Leaning on dictators

We say democracy is the guiding light of humanity’s potential, as a society. Take a look at humanity – not the man in the mirror, but the one at the door, on the sidewalk, in the car beside you, at the store. Take a look at the people in Midan Tahrir, the children, the women, the soldiers. If democracy is the most necessary tool of a liberated people, to give them some real sense of being in charge of their own destiny, then should not every free country jump to support what has been going on in Egypt the last two weeks?

This is a human movement, despite the promises of hope and change, and without the overt support of the US. Though the Obama administration reached out to the Muslim world with a 2009 speech in Cairo, it came to nothing. The administration’s failures to move peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians forward, its failure to cease extraordinary renditions to countries like Egypt, and take a stand against “friendly” regimes for human rights violations, have tainted the region’s view of America as the “shining city on the hill.”

Our policy, historically, in the region has been less of a knee on the chest of democracy and more of a thumb on the scale, favoring dictatorship. Our leaders came to the decision, that Mubarak must go, too late – not by a day or two, or a year or two – but by at least a decade. It should not come as a surprise, then, that to many of the people participating in the protests in the Arab world, “there’s a negative attitude to America, a disappointment,” as one Jordanian activist told the Washington Post.

It is not that obvious, though, how this strikes our country, when there are no “Death to America” chants in Tahrir. But as Liz Sly, in her Post article, points out, “just as burning [American] flags are not part of the current repertoire, neither are demonstrators carrying around models of the Statue of Liberty, as Chinese activists brought to Tiananmen Square in 1989.”

Iran, of course, views these events as a fatal wound for our historic foreign policy in the Middle East. “If [protesters in Egypt, Jordan and Yemen] are able to push this through then what will happen to the U.S. policies in the region will be an irreparable defeat for America,” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei told worshipers in Tehran on Friday.

But it is just as much a defeat for Islamist regimes, like Iran’s, because, “The current uprising in Egypt is largely secular and nationalistic,” admits Yamin Zakaria, in a column on the activist-journalism site, Media Monitors Network.  “Everyone is waving the Egyptian flag instead of the black and white Shahadah (there is no God but Allah and Muhammad is His Messenger) flag in Arabic,” he added.

The good news might be, that if this is the beginning of a global, vocal human rights movement, then it could “mark a turning point” in how the US deals with “non-violent, political Islam,” Robert Malley, of the independent International Crisis Group, told USA Today.

The reciprocal way we leaned on Hosni Mubarak – keeping him in power out of fear of what the alternative might do to our regional interests – has left our Middle East policy on a very narrow pedestal. It may be that the only thing keeping us on top of the foreign policy game – besides our infamous American bravado – is the legacy of what a strong, wealthy world partner ought to be able to bring to the table.



When the moon says it’s Rosh Hashanah and Eid al-Fitr, and the sun says it’s 9/11

“Allah is great, Allah is great.
There is no deity but Allah.
Allah is great, Allah is great
And all praises are for Allah.”

Opening Takbir prayer Muslims say when Ramadan is declared over, and Eid al-Fitr begins

“It is true that You alone are the One Who judges,
proves, knows, and bears witness;
Who writes and seats, (counts and calculates);
Who remembers all that was forgotten.”

– from the Un’taneh Tokef prayer, recited by Jews on
Rosh Hashanah

“This is a day when all Americans from every walk of life unite in our resolve for justice and peace. America has stood down enemies before, and we will do so this time. None of us will ever forget this day.”
– President George W. Bush address to the nation on September 11, 2001

This year marks the first time since the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon that Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year), the Eid (festival) marking the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and September 11 have all aligned.

It is a poignant reminder that the faith of humanity moves as a clock, and will not be disrupted by angry men, violent weapons, and hateful words.

When this year’s Ramadan began, and it became apparent that 9/11 could end up being the first day of Eid al-Fitr, Muslim leaders in America became nervous. It could, after all, appear that the faithful, with parties and carnivals worldwide, were celebrating 9/11, rather than commemorating the end of Ramadan festival in their traditional way.

A spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations told the Associated Press when the month began, that he could “sense brewing” hate on the internet, especially with the Manhattan Islamic Center controversy inflaming tensions. “It’s getting really scary out there,” Ibrahim Hooper of CAIR told the AP.

As it turns out, the Saudi Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that the Eid will begin in Saudi Arabia on Friday, which is September 10. Most Muslim countries are expected to follow the Saudi lead on this. Although in the U.S., one can expect the traditional Eid celebrations to be more muted than usual in deference to the 9/11 anniversary.

Although both Jews and Muslims follow a lunar calendar – with days and months delineated by the phases of the moon – the Jewish calendar is always adjusted to make certain that the appropriate festivals correspond to the appropriate seasons. Passover, for example, will always be in the spring, Shavuot in the early summer, and Rosh Hashanah in the autumn.

The Muslim calendar, in contrast, is not locked to the seasons. It slips about ten days a year, relative to the secular, Gregorian calendar. That is why Ramadan, a holiday where people fast during daylight hours, can come in the short days of winter or the long, hot days of summer.

A specific Muslim date will align with a specific Jewish date only once every 33 years. Some find the confluence of holy days significant. “Both Rosh Hashanah and Ramadan are opportunities for thauba or teshuvah, improving one’s character through introspection, increasing one’s commitment to doing good deeds,” according to an interfaith dialogue on one Jewish British website.

Some, like Terry Jones, the Florida pastor who just “suspended” his plans to burn Qur’ans on Saturday’s anniversary, have drawn brimstone lines in the coal sands of intolerance, hoping to rally the vapid minds of rabid ignorance to their side. Instead, their line has become a circle of light, uniting Muslims and Jews, and all those for whom the insanity of this hateful act was beyond the pale.God Willing

The “extended period of soul-searching,” as one author put it, present during both Ramadan and the Jewish High Holidays, must, Insha’Allah /Im Yirtza HaShem/God willing, “help bond our communities together.”


Being true to ‘our values’ is never ‘off message’

“As a citizen, and as President, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country, and that includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in Lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances.  This is America. ” -President Barack Obama, at the White House Iftar (feast ending a day of fasting during the Muslim month of Ramadan), August 13, 2010

“There wasn’t a lot of debate because he made it clear that he WAS going to take it on.” – White House official to Politico.com

We have a president that believes that it doesn’t matter what the polls say when it’s a matter of the fundamental principles of our founding documents.

President Obama’s remarks Friday, about the mosque and community center in Lower Manhattan, may have stirred up a hornets nest and left the Republicans “licking their chops,” as one House Democrat’s chief of staff told Politico, Saturday.

“It’s just another day off message,” another Democrat’s aide told the political website’s reporters.

Since when is a matter of Constitutional principle “off message” for an American president? There can be nothing more on message, nothing more necessary for him to say and important for the entire world to hear, than we are equally tolerant of all faiths.

Deputy Press Secretary Bill Burton, following the president’s remarks, stated there was no way the president was going to let this one go by. “[I]t is his responsibility to stand up for the Constitutional principle of religious freedom and equal treatment for all Americans,” he said.

The president himself again clarified his remarks when he ran into the press while on a family vacation in Panama City, Florida, Saturday night.  “I was commenting very specifically on the right people have that dates back to our founding,” he said. “That’s what our country is about. And I think it’s very important … that we stay focused on who we are as a people and what our values are all about.”

Even Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, who refused to let his state be divided by the political extremism that is so prevalent in our country, and gave up being a Republican so he could run as an Independent for his state’s US Senate race, chose to agree with the president’s stand. “I think he’s right,” Crist told reporters Saturday, “I mean, we’re a country that in my view stands for freedom of religion and respect for others.”

And there is the main issue – respect for others. With so many of our fellow citizens turning vehemence, disrespect and anger into something that even the press lets go as the new standard for political discourse, we must remember that this country – our country – was founded on principles of tolerance, respect, and civility.  Let’s not lose that.


Pavillions of Promise: A Religious Conversation for Peace

“God is no one’s pigment, no one’s gender and no one’s flag.”
Sister Joan Chittister
October 21, 2007
Atlanta, Georgia

In the dusk of my dreams I have wandered through pointy roofed pavillions spilling across a shallow hillside, reaching the darkened road that runs below. It is a fair, the greatest exhibition of humankind’s noblest pursuit, born out of a quest for the meaning of being alive. These are the laboratories in which different cultures have have created the social alchemy called religion, a construct of humanity that is valued for its endowment of purpose and plagued by the folly of its zealots. Which shelter will I enter? Who will I be when I come out the other side? What if I must chase my soul down the dark road and it hides behind damp brick walls?

If there were a sign over the entry gate to this campus of religious thought, it might say “Teach me to be good, and I will be good.” This is the awareness we assume as we enter life. So it seems that in this equation, Karl Marx did not quite have it right. Good is the opiate of the people; religion is just the opium den. Go in and see the guy in the robes. “Hey man, is this where I can score some good? Can you hook me up with some good? I need some good, bad.”

And this is what he tells you, or some variation: “Submit yourself to education, and busy yourself with practice, and don’t substitute artifice for belief (Thou shalt have no other gods before me).”

How important is this quest? “We want examples of how to behave,” but “education alone is not the answer,” said the Dalai Lama, in Atlanta, yesterday. “All religions are human religions. All religions carry the message of love and compassion.”

Because of that, “Religion has the obligation to feel compunction for its position in the world,” according to Sister Joan Chittister, an author and activist who writes for the National Catholic Reporter. We must examine, she said, what we have “contributed to the conversation of love.”

His Holiness and Sister Joan were speaking at a summit hosted by Emory University, called The First Emory Summit on Religion, Conflict and Peacebuilding. Joining them on the dais were: Professor Rajmohan Gandhi, a human rights activist and grandson of the Mahatma; Rabbi David Rosen, an activist in the arena of interreligious dialogue; and Professor Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im, a law professor at Emory and scholar of Islamic law and politics.

When minds like that get together, it is moving, inspiring and sparky. Rabbi Rosen called them all “religious personalities,” and I suppose the title fits. I mean, the Dalai Lama is a rock star (and we are all groupies – just what religion needs).

Mischievous People who Cast a Bad Light

Like the title of the summit suggests, it was just a conversation. No pacts were made. No treaties were signed, and despite the larger than life presence of the Dalai Lama, no religion took the lead over any other. The discussion was not about good vs. evil, God vs. the Devil, or do-gooders vs. evil-doers. Instead, there was an instant understanding that, “It is not the traditions; it is the believers,” as Professor An-Na’im said. As for the President’s “evil-doers”, His Holiness forgivingly called them “mischievous” people who cast a bad light on their faith.

Sister Joan was the most direct, talking about how religion is responsible for “a bloody history of oppression in the name of God.”

“We have been following the apostolic tradition [of] ‘those who aren’t with us are against us,’ ” she said. “That’s the seed of division and war.”

The Arab-Israeli conflict is the dark forest that has grown from that seed of intolerance. Rabbi Rosen, in speaking about his interfaith work in the Middle East, pointed out that all the parties there feel like they are the victims, and he pleaded with us to have a sense of responsibility, to “get past the victimization.” Like Abraham, he said, we should “see the angel, the divine image, in every living being.”

“If you make an issue out of every principle,” he added, “in the end, you don’t have any principles.”

Professor Gandhi seems to agree.”When you set out to destroy what you dislike, you also destroy what you love,” he said, relating the story (from his brother Ramchandra’s book Sita’s Kitchen) of a group of Hindus that took hammers to an ancient mosque and ended up destroying an even more ancient Hindu holy site known as Sita’s Kitchen.

Sister Joan, of course, put it more bluntly: “Quit trying to convert each other like a ‘Commie for Christ!’ God is no one’s pigment, no one’s gender and no one’s flag.”

Be the Change

So what do we do to move the conversation past “mischievous” zealotry? “Be the change you want to make,” implored Prof. An-Na’im, quoting Mohandas Gandhi’s famous call to action. Right action is up to each of us. “It is my responsibility [to create change],” he said, “not our responsibility.”

It is the responsibility of each of us to “be part of the solution,” is how Rabbi Rosen put it. By standing up and doing that, perhaps we can satisfy Prof. An-Na’im’s call to lead by example (especially in regards to human rights), and “raise our country’s commitment and standing to that which we expect of others.”

Then, perhaps by the work of each of us who were blessed to attend this summit, and the work you do, dear reader, we can bring alive the light sparked by this amazing event. As the Dalai Lama said, “Light will come from this center, and will reach a more, wider area.”

Then no one’s soul will have to be coaxed out of dark, damp alleys, for mischief cannot hide where faith will bear no darkness.