East and West

September 26, 2010
Rev. Victoria Weinstein

THE SERMON                             

The president of Andover-Newton Theological School, the Reverend Nick Carter, called him "the jerk from Jacksonville" at convocation last week. I loved the alliteration. "Jerk from Jacksonville" has a great ring to it, but the man President Carter was referring to is actually from Gainesville, Florida, not Jacksonville.

You probably know who I'm talking about. Terry Jones, the pastor who planned to burn the Koran on what he dubbed "International Burn a Koran Day." Pastor Jones certainly had his fifteen minutes of fame. He got a call from General David Petraeus asking him to please cancel his plans, to consider how he would be stoking anti-American sentiment in the Middle East and endangering our troops if he persisted with his gesture of hatred and intolerance. Jones even got a call from President Obama making the same request.

I have to think that his efforts were intentionally designed to get a reaction, but I wonder if he isn't filing this episode under the "be careful what you wish for" category now. I personally wish the media hadn't given Jones any coverage at all because as it so happens, this news of an American clergyman planning to burn the Koran did start a firestorm of protest in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Indonesia. Another crackpot extremist representing an entire people badly. Where have we seen this before?

Tit for tat. Nineteen fundamentalist Islamist extremists engage in a horrific act of terror, ruining their people's reputation by association in 2001. Nine years later Terry Jones holds a Koran, the sacred scripture of the religion of Islam, over the flames and dangles it there, and tarnishes the American people's reputation by association. It goes back and forth like a bad game of ping pong. The world watches, and comments. Pakistan's newspaper The Nation editorialized that Americans are a "petty, intolerant and even fundamentalist" people who have become Islamaphobic. French journalist Lorraine Millot wrote recently in France's Libération that slandering Islam seems to be America's "new escape valve." Pankaj Mishra writes in Dubai's Gulf News that America likes to blame anti-Muslim hysteria on the rise of conservative extremists like Glenn Beck, but in reality, "this rhetoric was injected into the mainstream of American discourse years ago." ("How They See Us: America's New Islamophobia, THE WEEK, September 24, 2010).

There's a lot of ignorance and opinion and emotion in this suspicion and hostility between America and Islam, three factors which, when combined, do not make for productive thought, conversation or action. The fact is, most Americans just don't know much about the religion of Islam. Our Muslim population in the United States is considerable but it is concentrated in our cities, so the average American woke up on September 12, 2001 feeling shaken and sick and devastated and wondering, "What is this about? Who are these people? Who are these Muslim terrorists?"

The problem is that the question of who the Muslim terrorists are does not address the question of who are the Muslims. They are different questions. We are still scrambling to catch up, to figure it out, to understand. Globalization has made the world seem much smaller very fast and cultures that kept a wide boundary between each other suddenly feel uncomfortably close. Who are you? What are you goals? What are your values?We ask each other.

Some have responded with fear and resistance. We have seen a dramatic rise in Christian nationalism in America in the past five years, an ideology which insists that to be essentially American is to be Christian. That is the vision and the commitment of the Christian nationalist. According to this world view, non-Christian Americans are here courtesy of the largesse of this Christian nation: permanent guests or roommates, if you will, but definitely second-tier citizens. Above all, the Christian nationalist has his eye on numbers and demographics. His major fear, and the reason that this movement has become so popular, is that within a few decades white Christians will be in the minority in the United States. So if you wonder where some of the self-pitying, violin soundtrack to this movement comes from, it is that. It is about nostalgia, it is about anger, it is about grieving in advance the end of total power, and it is about white Christians refusing to go gently into that good night.

Time marches on, populations change, and we must abide together. In order to do that in a way that is not characterized by fear and suspicion, we should first make a commitment to understand and acknowledge that all large groups of people of any category are diverse within themselves. Because it is in making broad generalizations that we cultivate mutual paranoia. There are millions of Muslims in America: the Muslim community in Boston alone is larger than the entire Unitarian Universalist Association! Do we really think this group thinks with one mind? Of course it doesn't. Similarly, it is fairly ridiculous to speak of "Christianity" any more: which Christianity? Billy Graham's or Pope Benedict's? The Evangelical Korean Presbyterian Holiness Church who speak in tongues or the progressive Episcopalians in San Francisco with the gay pastor and the mural that shows Martin Luther King and Queen Elizabeth and Malcolm X dancing with Christ? We should more appropriately speak of Christianities, or Judaisms, or Islams. There are very few monoliths: listen, even within Islamist extremism there is division. Al Qaeda and the Taliban do not even report to the same leaders or agree on all the details of the jihad.

So that's first. Slow down, shut up, listen, read, study and learn. That's what I tell myself when I want to make a generalization, when I want to speak about "those people." I feel simply that I should not. I know only a tiny bit about Islam, and I'm biased in its favor. I want to support moderate (and also non-violent conservative) Muslims, I want to speak well of them, I want to be a voice against hysteria and demonization. I encourage you to do so as well, to speak against broad sweeping generalizations of populations you do not know firsthand.

But I also want to encourage you -- and I say this because I am also prone to this behavior -- not to sugarcoat or try to explain away aspects of Islam that are not sweet. That's tempting, isn't it? When bigoted or merely negatively opinionated people start condemning the entire Islamic community because they have a tiny bit of learning about the religion (most of which was hand-picked for them by anti-Musim agitators), we want to say, "No, no, it's a beautiful religion, it's all about service and peace and humility and devotion to God." That wouldn't be a bad thing to do, of course, but it's not very persuasive because it's also based on a tiny bit of ‘larnin'. It would be more accurate just to say, "Yes, the Koran has violent bits in it just like the Old Testament and New Testament do. They're all complicated religious traditions that started in ancient tribal societies. And all of them report that their God has, at one time or another, ordered the destruction of their enemies. But that doesn't define them."

When I was in Kusadisi, Turkey recently talking to moderate Muslims in a bookstore outside a mosque, one of them said something to me that I will never forget. "Look," said the man, " You don't have to become a scholar of Islam: you don't have time or any reason to be. It would take many years to gain a deep knowledge of our religion. Just be a good Christian, we'll be good Muslims, that's what the world needs. To sit and talk, to drink tea, to live in peace. Be good neighbors."

So this is the conversation I remember when I hear about Feisal Abdul Rauf's desire to build a Muslim community center in lower Manhattan a couple of blocks from Ground Zero. Most of you have heard about this. Rauf is an American citizen of some thirty years, born in Kuwait. He grew up a conservative Muslim but became a Sufi, the mystical branch of Islam which stresses direct experience of God and acts of love and charity (that the poet Rumi was part of). Rauf's dream was to build a Muslim community center based on the 92nd Street Y, which is an amazing Jewish cultural center on the upper West Side that has a packed schedule of celebrity speakers. It's a wonderful place and New York needs more such places. Rauf, an imam, has fairly recently earned some celebrity stature himself -- he led a small liberal Muslim congregation just twelve blocks from the World Trade Center and was sought out by the Bush Administration post 9/11 as a moderate Muslim who could help the administration illustrate that it wasn't at war with Islam but with al Qaida and terrorism. Rauf became a public speaker and sort of goodwill ambassador for the State Department, visiting Muslim countries and building bridges between Islam and the West.

The community center was an old dream for Rauf, who started to raise money for the project last year, hoping to get some mileage out of his moment in the spotlight. What happened is that a conservative blogger named Pamela Geller, writing for a group called Stop Islamization of America, ignited a furor over the plan when she wrote about Rauf's "monster mosque" and claimed that he had a hidden agenda of "Islamic domination and expansion." (This was back in August, a slow news month). When Pastor Terry Jones threatened to burn the Koran, part of his protest was about this so-called "Ground Zero Mosque."

What has gotten lost in the hysteria is that Rauf actually hasn't raised a dime yet, and has only gone so far as to purchase a building that used to be a Burlington Coat Factory. His two non-profits have no staff and one presumes, no extra cash. He doesn't have an architect. So this plan is still just a dream of a 15-story center that will have worship spaces for Muslims, Jews and Christians, programming space for cultural events, a swimming pool, and a basketball court. If there was a plan for Muslim domination here, one would assume funds would have come in to get this project jump-started.

Again, generalization. Broad brushstrokes of assumption that lumps all people of one faith or color or country or whatever together and assigns to all of them a common and nefarious purpose. Yes, we can of course look to history and understand that sometimes human nature brings large groups together who take on terrible agendas of domination and destruction -- it has happened, and we have reason to be aware that evil is part of human potential. But then there is also reason and fact: and the fact is that Islamist extremists have not proved to be a particularly organized force over the long term, nor a particularly numerous one. If a man says he would like to build a cultural center in an old Burlington Coat Factory, there is no reason to assume otherwise unless there is evidence to the contrary. In this case, there is none.

And now we come to the issue of sensitivity to the destruction of the World Trade Center, to Ground Zero which is just a few blocks from the property that Rauf has purchased. And this is where the conversation turns from the rational and the political to the theological. When I first heard of the plan, I could fully understand the reaction of traumatized people whose loved ones died on September 11 and see why they might find it upsetting to have a mosque built over the site where the Twin Towers used to stand. I was totally off on the location, first of all --- the proposed site is blocks away and it is not anywhere near accurate to say that the mosque is being built "on Ground Zero." Even knowing that, I thought it might still be insensitive. "Not a good idea," as President Obama put it.

But then I had to question my reaction. Wait a minute. Let's think about this. What am I saying, or claiming, if I say that there might be a problem with a mosque near Ground Zero? What I am saying -- or at least insinuating--- is that Islam as a whole is to blame for the event, rather than a crazy fringe of it. And I don't want to fall prey to that mentality. I do not want to be an American who cringes or feels fear or resentment when I see a mosque. A mosque is a house of prayer and of peace. I do not want the jihadists to ruin the sight of a mosque any more than I would want the evils committed by some Christians to ruin the sight of a church for me.

But there is the second and more religious issue of responsibility to the dead, to honor them. We are all emotional about this. Did not Muslims die in the attacks? Yes, they did. Was not a mosque destroyed in the Twin Towers? Yes, it was. More important than those facts, however, is the way that the living presume to know the needs of the dead, and we do not. If we say that the presence of a mosque or Muslim cultural center near Ground Zero offends the memory of those killed that day, we are actually making a faith claim that anger and resentment go with us from this life into the afterlife. I will tell you that our Universalist theological heritage clearly tells us that they do not, that the afterlife is not a place or a condition that resembles the confusion, pain and difficulty that we experience here. Our religion teaches us that all souls are restored to the heart of peace after death, the peace that passeth understanding when all things are known and understood and all is resolved. Unitarian Universalist theology leaves many articles of faith to the individual, but our tradition is clear on this: the dead have no need for us to hold grudges on their behalf. All humans are prone to thought and feelings of anger, resentment and vengeance, but at best we can transform those primal reactions to work for justice. And justice is a very different thing from vengeance. Is it an act of justice to interfere with the construction of a Muslim cultural center in lower Manhattan? My conscience cannot persuade me of such a thing.

If we are promised --and at least have good cause to hope for -- a condition of eternal and total peace in the life beyond this one, perhaps we may start to rehearse that condition here and now. We begin by releasing fear, by not succumbing to ugly generalizations of any people, and by assuming good motives of other humans until we are given clear evidence to the contrary. It is not an easy stance to take. That is why we abide together, to strengthen each other for this calling. Amen. A salaam aleikum. Peace be unto you.