Baha'i News -- Islam in the United States
The Humanist


Volume 62, Number 2

Islam in the United States

Only in democratic countries are people granted the right to believe what they choose insofar as their beliefs don't injure others or limit the rights of others to believe differently. Therefore, in a country like the United States, one is free to believe in a deity that talks to a human on a mountaintop and actually inscribes rules with a divine finger on a slab of rock. And one can testify to that belief publicly by wearing medieval garb, growing a beard, and following particular culinary laws. Or one can give token acknowledgement by reducing the garb to wearing a small circle of cloth on one's head, tacking a small container holding a scrap of paper with the divine laws summarized to one's doorway, and acknowledging its presence with a hastily planted "kiss" delivered by one's fingertips. Regular or irregular attendance at religious services depends on the degree of commitment.

One may believe that some 2,000 years ago a virgin was impregnated by a god, gave birth without tearing her hymen (hence perpetual virginity), and raised a god-child. The godchild was killed, buried, but escaped from the cave tomb and ascended physically into a heaven believed to exist just above the earth. One can believe that this divine human being will return to earth and establish a kingdom of true believers. Words attributed to him and words written by some of his early followers provide guidelines for salvation. How one interprets these particular "revelations" moves from the literal and absolute to the conditional and selective.

One may believe that some 1,500 years ago an uneducated Arab received messages from an angel named Gabriel. These messages were recited to others who could write them down. They were gathered after the Arab's death and became the basis of a faith system that in its most extreme forms forbids entertainment, music, art, and games and denies education and public status to women, forcing them to cover their bodies from head to toe. In a more liberalized setting, the pleasures of a nonrestrictive lifestyle prevail and women enjoy pretty much the same liberties as other women in a democratic society.

One may believe that just over 150 years ago an American was divinely guided to the burial place of some sacred golden plates. Under further divine guidance, the finder translated the texts (in verbiage that echoes precisely the style of a seventeenth-century English translation of the Bible), and a new religion was born. One might also choose to believe that divine inspiration has not ceased in this group, for when the issue of racial equality was raised during the twentieth century, this faith system, which had barred African Americans from its "Levitical priesthood," suddenly received a new revelation that now admitted them. Revelation and political expedience at times appear to harmonize.

In a democratic society, such freedom to believe or not believe extends to other faith systems, including Asian and Indian religions.

It is important to recognize that, whenever any faith system is tied in with or given the power of government, freedom disappears and the arrogance of power becomes manifest. We see examples of this worldwide. For ten months last year, in Justo Sierra, Mexico, Roman Catholics kept twenty-six Protestant families from their homes- expelling them because they had abandoned "the village's Mayan version of Catholicism." In November 2001 in Northern Ireland, Roman Catholics and Protestants engaged in territorial battles. For twelve weeks, Belfast Protestants harassed Catholic children, some as young as four years of age, who "violated" Protestant territorial rights by walking down a street through a Protestant neighborhood on their way to school. The harassment went beyond screamed obscenities and included the hurling of rocks and urine-filled bags. Meanwhile, Catholic controls in Ireland make it impossible for women to choose abortion to terminate an unwanted pregnancy; they must go to England for the procedure.

In light of current events, the religion of Islam has taken center stage. Due to the grotesque practices of extremist sects -ranging from the cruel and restrictive treatment of women to the imprisonment and murder of dissenters to terrorist actions such as those of September 11, 2001-people generally tend to identify Islam with its most notorious sect, the Wahhabi interpretation practiced by Osama bin Laden and the Taliban. Some may be acquainted with other Islamic groups, such as the Shiites, Sunnis, Kharijites, Mutazilites, and Baha'is. But what has either been overlooked or subsumed in the hysteria since September 11 is the ordinary lifestyle generally lived by Muslims in the United States.

Upon a closer look we find that, while Islam has its own emphases, in the United States Islam isn't at odds with the way women and men of other faiths or no faith live. The rigid tenets we have been exposed to on TV news broadcasts aren't generally practiced in our democratic society. Genders are more melded. Muslim women, like Muslim men, attend universities and become professionals. Some choose to adhere to cultural dress while others don't. In some social gatherings, men and women meet separately for conversation but join together for meals; in other social gatherings there are no separations.

This social freedom is possible because the United States is a secular nation-because, despite the unfortunate propaganda that we are "one nation under God," we live by laws which reflect the will of the people, promulgated by the people and for the people, and which therefore maximize our freedom. It's unfortunate that the recent actions of a few criminals have caused U.S. citizens and legislators to undermine their own noble principles of justice by practicing intolerance against Muslim citizens and threatening the freedoms of all.

Because criminals are what these terrorists are. And our laws are established to protect us from such hate crimes. Occasionally law enforcement personnel in their zeal to protect these laws overstep their bounds (as they seem to have done in the Waco and Ruby Ridge fiascos), inciting anger at their injustice and motivating fringe extremists-such as Timothy McVeigh-to use such situations as excuses to indulge in terrorism as an expression of hate. McVeigh, bin Laden, and their ilk preach and teach hatred and encourage and finance hate crimes. They aren't oppressed individuals; they are criminals.

McVeigh certainly didn't represent the average American who was upset by the Waco incident. He was a psychopath, or perhaps a sociopath-a person who had lost the ability to feel for or care about those whose lives he destroyed. Similarly, bin Laden doesn't represent the American Muslim-or any follower of Islam at its ethical best. Bin Laden is also a psychopath; like the most notorious one of the twentieth century-- Adolph Hitler-he has the capacity to utilize and distort religious teaching, to engage others to join his cult and sacrifice themselves on an altar of hatred in the blind belief that they will find a special place in paradise. Bin Laden has no capacity to feel for the lives of those who he has caused to die or who lost loved ones because of his gospel of hate.

Bin Laden's particular interpretation of Islam is based on a 200- year-old puritanical movement. Founded by Ibn `Abd al-Wahhab (1703- 1792), Wahhabism preaches a return to a primitive, fundamentalist Islam that relies primarily on a literalistic reading of the Koran and denies the rich cultural aspects which developed in the eighteenth century (including the contributions of philosophy, intellectualism, art, music, and the like). Ibn Wahhab's theology was accepted by a contemporary local chieftain, Ibn Sa'ud, thus fusing religious theory and regal enforcement. As the house of Sa'ud expanded throughout Arabia, the religious centers at Mecca and Medina came under Wahhabi control. During the nineteenth century, because of what was once geographical remoteness, Wahhabi teachings could be enforced. However, the oil developments begun in the 1930s brought the modern world into the environs of Saudi Arabia and many technological compromises were embraced. Nonetheless, the major tenets of Wahhabism persisted.

Because Wahhabism is the interpretation of Islam practiced by Osama bin Laden and the Taliban of Afghanistan, under their regime women were dehumanized, men were compelled to conform to dress codes, great works of art were destroyed, people were denied music and games, and free choice was nonexistent. And bin Laden was not alone. The late Ayatollah Rubollah Khomieni, a Shiite Muslim, expressed similar sentiments in 1979 (and don't think that this Iranian leader's influence has dissipated with time): "Christian, Jewish, and Baha'i missionary centers are spread in Teheran to deceive the people and to lead them away from the teachings and principles of religion. Isn't it a duty to destroy these centers?"

Words can become tools or weapons. Teachings can direct lives and condition behavior. When the words and the teaching enhance freedom and the quality of life, they become constructive tools for building a safe and sane future. When they preach and teach hatred, they become weapons that destroy freedom and result in violence. As we listen, unless we weigh what we hear critically and et\hically, we can be negatively affected.

We will never know the degree to which the hate-filled words of Martin Luther influenced the Lutheran nation of Germany prior to World War 11. But according to Robert Waite in The Psychopathic God Adolph Hitler (1977), it was Luther's program concerning the Jews, set forth in 1543, that Hitler carried out "in every detail." What was Luther's final solution?

First, to set fire to their synagogues or schools ...

Second, I advise that their houses also be razed and destroyed

Third, I advise that all their prayer books and talmudic writings, in which such adultery, lies, cursing and blasphemy are taught, be taken from them ...

Fourth, I advise that their Rabbis be forbidden to teach henceforth on pain of loss of life and limb ...

Fifth, I advise that safe-conduct on the highways be abolished completely for the Jews ...

Sixth, I advise that ... all cash and treasure of silver and gold be taken from them...

Seventh...let whosoever can, throw brimstone and pitch upon them, so much the better...and if this be not enough, let them be driven like mad dogs out of the land.

Waite adds, "It is one of those jarring accidents of chronology that Hitler launched his first pogrom against the Jews, known as Kristallnacht, setting fire to their synagogues and schools on the night of 9-10 November 1938-on Luther's birthday."

Surely we in the United States are different from these historical hatemongerers and will remain different so long as our government is of the people, by the people, and for the people-and not controlled by some faith group or hate group. But we can be reached and influenced and even enlisted.

How easily this can be done was demonstrated in 1976 and reported by high school history teacher Ron Jones in No Substitute for Madness (1977). Responding to a student's query as to how the German people could claim innocence while the Nazis were persecuting Jews, Jones introduced a class experiment requiring unquestioning obedience in an authoritarian environment. Slogans, salutes, and the reporting of nonconformity were adopted by the thirty students. By the fourth day, class size had grown to eighty and, on the fifth day, when Jones told the students they were part of a nationwide program that would be announced on television by a presidential candidate, 200 students were in attendance.

As the hoax was revealed, Jones used the opportunity to help the students recognize how such madness can be adopted and spread. The only barriers are the voices of freedom and the use of critical thinking. In other words, sociopathic teachings, sociopathic behavior, insensitivity to the feelings and rights of others must be challenged whenever and wherever they surface. Humanistic concern for those whose lives have been disrupted, whose rights have been violated, and whose family members have been killed must be expressed over and over again.

More recent examples of intolerance abound. We have learned to expect stupid and insensitive statements from Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. They represent borderline thinking that has no relationship to the thinking of what might be called standard-brand Protestantism. On the other hand, we welcome the wisdom of such Muslim leaders as Maher Hathout, senior adviser to the Muslim Public Affairs Council in Los Angeles, and his colleague, the council's director Salam alMarayati, who in 1994 wrote in a Los Angeles Times article entitled "The Tyranny of Brotherhood":

Today, Muslims in much of the world are under military dictatorships, occupations or theocracies-even subject to genocide- suffering human rights violations under Muslim and non-Muslim rulers.... Muslims in America enjoy their freedom, but until Muslim countries allow their citizens to think freely and write without fear of retribution, as the Sharia (Islamic law) mandates, let us not deceive ourselves by claiming that these countries are part of our dream. No, they are part of our nightmare.

...It is time to redefine Muslim culture based on true Islam, and perhaps a new beginning in the West. Then, the public could understand how Islam is concerned with secular affairs and balances the concerns of this world with concerns of the hereafter, the temporal with the eternal; how reason is also a cornerstone of Islamic jurisprudence, and how the will of the people is inseparable from the will of God.

... One can practice Islam in America without worrying about secret police dragging people out of bed in the middle of the night. Women can pray and lecture in American mosques rather than suffer exclusion from society. In America one can criticize the government and feel patriotic. It is not an issue of being anti-secular or anti- religion, but of being anti-oppression and antiexploitation.

Are there psychopaths among American Muslims? Of course, there are. Similarly there are those among other religious and political groups without social conscience or the ability to look beyond personal prejudices and hatred. One need only remember the teachings and actions of the Ku Klux Klan, read the hate-filled words of the Aryan Brotherhood, or listen to the ranting of those who would bomb women's health centers and kill abortion providers. Similarly, those who would attack, imprison, or kill Muslims simply because they are Muslim reflect in themselves the essence of the very behavior against which they claim they are reacting.

We humanists seek to live and respond according to ethical principles that emphasize the oneness of the human family in all of its multiple manifestations. We seek to act in ways that bring out the best in others even as we seek to express the highest humanist ethic by what we say and do. At the same time, we recognize our personal limitations and seek to rise above any thinking or behavior that would deny our highest ethic. This means that, as we react and respond to the September 11 Wahhabi-inspired terrorism, we renounce and reject the thinking and actions of those who would deny the rights of Islamic members of our one human family simply because of their religious beliefs. We may rationally and critically examine their religious concepts but we don't deny them the right to those beliefs-and we expect them to respect our right to believe as we do. American Muslims aren't fanatics or extremists or terrorists. They are our neighbors who seek to live ordinary, meaningful lives-even as we do.

Gerald A. Larue is professor emeritus of religion, adjunct professor of gerontology at the University of Southern California, and the 1989 Humanist of the Year.

©Copyright 2002, American Humanist Association

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