Edited portions of a speech I gave before a church in St. Louis, Missouri, on the 10th annual remembrance of September 11 Events
September-11 did not change the face of the world. It just made it easier for a lot of ugly feelings and restrictive policies to come to the surface in an explicit and unashamed way, sadly with very little resistance from us – the people, wherever in the world we live - out of a combination of fear and ignorance.
For some, perhaps many on ALL side, the hatred that has become easier to show was appealing, especially for those who see the world in only two tones: black and white; arch-enemies and dear friends, or simplistically; us and people who look like us on one side, and the 'different ones' on the other side.
That simple-minded world view is a trait of 'splitting personality'. It is a personality defense mechanism that is sometimes more convenient than learning to understand the world the way it really is: a continuum of shades of gray that are in a never ending flux.
The Religious Road to Hatred
Religion was meant to be a message of thoughtfulness and peace, and a source of comfort from God. But it turned out that enterprising humans found religion to be an effective tool in achieving their ungodly goals using unsuspecting masses of the faithful; sometimes as warriors in an army, perceived to be the army of God. At other times, the clever entrepreneurs use religion to help get the faithful out of the way (i.e., not resisting an evil agenda) while that agenda of the clever ones is being completed.
The most effective religious tool used to achieve those goals is to teach us that our eternal salvation, as well as our worldly well-being, is mutually exclusive with that of our enemy. Our enemy is defined as those that have a different set of values, or those who follow a different belief system.
Self-serving agenda of the entrepreneurs' could thus be presented as a mean to serve God, and that for God to like us, we need to oppose his enemies, Hate of fellow humans on the other side of the religious fence becomes something not to be ashamed of, but rather an act of devotion to God.
The simple religious idea of judging people by what they do (a widely held moral concept) is not strong enough to rally the troop, or to incite hate against others. That simple idea had to morph into a simplistic but more captivating idea: judge the others by what they believe in and mostly by what you think they believe in.
Judging me by my deeds takes time and effort. You will need to observe me, analyze how my circumstances influenced my behavior, and weigh my intentions. In other words you need to know about me before you make your judgment. This is the kind of due process we extend even to a person caught while firing the gun at the heart of an unarmed person.
But judging me by my beliefs, or by what you think my faith teaches me, is a lot simpler, and a lot less work.
A case in point is that of an excited fellow American who once confidently put it on TV: I knew all that I needed to know about Islam at the moment when the plane hit the tower on September-11.
The 'Other' in the Quran
|Burnt copy of the Quran|
What God tells us in scripture is good not only because it is Divine but also because it will help us build a world for all God's creatures to live in balance and harmony without aggression or oppression. At least, that is the dream.
And if believers can live the universal message of 'live, do good and let live', and if they do not let differences in terminology and rituals get in the way, then faith in God would be the most positive force in the history of mankind.
But such tolerant concept does not work well for some of us: especially those who think of faith as a tool to rally the faithful so the leaders can gain more power, more followers and even more territory.
Also, for some of the faithful unfortunately, such material success is a sign they need in order to know their faith is the correct faith. Fancier and more crowded house of worship tells them that God likes them more, thus they must be on the right path.
So, and over the years, some so-called 'religious thought' leaders transformed God from the universal Deity for all those who believe in a wise benevolent Creator into a god that officially sponsors a specific group: frequently a ritual-based group, but in many instances the group's admission criteria are racial or ethnic.
To clarify where my faith, Islam, stands on this issue, today I will speak as a Muslim referencing simple face-value interpretation of some relevant Quranic verses about 'the other'.
If we all agree to race with each other towards doing good things and let God settle our difference later (i.e., in the life after), we will live a good life, enjoy each others' company and still maintain our independence as we practice our chosen religion - freely and peacefully.
That last sentiment is not only echoed in the Quran, but it is there stated almost verbatim:
- "… For each, God have appointed a divine law and a traced-out path. Had God willed He could have made you one community. But He has made you as you are so that He may try you by that which He has given you. So vie one with another in good deeds. Unto God you will all return, and He will then inform you of that wherein you differ."
In the context of God instructing Muslims not to show disrespect for other people's beliefs and deities, even if Muslims thought of them as idols, the Quran tells us that each of us is strongly attached to our chosen belief system. We cannot help it – this is how He created us.
- "Revile not those unto whom they pray beside God lest they wrongfully revile God through ignorance. Thus unto every nation have God made their deed seem fair. Then unto their Lord is their return, and He will tell them what they used to do."
And regardless of what Muslims feel to be the right path to follow, their only duty is to deliver a message:
- "So if they dispute with you, say: ‘I have submitted My whole self to God and so have those who follow me.’ And say to the People of the Book and to those who are unlearned: ‘Do you also submit yourselves to God?’ If they do, they are in right guidance, but if they turn back, your duty is to convey the Message…"
- "The Apostle is bound to do no more than deliver the message [entrusted to him]: and God knows all that you do..."
Such understanding that truth is in the eye of the beholder, and that only God can hold us to account, leads to the concept of freedom of faith.
Speaking of those that reject Muhammad's message, God says: (Quran 50:45)
- "God knows best what they say; and you are not one to overawe them by force. So remind with the Qur'an whoso feels the awe of My Warning!"
And more bluntly, in Quran 2:256:
- "Let there be no compulsion in religion: Truth stands out clear from Error: whoever rejects evil and believes in God has grasped the most trustworthy hand-hold, that never breaks..."
Such freedom of faith could result in an amazing society to live in for the average individual; and for people of all faiths.
Most religions adopt some of that spirit of equality, and autonomy for followers of different creeds. The existence of such thoughts in most religions allows mystics from all religions to get along fine, while they still have strong association with their original religion in spirit and in rituals. Mystics feel unity with one another across the religious lines without a need to denounce or reject their own distinct belief system.
Islam presents itself as a unique path, distinct from others. But that uniqueness is in a beautifully simple and almost generic understanding of God and theology. Let me explain that.
Today, Islam has become a word used exclusively as a 'proper noun' and, as such, it is translated phonetically as Islam. But that has not always been the case. In the Quran, the word 'Islam' is used exclusively in the way it linguistically means in Arabic: a concept of surrendering to the authority of God, and none other than God.
Frequently, the Quran refers to pre-Islamic biblical figures and believers as Muslims, and attributes to Prophet Abraham the initiation of the practice known to us as Islam.
- Quran 3: 67 "Abraham was not a Jew, nor yet a Christian; but he was an upright man who had surrendered (to God) [phonetically: a Muslim], and he was not of the idolaters."
Other prophets that followed Abraham, pbuh, and their followers, notably the Disciples of Jesus, pbuh, have been repeatedly described in the Quran as Muslims; or if translated properly: as people who surrendered their being unto God.
What distinguished those blessed people was not their following of a particular set of rituals but an understanding of the nature of the relationship between man and the Creator, and then they adopted a way of life based on that understanding.
Defining faith as a mental and a spiritual state, rather than a mere collection of rituals, makes God the only possible judge of righteousness.
Stated clearly in Quran 22:17
- "Those who believe in the Qur'an, those who follow the Jewish (scriptures), and the Sabians [i.e., Mandaeans], Christians, Magians [i.e., Zoroastrians], and Polytheists,--God will judge between them on the Day of Judgment: for God is witness of all things."
In a different verse, the Quran gets more explicit about Christians and Jews.
- "VERILY, those who have attained to faith [in this divine writ], as well as those who follow the Jewish faith, and the Christians, and the Sabians - all who believe in God and the Last Day and do righteous deeds - shall have their reward with their Sustainer; and no fear need they have, and neither shall they grieve."
From the sublime and down to reality.
It is likely that only a few of you have ever read these verses from the Quran. Fewer will ever hear it discussed on TV or in a newspaper. Many are more familiar with something along this line: "Find the infidels and slay them where ever you may come upon them". I doubt that many of you who are familiar with that last statement have even tried to find if it is there. And if it is, what does it really refer to?
I frequently ask my non-Muslim friends and audience how many of them have read their Holy Books from A to Z, and how many have made the intellectual effort to understand those books. The numbers are abysmal. But, if it is any comfort, on the Muslim side, the numbers are equally abysmal!
Compare anyone's knowledge of their Holy Book to their knowledge of baseball statistics or Super Bowl history and you will have something to laugh at, very bitterly.
Compare the time spent on fantasy sport leagues or reality TV with time spent on understanding one's faith. That will not make you feel better either.
I sarcastically say that if one bet's their life and the eternal life-after on a book being correct, they better know what is in that book.
Similarly, if I decide to go to war with people I chose as my enemy because of who they are, I better know a good deal about them before I kill them, get killed fighting them, or worse yet, turn them into eternal enemy for me and my children for the wrong reasons - with no one to blame other than my intellectual laziness.
I hope you feel my distress when popular cultures here and 'over there', and despite talking a lot about God, use un-Godly set of rules
- It is us versus them; we are good, they are bad.
- God loves us, and our God will send them to hell.
- We never hurt them, yet they hate us because of who we are. They will always hate us no matter what we do
It is part of what they believe in.
- We are civilized, and they are savage.
- And, by the way, you are either completely with us or you are with the enemy.
Any light at the end of the Tunnel?
Some people are unlucky. They do not find comfort in black and white slogans like those I mentioned above and fill our airwaves and popular culture. They are those with the irresistible urge to engage to world, and the urge to try to make the world a better place for us, for our children and for the other, no matter how we define that other.
Those unlucky ones have lived a stressful 10 year stretch of the 'post September-11 world'. Do they see anything good coming out of what we witnessed on that day and over the last 10 years?
I know that, for 10 years, there has been more explicit hate of Islam and Muslims, but there has also been some genuine interest in understanding that culture. Some people get it right and become agents of moderation. Others do not get it right, and they carry on their path of hatred, racism and xenophobia like they did before September 11.
They are more vocal than before that day. And they feel more empowered to express their hate very colorfully. But I do not think they are more numerous than before. Will the silent moderates become more vocal to balance that out? I do not know, but I am more hopeful about one group: the youth.
The Quran talks about Fitra, or "the innate human sensor of the Truth". In its simplest translation, it would be the innocent unpolluted conscience. As we get older, this Fitra is clouded by the material needs and ambitions of life. And, gradually, conscience slides slowly from a humanity-leaning stance to a self-serving posture.
In the youth, healthy Fitra is coupled with the tendency to rebel against what their parents' generation assumes to be the undisputed truth. That makes me trust that most of our youth, in the US, and the Arab and Muslim world, will move in the right direction.
Many of today's youth were children or teenagers when September-11 happened. That is the most vulnerable age in a biased environment. Yet, they are the ones that seem to be the most curious about the other; and the most comfortable in circles of diverse friends and loved ones.
With all the tools of unrestricted communication and access to knowledge, they will grow up less racist, less fanatic, and more open to the other than our generation. They may even be more resistant to soul contamination when they are exposed to our so-called thought leaders in the media, in politics and even in religion.