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Why is the Middle East such a mess? Here's an answer.

If you think problems in what today we call the Middle East (Do you know how it got named that?*) are so deeply embedded in history that they form a Gordian knot impossible to undo, you're not alone and you may not be wrong. But if a solution of some sort is to be found, knowing the history of the region is vital. (Just as U.S. leaders should have known more about the history of Afghanistan before spending 20 years and huge amounts of blood and treasure there.)

Politics-of-persecutionA new source for Middle East history is about to be published (this coming Wednesday): The Politics of Persecution: Middle Eastern Christians in an Age of Empire, by Mitri Raheb. (*There's an intriguing answer in this new book.)

In the end, you may or may not agree with some of his conclusions about why things happened and what to do about it now, but at a minimum there is revelatory history here that can give us the kind of perspective we need to get a better understanding of everything from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the Iraq war to the Ottoman Empire to colonialism and on and on.

And here's a summary from the book about why this matters:

"In the past two centuries, the Middle East experienced twenty-six wars, meaning an average of one war every eight years. Several countries were devastated by colonial wars or torn apart by civil war. The Middle East houses 5 percent of the world's population and yet is home to 25 percent of the world's conflicts, 57.5 percent of the world's refugees and 47 percent of the world's internally displaced people."

The intentional focus of the book is on the fate of Christians in the area, and the news there isn't good.

"Without peace," Raheb writes, "it will be difficult to keep Christianity alive in the lands of its origin."

The reality, of course, is that Christians have been both the persecuted and the persecutors, as this book makes clear.

It has become a standard complaint among American Christians who identify themselves as evangelical or conservative that Christians are often victims of persecution, both at home and abroad. But the story is considerably more complicated than those who say that often are willing to acknowledge. Consider, for instance, Iraq. As Raheb writes:

"The largest wave of Christian emigration from Iraq was triggered by the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. Under the false pretext of nuclear weapons and smoking guns, the United States invaded Iraq and dismantled the Baath party of Iraq and the Iraqi military. This brought chaos to the country and paved the way for ISIS to take over. Over a million more Christians felt defenseless and fled Iraq to neighboring countries like Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, while many migrated to North America and Australia. . .The United States, which is now eager to defend persecuted Christians in the Middle East, actually brought about the biggest blow to one of the ancient Christian communities in the region through its sanctions and invasion."

To look at this history of persecution of people of faith -- especially Christians -- Raheb goes all the way back to the early days of the faith and especially to the way in which the Roman empire persecuted followers of Christ.

Then he focuses on the research that's been done at Dar al-Kalima University of Arts and Culture since 2006.

The various ways in which foreign Christian missionaries, especially from the U.S., influenced life, economics, politics, religion and more is a subject to which Raheb pays considerable attention. This still plays a role in Middle Eastern life today. That's especially true in light of people who identify as conservative Christians believe that the Second Coming of Christ can't happen until Jews, represented by the modern state of Israel, control the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, which Muslims now control.

Early Christian missionaries to the Middle East, Raheb says, "thought of themselves as superior in religion, race and culture to the other monotheistic religions as well as to the local churches."

If that surprises you, you've missed a fair amount of world history.

And if you've heard about but don't know much about the 1860 massacre of Christians by the Druze on Mount Lebanon, that history is recounted here in considerable detail.

Colonialism, too, plays a major role in this story, for as Raheb notes, "by the end of World War I, the entire Middle East and North Africa were fully under European control."

Well, there is a lot more packed into a 207-page book, and I won't take more time and space to get into it all. But this is important reading even, as I say, if you disagree with some of the author's conclusions, including his implied and direct criticisms of modern Israel.

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Cover-lle-hi-resWe may now add to the list of violent extremists getting lots of press in the U.S. and around the world the name of ISIS-K. Who is that? This RNS story describes its origins and its differences with the Taliban. And here is an explanation of the group from The Conversation. Across human history such radicals have plagued the world. We can't just give up and accept that they'll be here forever. We simply must find ways to stand against faith-based extremism. I devote the last two chapters of my new book to explaining some of the roots of extremism and what we can do to unplug it. I hope you'll join the effort to do just that.

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P.S.: My latest Flatland column -- about a quiet place where you can ponder the eternal questions -- now is online here.

Expect Shari'a-based Taliban rule to be harsh, unbending

If you've been paying attention to Afghanistan, you know that the now-in-charge-again Taliban is committed to governing on the basis of Islamic law, called Shari'a.

ShariaA lot of American imagine that Shari'a amounts to heartless brutality, including cutting off the hands of convicted thieves and keeping women barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen.

That's why some efforts have been made in the U.S. to prevent courts and other legal authorities from ever considering Shari'a in their rulings. I wrote about that foolishness several years ago here.

But if you are serious about wanting to know about Shari'a in depth, I point you toward a book by my friend Raj Bhala, who teaches law at the University of Kansas. His weighty 2011 book, Understanding Islamic Law (Shari'a), is the definitive look at this subject.

As Bhala notes in the book, calling Shari'a just "Islamic law" "is not wrong. But from an American legal mindset, it is incomplete in two respects." First, Shari'a really means a path, a way and spirit of living to which Muslims are called. And Shari'a isn't limited to just legal matters. As Bhala writes, "Shari'a is to govern all of life."

In some ways, thus, Shari'a is for Muslims what the Torah is for Jews and the teachings of Jesus are for Christians -- a description of how to live in harmony with God's purposes.

All of that said, there are ways to live by Shari'a and then there are ways to live by Shari'a. The Taliban has shown that it is a theologically fundamentalist-extremist group that inevitably picks the most radical and harsh interpretation of Shari'a. So the last thing we can expect from the Taliban is approval of female imams.

Media outlets are starting to offer interpretations of what we can expect from Taliban rule now. Some of it has been misleading, to say the least, as this commentary from Yahoo News indicates. The money line from that piece: "Islam is not a monolith, Muslims represent a sixth of humanity and any simplistic reduction of Islamic law to savage brutality is woefully ignorant and unhelpful." But this USA Today piece, by contrast, tries to help readers understand what Shari'a is and how the Taliban might rule in light of it.

As the story notes, "Shari'a is the set of laws and precepts that govern the daily lives of Muslim people. It is based on a combination of the Quran, the holy book of Islam, and teachings from the prophet Muhammad.

"Professor Akbar Ahmed, the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University and a former Pakistan high commissioner to the U.K. and Ireland, explained to USA TODAY that 'Shari'a law, or the word Shari'a, has, in the context of contemporary culture, become highly controversial and distorted in its understanding." Ahmed, whom I've met and heard speak, is right, and he has spent considerable time and effort trying to educate people about Shari'a.

Again, Ahmed to USA TODAY: “Shari'a means literally ‘the path’. . .All systems and religions have a way to a better, happier, more prosperous and a more pious life.”

Ahmed also told that newspaper that Shari'a “is defined very clearly by the Qur'an,” but interpretation of the text from scholars, governments and cultures have drastically differed.

Afghanistan-leeExactly. And it's important to remember that even though Muslims believe that the Qur'an was dictated to the Prophet Muhammad by the Angel Gabriel over more than two decades, it needs to be interpreted for several reasons, including the fact that every translation of the book from its original Arabic is itself an interpretive act.

It's also important to understand the history of religious practice and interpretation in Afghanistan. As Jonathan L. Lee writes in his 2018 book Afghanistan: A History from 1260 to the Present, ". . .since the 1920s Afghanistan's legal code has been strongly influenced by Hanafi jurisprudence, one of the four Sunni legal schools, or muzhabs. Most Afghans are deeply religious and adhere to the beliefs and practices of Islam, though many urban Afghans are not particularly regular when it comes to observing the five daily prayers. Islam, while it is rigorously monotheistic, is far from being monolithic and there are many strands of religious belief and interpretation, ranging from deistic rationalism to the puritanical exclusivism of movements such as the Taliban."

That's just more confirmation that if there is a rigid, humorless, punitive, oppressive way to interpret the Qur'an and Shari'a, you can count on the Taliban to choose that method -- despite recent Taliban leadership claims to the contrary.

Another important point that Lee makes in his book is that "Islamic law is often blamed for (the) restrictive culture, but customary law, known as 'adat or rasm wa rawaj, is equally important when it comes to determining gender roles in Afghanistan and often denies women rights that are accorded them by the Shari'a." Indeed, scholars who study Islam often say that when the Prophet Muhammad introduced Islam to Arabic culture, it was quite liberating for women, giving them, for example, the right to own and inherit property and to maintain control over whatever wealth women brought to a marriage.

Indeed, as Islam in its early years expanded into areas beyond the Arabian peninsula, it often encountered harshly patriarchal societies that simply ignored or defeated the ways in which Muhammad's teachings were supposed to free women from such strictures. The culture, in other words, won out over the religion.

I would love to be proved wrong about what to expect from the Taliban, but anything less than extremist interpretations of Shari'a and the Qur'an will shock me. I hope to be shocked but won't hold my breath.

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The kicky and fascinating Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber, whom I heard speak at my Kansas City church a couple of years ago, has been installed as the "pastor of public witness" for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Her many fans, including those on her email newsletter and prayer list, will cheer. In some ways, this new designation is simply her denomination's acknowledgement that the work she does anyway is ministry. You can sign up for her newsletter here. But if a few common swear words that she regularly employs offend you, perhaps you should avoid doing that.

What can we learn from a U.S. loss in yet another war?


The world's great religions consistently promote peace over war. And yet there is almost never a moment in human history when there isn't at least one war -- and often many more -- going on somewhere on the globe.

That reality, of course, doesn't mean that people of faith should quit trying to work for peace. But as they do that, perhaps the war in Afghanistan, now bleeding toward a close, can provide another reason to think about why humanity should avoid war.

Losing wars is costly. Losing is devastating to one's image. Losing means a future that's even more unknowable than the future that comes after winning. And yet losing teaches us more than winning. Despite that, Americans think of themselves as almost always winners even though the historical record fails to sustain that image.

What we know -- or at least what we should know -- about American history is that losing wars is part of our history. Think, for instance, of the Civil War. A big section of our nation, the South, lost. And that's why historian C. Vann Woodward called his book The Burden of Southern History. Losing, indeed, is burdensome, but it's also, as I say, a teacher. Here's what Woodward wrote: “America has a history. It is only that the tragic aspects and the ironic implications of that history have been obscured by the national legend of success and victory and by the perpetuation of infant illusions of innocence and virtue.”

Our experience in Afghanistan gives us another chance to understand in more nuanced ways that "national legend of success and victory." And Afghanistan stands in a pretty long line of other military losses, stalemates and disasters.

You can read about nine different military losses the U.S. has suffered since its formation at this site. Afghanistan now will be added to the list, which includes wars in Vietnam and Korea, along with the Bay of Pigs and other examples all the way back to the War of 1812.

Perhaps the best example of winning is World War II, partly because the U.S. figured out a way to help rebuild Europe and to turn its primary enemies, Japan and Germany, into eventual friends and allies.

Winning -- whether we're talking about wars, sports games or other competitions in life -- usually teaches us, as I say, less than losing does. So now we're faced with figuring out how we lost in Afghanistan and what we did wrong. And part of the answer almost certainly will be that we knew damn little about that country and its history and culture when we invaded in 2001.

That was a huge mistake and we've paid dearly for it. Beyond that, we tried to engage in nation building in Afghanistan but, as the report to which I've just linked you in the previous paragraph reveals, we did it so ineptly as to be almost criminal. It's likely that we never should have tried nation building there -- that wasn't our first goal. Rather, clearing out the al-Qaida training camps was our goal to protect ourselves from further terrorist attacks. But if we need to do nation building, we can't do it the way we botched it up in Afghanistan -- despite some good things that happened for the citizens of the country, especially women.

Defeats sometimes can be illuminating and crucial to defining what's best about people. Perhaps the best example from the world of faith is the crucifixion of Jesus. What happened on that horrific Friday turned out not to be the end of the story. And now the defeated U.S. military, along with the rest of the nation, must figure out what can be redeemed from the loss in Afghanistan. A hint: The answer won't be better and bigger weapons.

(The photo here today came from this site.)

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Why do authoritarian political leaders so often seem scared to death of the religious commitments of people they rule? That's a good question for Chinese leaders who, as I noted in this recent post, are afraid of Tibetan Buddhism. Now a top Chinese leader is promising to China-ize (I just made that word up) Tibet even more. How sad.

Why are the extremists winning in Afghanistan?


U.S. military forces, along with some allies, have been fighting a war in Afghanistan for nearly 20 years, starting soon after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001.

The initial invasion was justified as an act of self-defense. Its alleged purpose was to destroy the training camps in which al-Qaida members were taught how to commit acts of violent extremism. At the time, I thought that task might take a year or two. Then somehow the mission became ill defined and slowly turned into nation building, an almost-impossible job if you invade a country about which you know almost none of its history or its culture. And then, under President George W. Bush, we lost focus completely and, as a result, in 2003 invaded Iraq on phony charges that that country, ruled by the thug Saddam Hussein, was producing but hiding weapons of mass destruction.

Now, all these years later, after some 241,000 people, including some 71,000 civilians and nearly 2,500 American military troops, have died in the Afghan-Pakistani war zone, U.S. troops have largely left and the Taliban, which in some ways is the Islamist equivalent of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., is taking control of the country, as this fascinating BBC news story reports.

The story indicates that, at times, the Taliban seeks to make itself seem moderate and flexible as it wrests power from the current Afghan government. In reality, however, it is committed to an extremely harsh interpretation of Islamic law, called Shari'a. Whenever fundamentalists of any religious tradition are in charge anywhere, there's precious little room for argument or discussion of anything those fundamentalists think is God's truth.

(Apparently they haven't read my book The Value of Doubt: Why Unanswered Questions, Not Unquestioned Answers, Build Faith. What's wrong with them?)

And as the BBC story notes, "What many associate most closely with the Taliban's previous stint in power is the brutal punishments meted out under their interpretation of Sharia law.

"Last month in the southern province of Helmand, the group hanged two men accused of child kidnapping from a bridge, justifying it by saying the men had been convicted."

The situation in Afghanistan is dire, as we all have seen in horrific footage of people trying to flee the Kabul airport by hanging on to departing airplanes. As the BBC reports, the Taliban has been "capturing new territory on what seems like a daily basis as international troops have all but withdrawn. Caught in the middle is a terrified population. Tens of thousands of ordinary Afghans have had to flee their homes -- hundreds have been killed or injured in recent weeks." And since that was written things have gotten only more chaotic and worse.

It's hard to imagine why the U.S. thought it could do better at creating a peaceful, modern Afghanistan when other invaders have failed again and again. But that's the problem. We shouldn't have been there to make Afghanistan a Western democracy. Rather, we should have been there only to protect ourselves and our allies from additional attacks by terrorists.

Now there is growing upheaval across Afghanistan in light of President Joe Biden's decision to stick with former President Donald Trump's agreement with the Taliban to get U.S. troops out. Biden has said he believes that the war in Afghanistan is not worth the life of even one more American military member. But his planning, if any, for a controlled exit clearly failed. Now we'll have to see what can be salvaged from this embarrassing operational mess.

Once again, one of the clear lessons here is to avoid or stand against religious, racial or any other kind of extremism. Radicalism led to 9/11, to the murder of nine Black people at prayer in a cathedral in South Carolina, to multiple lynchings of Black people in U.S. history, to the murder of the son and father of my friend Mindy Corporon and the wife of my friend Jim LaManno at Jewish sites in Kansas City and to countless other catastrophes, including the Holocaust itself.

Often such extremism is rooted in fear, which in turn is rooted in ignorance. And when we have political leaders promoting both fear and ignorance, the problem gets only worse.

P.S.: My friend Markandey Katju, a former justice on India's Supreme Court, has written this interesting piece about why a Taliban victory in Afghanistan is actually a victory for the U.S. See if you agree.

(The BBC map here today, which was no doubt out of date an hour after it was published Aug. 11, is found at the BBC story site to which I've linked you.)

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There is so much to know about what's happening in Afghanistan and about that region's long and at-times bizarre history. This article from The Conversation offers readers five different takes to help fill in our knowledge and understanding gaps. And I recommend it. The errors made there by the U.S. and its allies (and, before them, by the British and the Soviets) are legion. I'd like to think that we finally can learn something about interfering in other countries and trying to turn them into something they're not. But so far there's little evidence for such optimism. As a friend of mine said the other day, it has taken 20 years to replace the Taliban -- with the Taliban.

How China crushes Tibet and other followers of faith


There are many reasons to be appalled by the people who run China via the CPC, Chinese Community Party, including their seeming inability to find any value in religion except when it might benefit them politically.

Eat-the-buddhaThere is recent evidence, for instance, of China's leaders loosening restrictions on various religious practices and institutions there, as this article from The Conversation reports. But even so, the piece notes this: "Adopting attitudes and methods with long-established precedents in the dynastic history of imperial China, the communist government positions itself as the ultimate arbiter of orthodoxy and heterodoxy, or proper and improper religious practices. Religious leaders must support the party and follow its directives.

"Authorities keep firm administrative control over all forms of religious expressions and organizations, by whatever means they deem prudent or necessary." And this:

"China tends to treat religions perceived as potentially threatening to the established order harshly, especially if suspected of foreign ties or secessionist tendencies. For instance, for decades China has strictly regulated Buddhism in Tibet, as it has pursued policies aimed at suppressing the cultural and national identities of the Tibetans."

Which brings me to recommend to you a 2020 book I just finished that was loaned to me by a friend. It's Eat the Buddha: Life, Death and Resistance in a Tibetan Town, by journalist Barbara Demick. I found it riveting, and not because I spent part of a year of my childhood at a boarding school in northern India from which, on clear days, I could see the snows of Tibet.

Rather, the books contains remarkable reporting about the ways in which China's myopic leaders are willing to crush an entire culture, including its religion, to maintain what I've come to call the national security state.

A key player in all of this, of course, is the Dalai Lama, now pushing 90 years of age, Tibet's Buddhist spiritual leader who fled the country in the late 1950s and set up a government in exile in northern India.

What becomes astonishingly clear in the book is how little China's kleptocracy values human life. Under Mao Zedong, for instance, China went through wave after wave of government-sanctioned efforts to uproot the lives and customs of its own people and keep the country's communist leaders in power. Many of us are familiar with the brutal "Cultural Revolution" that Mao launched in 1966. And then there was the earlier "Great Leap Forward." As Demick reports in her book, "Between 1958 and 1962, during the Great Leap Forward, an estimated 36 million Chinese are believed to have perished, a death toll that rivals the greatest calamities of a brutal century."

Life? China's leaders spit at it.

Demick tells the story of a Tibetan man named Norbu, born in 1952. His father was a former Buddhist monk. Norbu sought to become a business entrepreneur, but ran up against this: "We can't compete with the Chinese. They don't have to do things ethically because they don't have any religion. They don't care about anything but money."

As for the current slackening of tight control over religion in China, as reported above, don't get your hopes up. Demick puts it this way: "Modern China has a bipolar personality with bursts of openness almost invariably followed by relapses of oppression."

Some of the protesting young students who died in Tiananmen Square in June of 1989 could testify to that -- if they hadn't been murdered by authorities. Buddhists in Tibet know exactly what that is about, having experienced it for themselves time after time.

Demick writes of a Tibetan woman who sold goods from a small stall in a Tibetan town in competition with Chinese women who had come to that town: "She was a devout Buddhist, who took seriously not just the ritual but the obligation to behave with compassion toward all beings, including Chinese migrants. Many of them ran their own stalls at the market, and she could appreciate that they were hardworking women, some of them widows who like herself were struggling to survive. But they had no religion for their comfort, no belief in an afterlife. They would die, thinking that was the end and that they would merely turn into dust. She felt more pity than hostility toward these Chinese."

In an interview with Demick, the Dalai Lama spoke about this very subject: "I don't consider China powerful at all. They may be powerful in their economics and weapons, but in terms of moral principles, they are very weak. The whole society is full of suspicion and full of distrust."

In the end, Demick concludes this about China: "China is becoming what political scientist Stein Ringen has termed the 'perfect dictatorship.' The government's control already is so complete, their surveillance of online communications so thorough, the closed-circuit cameras so ubiquitous, the biometric tracking of the population so advanced, that they maintain order almost seamlessly. China's new approach is less barbaric than the methods used by other regimes to control dissent -- for example, the gassing of civilian populations by Syrian's Bashar Assad -- but it is no less stifling. . .China may not yet be the technological dystopia that critics fear, but that is the direction in which it is headed. . .Uighurs have it even worse than Tibetans; as of this writing, up to one million Uighurs are being held against their will in 'patriotic education' camps where they do menial work for little to no pay and undergo Communist Party indoctrination." (Speaking of those Uighur Muslims, China just appointed a new military commander to crack down even more on the region where most of them live.)

Knowing all of that makes me all the more eager to preserve and protect our democratic republic here in the U.S. and to work against the kind of people who sought to destroy it on Jan. 6.

(By the way, the Soviet Communist Party has made the same anti-religion error as China's rulers. When I was in Poland in 2007 working on the the book They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust, I wrote a piece for The Kansas City Star about a built-from-scratch town the Soviets constructed -- with no room for religion. It backfired. That column is included in this previous blog entry.)

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A movement to #TaxTheChurches has gained momentum recently, as this article from The Conversation reports. The power to tax, of course, is the power to destroy, so American citizens need to think through this one carefully. But I think there are some taxation rules having to do with religious institutions that should be examined. For instance, why can clergy declare the part of their salary spent on housing to be exempt from taxation? That one has never made much sense to me. But can we have this broader conversation without screaming at each other about religious liberty and church-state separation? Probably not. So I don't expect much to come of this, but am willing to be proved wrong.

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P.S.: There's an upcoming fund-raising gala for the Miracle of Innocence project that some of you might want to be part of. It will be Friday, October 15, at the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in suburban Leawood, Kan. What is this organization all about? A few years ago I wrote this Flatland column explaining how Darryl Burton, wrongfully convicted of capital murder, spent 24 years in Missouri prisons. Now that he's been freed, he works to help other exonerees through this organization. If you click on the first link I've given you in this P.S., you can arrange to get tickets and help out in other ways.

The shape of Islam in the U.S. continues to change

The Muslim community in the U.S., almost 20 years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, is older, wiser and different in several ways.

Shaq-1For instance, as this RNS story reports, mosques in the U.S. are becoming more "American," according to a report done for the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding based on a new survey of American mosques.

For instance, the story says that findings in the report suggest the "American mosque is reviving certain leadership positions for women in the mosque that, while common in the earliest days of Islam, have fallen out of practice." It then quotes the report itself this way:

“American mosque leaders lean toward an understanding of Islam that adheres to the foundational, textual sources of Islam (Qur’an and Sunnah) but are open to interpretations that look to the purposes of Islamic law (i.e., looking to the spirit and wisdom of the law) and modern circumstances.”

This new report got a round of applause from the Council on American Islamic Relations, which issued a press release that said, in part, "'As the American Muslim community grows more diverse, we are delighted to see more women are serving on mosque boards and mosque leaders encouraging civic engagement among Muslims,' said CAIR Executive Director Nihad Awad. “'We are pleased to be a co-sponsor of this important report that examines the diversity of mosques and activities in the United States.'”

As the Pew Research Center reported, "The share of mosques in which adult women account for more than a quarter of all attendees at the Friday Jumah prayer service grew between 2011 and 2020, according to the new study."

The report itself says that "The purpose of the US Mosque Survey is to conduct a scientific study that will generate accurate information about most aspects of the American mosque. The goal is to provide a detailed portrait of the American mosque to dispel misconceptions and to help mosque leaders and participants better understand their mosque, hopefully leading to improvements."

It took some time for researchers doing the report to get what they consider as accurate a count of American mosques as possible, but in the end they came up with 2,769, which is a 31 percent increase from the 2010 count.

As the report said, "Mosques are becoming more suburban as major declines occurred in the number of mosques located in towns/small cities and in downtown areas of large cities. Mosques in towns/small cities decreased from 20% in 2010 to 6% in 2020. The apparent cause is the dwindling population of Muslims in these towns/small cities due to the drying up of jobs in these areas and the moves of young adults, children of mosque founders and activists to large cities for education and jobs. In 2010, 17% of mosques were found in downtown areas, but in 2020 that figure is down to 6%. This decrease is most probably tied to the decrease of African American mosques and the general move of mosques to suburban locations."

I recall attending a conference in the Washington, D.C., area 15 or more years ago in which speakers were trying to give journalists an accurate picture of what American Islam looked like. At the time, Muslims were continuing to struggle with the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which was carried out by people claiming to follow Islam. The anti-Islam backlash was harsh and difficult to overcome.

Since then, American Muslims have continued to negotiate their way into American society in various ways, though their total number (somewhere in the 3 to 4 million range, meaning 0.9 percent of the population) makes them a only a small part of the total American religious landscape.

Yes, they still face Islamophobia. Yes, they are internally divided -- not just Sunni, Shi'a and Sufi but also immigrant-native born. But they are finding how to be both genuinely Muslim and genuinely American. Let's hope the upcoming commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks doesn't stir up additional hatred of American Muslims.

(By the way, if you haven't obtained a copy of my new 9/11-related book, Love, Loss and Endurance, I've just given you the Amazon link. If you want an autographed copy, email me at [email protected] and we can work that out.)

(The photo here today is one I took at the wedding of Muslim friends, Eyyup, center, and Merve, left, with one of their friends on the right, in January 2019 in a Kansas City area mosque.)

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Facebook is introducing a prayer tool, this RNS story reports. As is to be expected, the reaction to that news has been mixed. As for me, I'm going to continue refusing to start prayers this way: "Gracious and loving Mark. . ." I recommend you also refuse to do that.

Is this a scientific breakthrough that reveals who God is?

When we seek to understand something about God, we can come at it from several directions.

TimecrystalsWhat does it mean that God is creator? Can we find evidence of God's mind in the physical world?

What does it mean that God is love? Can we learn about that through the lives of the prophets, through such people as Jesus of Nazareth, the Buddha, Moses, the Prophet Muhammad?

What does it mean that God is a god of mercy and justice? Is there some perfect social or political model of that somewhere that reveals the divine mind?

All of these -- and similar -- questions get regular attention from theologians, including some who emphasize our need to be comfortable with mystery. But some, including Sigve K. Tonstad, author of a book (God of Sense and Traditions of Non-Sense) that I wrote about here, emphasize human responsibility to recognize what God reveals about God's own self.

If Tonstad is right that God is not completely beyond human comprehension, then we will have more intellectual work to do in light of the recent news about "time crystals." As this BGR story says, "the time crystal concept is a new phase of matter."

You can read more about the time crystal news here and here.

The Quantum Magazine story to which I linked you in the first "here" in the previous sentence notes this: "A novel phase of matter that physicists have strived to realize for many years, a time crystal is an object whose parts move in a regular, repeating cycle, sustaining this constant change without burning any energy.

“'The consequence is amazing: You evade the second law of thermodynamics,' said Roderich Moessner, director of the Max Planck Institute for the Physics of Complex Systems in Dresden, Germany. . ."

As fascinating as I find the science in these stories (and I hope you'll read all three of them), what's even more intriguing to me is the theology. What kind of creative mind came up with a universe in which there could be -- or even needed to be -- such things as time crystals?

I think such scientific developments speak to our limited understanding of God and God's creation. The more we learn about subatomic physics and/or cosmology -- little end and big end science -- the more complex and mystifying and magical the world seems.
We are apt to reduce God to simple concepts: love, creator, savior. But those words, however helpful, hide so much more than they reveal.
These time crystal stories don't argue for a need for a God of the gaps -- meaning the idea that eventually we'll be able to explain everything about the cosmos but until we can do that we need God to be the explanation for what we don't understand. Rather, I think, they argue for a God so amazing -- not completely inscrutable but amazing -- that we should kneel in silence.
(The image here today came from this site.)

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The pressure on President Joe Biden to close the Gitmo prison grows. I wrote this USA Today column in January urging the president to do what he has said he wants to do -- quit housing uncharged prisoners there. Now members of Congress have written to Biden urging him to shut Gitmo down as soon as possible. You can read that letter by downloading this pdf file: Download GTMO Closure Letter_Schiff.Omar_.Price (08.04.2021) I'm especially glad to see that the member of Congress who represents my district in Kansas City, Emanuel Cleaver II, has signed it, too. Has your representative done that? As I wrote in the USA Today column, "The long story of how essential American values have been ignored or brutalized at Gitmo is a national embarrassment. Worse, it simply provides additional fodder for the religious and political radicals around the world who love to hate America."

What the Bible tells us about finally working to fix what our ancestors got wrong


One of the difficult questions raised by charges of systemic racism in the U.S. is whether people alive today are in some way responsible for what their ancestors did to create this problem.

It's not an easy question to confront, but the author of this interesting piece from The Dispatch argues persuasively that if we want to rely on biblical traditions and biblical wisdom, we should acknowledge that time after time the Bible indicates that, as The Dispatch author writes, there is an "intergenerational obligation to remedy historic injustice."

That doesn't mean that people alive today are responsible for the fact that their ancestors kept slaves or passed Jim Crow laws. But it does mean that people alive today have an obligation to fix what went wrong because of what their ancestors did.

The Dispatch piece reports this: "David Platt is a bestselling author, the former president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s International Mission Board, and the pastor of McLean Bible Church (MBC), a huge and influential church located outside Washington, D.C. Platt is facing a revolt from self-described 'conservative' congregants, a revolt that culminated in a lawsuit filed against the church by a group of its own members. . ."

Then David French, author of the article, writes this: "on the core issues of American racism, Platt is biblically and historically right, and it’s his detractors who are biblically and historically wrong. These 'conservatives' have placed a secular political frame around an issue with profound religious significance. They’ve thus not just abandoned the whole counsel of scripture, they’ve even contradicted a core component of the secular conservatism they claim to uphold."

French uses several biblical passages to focus on the obligation of today's generation to fix what previous generations got wrong. One of them, for instance, is found in II Samuel 21. As French writes: "During the reign of King David, Israel was afflicted with three years of famine. When David 'sought the face of the Lord' regarding the crisis, God said, 'There is bloodguilt on Saul and on his house.' (Saul had conducted a violent campaign against the Gibeonites, in violation of a covenant made with the Israelites many centuries before.)

"Saul was king before David, and God was punishing Israel years after Saul’s regime because of Saul’s sin. It was the next king, David’s, responsibility to make things right. And so David turned to the remaining Gibeonites and said, 'What shall I do for you? And how shall I make atonement, that you may bless the heritage of the Lord?'"

French gets to his main point -- one well taken -- when he writes this: "The reason for this obligation of repentance and atonement is obvious. The death of the offending party does not remove the consequences of their sin. Those who’ve been victimized still suffer loss, and if the loss isn’t ameliorated in their lifetimes, that loss can linger for generations.

"Let’s apply this more concretely, to the United States of America. Enforcing the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause and passing the Civil Rights Act was (and is) necessary to end overt, legal discrimination, but it was hardly sufficient to ameliorate the effects of slavery and Jim Crow. These effects are so embedded in our system that powerful people often perpetuate those structures even when they lack any racist intent at all."

That's why we must study our various social, economic, educational and political systems. We must find where these "effects are so embedded," as French writes.

As a white American male, I need feel no guilt for being what I am. But if I fail to confront the issues and trauma left from the ruling white American males before me, I am part of the problem.

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It took the Biden administration too long, but it's finally named some really good people to important posts having to do in some way with religion. As the RNS story to which I've linked you reports, the post of U.S. ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom nominee is Rashad Hussain. That job has been vacant since former Kansas governor and U.S. Senator Sam Brownback left near the end of the Trump administration. Brownback was an absolutely miserable governor but did a surprisingly decent job in the religious freedom post. Hussain, if confirmed, will be the first Muslim to serve in that ambassadorial post. As the RNS story notes, he previously served "as White House counsel under President Barack Obama, as well as U.S. special envoy to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and U.S. special envoy for the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications, among other roles." There's more. Biden also has nominated the remarkable Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt as the next U.S. special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism. She is a professor at Emory University in Atlanta. I've heard her speak twice in Kansas City -- once at the Kansas City Library and once at an event sponsored by the American Public Square. She's impressive. Let's hope for quick and easy Senate confirmation (Is that still possible today?) and then some good work from these two.

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P.S.: And just for something different today, here is a story about Muslims playing golf and here is one about Buddhists playing football. Who knew? Now you do.