RELIGION GOES TO COURT AGAIN
By the way, in case you missed it late last week, the U.S. Supreme Court has decided to weigh in on President Bush's so-called Faith-Based Initiative. I've long had misgivings about this FBI, though some of its goals are laudable. Let's pay attention as this case moves through the court.
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THE ABNORMALITY OF MILITANT ISLAM
If you look at the long sweep of the history of Islam, the growing prominence of today's radical element is an abberation.
That has been my view since 9/11, and I was pleased to have that view corroborated this past weekend by one of the most prominent Jewish voices in America, Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in Washington, D.C. (That's Saperstein on the right, with Paul Uhlmann Jr., a long-time friend of Saperstein and member of the New Reform Temple of Kansas City. Uhlmann introduced him at this speaking engagement at the temple.)
Saperstein was the Krasne scholar-in-residence over the weekend at the temple. And the official title of his Friday evening lecture was "Moderate vs Radical Islam: Implications for Israel, for Jews and for America's Battle Against Terrorism."
Saperstein is a thoughtful and discerning student not only of Judaism but also of other religions because part of his job is to be Judaism's representative to other faiths and to work with other religions to get legislation through Congress.
He noted that when the Prophet Muhammad left Mecca and moved north to Medinah (sometimes Madinah), the latter city had a substantial Jewish population in three tribes. In effect, Saperstein said, Muhammad gained control of the area by defeating the tribes one at a time once it was clear that most Jews "were unwilling to believe that he was the last and greatest of the prophets. . ."
The problem, he said, was that not one of the Jewish tribes "came to the defense of the others. One has to think how different history might have been had at this moment of crisis they had been willing to band together and overcome their differences for the sake of mutual survival."
Despite that start for Jewish-Islamic relations, Saperstein said, throughout most of history, Jews and Muslims have had a quite good relationship -- certainly better than the relationship Jews have had with Christians, whose history is stained with a consistent strain of anti-Judaism.
For sure, he said, the Islamic-Jewish history has not been all "sweetness and light." Under Islam, he said, "Jews and Christians alike were subject to discriminatory, humiliating legislation. There were a handful of instances of persecution and violence but on the whole I think it could be fairly said that in general Jewish life was not only possible, in many places and times it even thrived under Islamic rule. And Jews knew more safety and opportunity than they ever knew under Christian Europe."
Saperstein said the sweep of history shows that a "moderate tradition of Islam" prevailed. Yes, he said, while "it looked at Jews and Christians as second-rate citizens of those communities, it in the main left them alone to do what they wanted. . ."
Throughout Muslim history, he said, there have been "waves of fundamentalism" that have competed with the predominant strain of moderate Islam.
He called today "a remarkable period in the history of Islam. . .but when you think about the sweep of Muslim history, it is actually one of those anomalies in which we have seen the pervasive dominance of fundamentalist tendancies." Similarly, he pointed out, there have been waves of fundamentalism in every religious tradition.
In Islam today, one of the problems is that unlike waves of radicalism in the past, "new technologies allow for these messages and ideas to move instantly across the globe. And countervailing forces, therefore, do not have the same ability to take hold and grow and flourish and offset the power of these fundamentalist ideas."
(Many people, Saperstein included, use the term "fundamentalist" to refer to radical and violent Islam. But I think it's probably not a good word. It comes from a Christian tradition that is well within the circle of acceptable Christian theology and that, in Christianity, has never degenerated into an advocacy of violence. So I prefer such terms as radical or militant Islam -- even though many Muslims would contend that when Muslims begin advocating and commitment violence in the name of Islam they have, in effect, left the faith and should not be considered Muslims.)
Saperstein said that today "there is a willingess to use violence that often attends to extremists groups. . . That puts moderates at a disadvantage in an era when use of violence has become a political and religious norm in venting the frustrations, anger and ideological purity of extreme elements.
"What's the incentive for moderates to stand up if there's good chance it's going to earn them a bullet in the head? That remains one of the central challenges for those who wish to strengthen moderate Islam."
So what can be done?
Here Saperstein said something I've been saying for several years, which is this: "If moderates are to prevail in Islam -- and I believe the future of the world depends on the ability of moderates to prevail in the struggle for the soul of Islam -- they have to do it themselves. It's not something outsiders can do. This is the paradox. Every time outsiders do something to visibly help the moderates, it discredits the moderates in the Muslim Street or the Arab Street, thereby depriving them of the ability to affect the very people that you would hope they would affect."
Still, he said, there are things we can do.
* The U.S. can do a far better job training its foreign service officers about the role of religion in the countries to which they are assigned.
* We can lift up an celebrate stories about places where moderate Islam is dominant.
* Where we can't do something ourselves, we can lean on our Arab and Muslim friends to do what we can't do openly. "We've not used our diplomatic abilities well in terms of making that a priority," he said. In effect, he said, "we have to use surrogates to build civil society in the Muslim world."
Well, he had more to say, including words of caution about a growing anti-Semitism in militant Islam. But I think he was right on target in identifying the need for mainstream Islam to win back the heart and soul of the religion. If that doesn't happen, I think we'll face more 9/11s and worse.
To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here.
P.S.: Speaking of Jewish views, I was pleased yesterday when three prominent Jewish leaders joined with a top leader of my denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), to issue a statement of common understanding after they met at PCUSA headquarters in Louisville. This statement indicates some good progress is being made in restoring solid relations between Presbyterians and Jews after the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church adopted an ill-thought-out resolution in 2004 that called for a phased divestment of investments in some companies profiting from the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The 2006 General Assembly essentially righted that 2004 action and the church is moving to restore relations with Jews, many of whom were understandably outraged by the 2004 action, which was taken with essentially no warning to American Jews about what was about to happen.
P.P.S.S.: I'll be giving the sermon at an Advent service at 7 p.m. this Wednesday at Old Mission United Methodist Church on Shawnee Mission Parkway in Fairway, Kan. The service will be a joint gathering of Old Mission, St. Agnes Catholic Church, Roeland Park United Methodist Church, Southridge Presbyterian Church and Westwood Christian Church. Please come if you're interested.