic, they’re borderline treasonous.  I give a damn about people and they only care about money.  Lévi-Strauss was so right: The world is a mass of binary oppositions.

I used to wonder about Germany.  How could a single culture have produced such extremes of genius and madness, of creativity and destruction?  How could the same people who gave us the Reformation have given us the Holocaust?  What kind of intense cognitive dissonance must they have endured?

Now I wonder about Israel.  How can the descendants of the displaced have gone on to displace another people? How can those who were once walled into ghettos watch their sons and grandsons build new walls?  How can the exiles of Europe subject another people to the constant indignity of multiple checkpoints and “papers, please?”

What happened in Germany was this:  After the devastating losses of World War I — losses of life, capital, and dignity — the people were so depressed and downtrodden that they allowed the most extreme among them to gain political control.  The angry, righteous rhetoric of these extremists was so compelling because it projected both the confidence of certainty and the exercise of power, two absences felt profoundly by the German people at the time.  The genius and the madness, the creativity and the destructiveness, were all always there.  Jung said it: The shadow is the seat of creativity.  Both are always there.  It’s just a question of which side is dominating at the time.

Now, read the above paragraph and substitute “Israel” for “Germany,” “World War II” for “World War I,” “the Israeli Settler Movement” for “these extremists,” and “Jewish” for “German.” The shadow is currently dominating.

I’ll save you the trouble of further translation and provide it for you here in dystopic fashion:

What happened in America was this:  After the devastating losses of the Iraq and Afghanistan/Pakistan Wars — losses of life, capital, and dignity — the people were so depressed and downtrodden that they allowed the most extreme among them to gain political control.  The angry, righteous rhetoric of these right-wing extremists was so compelling because it projected both the confidence of certainty and the exercise of power, two absences felt profoundly by the American people at the time.

What happens next?

quit blaming the Jews

A Cartoon from Akhbar al-Khalij, June 9, 2008

A Cartoon from Akhbar al-Khalij, June 9, 2008

When progressives and others protest the pro-Israel policies of the US, they typically assign blame to the Jews, a.k.a., the “Zionist Lobby.”  This is depressingly true to historical patterns:  The Jews are consistently perceived as controlling everything from the media to the government.  Well I’ve got news for you: It’s not the Jews. It never has been.  They’re just such an incredibly convenient scapegoat in a world dominated by Christians.

Jews make up something like 2.5% of the general population of the US, and the great majority of them are secular and non-practicing.  They are also typically highly educated, liberal, and progressive.  I’m convinced that most secular American Jews are horrified by Israel’s settlement activities and disgusted by its suppression of Palestinian rights. They are embarrassed by association with it.

The small minority of pro-occupation Jews make up less than 1.5% of the American populace – do you really think they have enough money between them to pull the puppet strings on foreign policy? That’s just ridiculous.  Rupert Murdoch is not Jewish; either are the Koch brothers.   The 111th Congress was 8.4% Jewish and 84.8% Christian, and the Tea Party Caucus in the House alone is currently 45% evangelical.  So who’s really running the show?  Clearly it’s the conservative Christians. Just look at the legislation they’ve been working on: Not a single jobs bill, but lots of renewed interest in outlawing abortion.

Christian conservatives have taken over the American government.  Republicans since Reagan have used their faith as argument and justification for their policies.  Lately they hold suspect any among them who do not express both a belief in creation and the firm denial of science, particularly where it applies to climate theory.  A good many of them, men like former attorney general John Ashcroft, are biblical literalists who fully expect the rapture to occur during their lifetimes and see current events in the Middle East as the fulfillment of biblical prophesy.  Simply put, the Jewish homeland must exist if conditions for the rapture are to be met.  Men like this don’t worry too much about the future because the world is ending anyway, but they do need to assure the survival of Israel.

From the very beginning, it has always been Christians who felt connected to the holy land as a site for pilgrimage and were loathe to see it in the hands of Muslims.  While to them, the Old Testament is the source of original truth, the Qur’an is a post-Christian heresy.  The state of Israel was in fact made possible first by the Balfour Declaration and later by the UN partition of Palestine.  While Britain had from its very beginning a tradition of religious pilgrimage to Palestine and a desire to see it avoid Muslim control, the UN was moved to do something after the Holocaust drove home the fact that Jewish safety could not be assured in anything but a Jewish land. Were it not for this commitment by Christians to support and preserve the Jewish state, it likely would not exist.

Today conservative Christians continue the traditions of pilgrimage and Islamophobia.  Missionaries went into Iraq before the smoke from our bombs even cleared, claiming humanitarian missions while their supporters spoke of the war as a “crusade.”  Because we live in the shadow of the millennium, some Christians are genuinely puzzled as to why the rapture has not yet occurred; indeed, they anticipate its imminent arrival.  They attribute earthquakes and dead birds to the wrath of God, as if the scientific revolution had never occurred.  The Republican party is now dominated by people who think like this, despite the fact that they actually constitute a small minority of the country.  They are, however, the majority block of primary voters.

It is in fact the minority of a minority that is currently steering the ship of American foreign policy, but it’s not the Jews.  It’s the apocalyptic Christians who aren’t just waiting for the rapture, but are actively working to assure it.

I have a theory: The rapture has already happened; it’s just that they all got left behind.