Representative Keith Ellison, a Minnesota Democrat who is the first Muslim elected to Congress, was to be the major speaker at the Religion Newswriters Association convention yesterday, but he got a better offer: President Obama decided to fly into Minneapolis to pitch health care reform at a rally at the Target Center, and he invited Ellison to join him on Air Force One. But, using a technique that seems to be increasingly common among politicians who cancel scheduled appearances, Ellison sent along a video in which he addressed a few questions left for him on his voice mail. The congressman offered a general disclaimer – “I would not presume to speak for the Muslim community – I am not an imam, nor a religious scholar’’ and he noted that most of the folks who voted to elect him were Christian. But he offered a few thoughts about the role of religion in public life. “Religion as a force in people’s lives is greater now than in quite a while,’’ he said. He gave a full-throated endorsement of religious people playing “every single role” in public life. He noted that religion has negative as well as positive impacts, and, he said, “the potential to be explosive,’’ but also said of atheists, “even their philosophy has resulted in catastrophic harm,’’ citing Pol Pot and Stalin as examples. “Clearly no segment of humanity has failed to use a philosophy or religion to change society for the good or the bad."
Ellison said that faith gives policy makers “a certain sense of humility. If you believe in an omniscient, divine power, and I certainly do…we have to recognize that we’re both important and infinitely small, and should not therefore presume to have all the answers.’’
Ellison, who supports a single-payer health care system, was most explicit about the role of his faith when discussing the issue of health care reform, and, in the line of the day, he wryly posed the rhetorical question, “Jesus healed the sick – did he not?” before adding, “and he didn’t charge them for it either.” Ellison ticked off a list of ways in which Muslims help provide health care, both through free clinics at various places around the country, and through the work that many Muslims do in the health care profession.
“A caring nation cares for the health of its people,’’ he said. “It is a moral axiom that we should lend assistance to people caring for health maladies.” He argued that the reason the United States does not have universal health insurance, unlike other multiple other countries, “is that a small group of people make a bundle of money on the status quo.’’
Asked about American relations with the Muslim world, particularly in the wake of President Obama’s Cairo speech, Ellison praised the president’s efforts to date, but said, “what’s needed is not only the excellent speeches the president gave, but we need to dig in and look at our policy decisions.’’ He called the Iraq War “a mistaken policy” and said it has been damaging to U.S. relations with the Muslim world. He also criticized the “corrosive effect on civil liberties” of the war on terror. He urged the audience of reporters to rethink what they mean by the phrase “the Muslim world,’’ suggesting that perhaps that phrase is used to describe countries where other factors, such as colonial history, are more important than religion. But Ellison also went further than I often hear in statements from Muslim leaders, volunteering, “I say to leaders in the Middle East, 'You need to talk about issues of incitement. Why do we have educational materials that say derogatory things about other religions? This is a bad thing, and not properly in line with Islamic teaching'.’’
(Photo, by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters, shows President Obama arriving in Minneapolis on Sept. 12, 2009 with, from left, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, Senators Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken and Representative Keith Ellison.)
In today's Globe, health/science reporter Liz Kowalczyk takes an interesting look at the increase in demand for chaplains at Boston hospitals. An excerpt:
The number of requests from patients, families, and staff for spiritual guidance in one of the country’s most technology-rich medical hubs has soared, as hospitals have expanded the role and number of chaplains.
Since 2004, requests for chaplains at the Brigham have jumped 23 percent. At Massachusetts General Hospital, requests have grown 30 percent since the hospital began tracking visits in 2006. And at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, which expanded its pastoral care program last year, monthly visits are expected to rise to at least 540 this month, a 10-fold increase over the same time last year.
“Visits are just going through the roof,’’ said the Rev. Julia Dunbar, director of pastoral care and education at Beth Israel Deaconess.
Chaplains and doctors said requests - from both religious and nonreligious patients and families - are growing in part because hospitals are caring for sicker patients who are more often grappling with questions about aggressive care and death. The number of Latino patients also has grown, chaplains said, and many of these patients are deeply religious.
Also, as hospitals have expanded the role and number of chaplains, which include priests, ministers, rabbis and imams, they’ve become more visible and available. Last year, Beth Israel Deaconess hired a full-time Catholic priest and six part-time chaplains and began asking all patients whether they want a visit during their stay. Mass. General has assigned its chaplains to specific units to increase their visibility.
(Photo, by John Tlumacki of the Globe staff, shows a Jesuit priest/hospital chaplain, the Rev. George Winchester, talking with patient Bob Perry of Lowell at Brigham and Women's Hospital on Aug. 20, 2009.)
I was wondering how long I could hold out before blogging about Michael Jackson, and now I know the answer: six days.
In those days since the King of Pop died, I've now seen so many items about his faith that my head is starting to spin. He was a Jehovah's Witness. A Muslim. He accepted Jesus before he died. The Vatican loved him, but was that right? There's even a Jewish angle of sorts. Not to mention the unending discussion of what it means to call him an icon, or an idol. Some folks have suggested that his funeral will shed some light on his final faith practices, but I'm not holding out much hope for that.
Here is a brief Michael Jackson religion roundup. Make of it what you will:
- Jackson was raised a Jehovah's Witness, and there have been a variety of unconfirmed reports that at some point he was disfellowshipped by the Witnesses. Back in 2000, Jackson penned an essay for Beliefnet about his relationship to the Sabbath, and in it he discussed doorbelling to preach for the Witnesses:
"Sundays were my day for 'Pioneering,' the term used for the missionary work that Jehovah's Witnesses do. We would spend the day in the suburbs of Southern California, going door to door or making the rounds of a shopping mall, distributing our Watchtower magazine. I continued my pioneering work for years and years after my career had been launched."
- Jackson's brother Jermaine is a Muslim, and there were some reports during Michael's life that he, too, converted to Islam. The Times of London rounds up the evidence in an item headlined, "Was Michael Jackson Muslim?"; there was also a roundup on Global Voices. Imam Zaid Shakir blogged about Jackson's conversion to Islam, and then retracted his blog item, concluding, "There have been many reports throughout the media concerning Michael becoming Muslim. Allah knows best as to their veracity.'' Perhaps my favorite development on the role of Islam in the Michael Jackson story, though, was this correction that ran Saturday in The New York Times, revising a comment that Jermaine Jackson made at the hospital where Michael Jackson died:
"The article...misstated part of a comment that Mr. Jackson’s brother Jermaine offered for Mr. Jackson after speaking with reporters. He said, “May Allah be with you always,” not “May our love be with you always.”
- Not to be outdone, Christianity Today tackles the question, "Was Michael Jackson a Christian?" The evangelical magazine explores, and then essentially debunks, suggestions that Jackson accepted Jesus just before his death. "Initial rumors that the King of Pop had accepted Christ may have been false,'' the magazine concludes.
- The Jewish Telegraphic Agency, meanwhile, offers a story on Michael Jackson's "Jewish Ties,'' which turn out to be quite complex -- he said some offensive things, he was friends with a rabbi, he flirted with kabbalah (who didn't?) and it's possible that at least two of his children are technically Jewish because Jackson's ex-wife Debbie Rowe, who has been thought to be the biological mother of the children, is Jewish. Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, a onetime friend of Jackson, wrote a generous appraisal for Beliefnet; Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the head of the Reform movement, offers a far more critical assessment, asking,
"Is it really necessary, however, now that he is dead, for those who speak in the name of the Jewish community to be joining in the adulation and offering excuses for his actions?"
- Some in the Catholic community are similarly conflicted. L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, published a generous appreciation of Jackson's legacy, prompting Tom Heneghan of Reuters to observe: "It’s not every day that the Vatican newspaper suggests that a man accused of pedophilia and said to have converted to Islam might be immortal. But that’s what L’Osservatore Romano did today." Over at American Papist, Thomas Peters is not amused, calling the Vatican paper's assessment "fawning'' and suggesting that it could never have appeared in a parish newsletter:
"Jackson, it should be noted, from all outside accounts, lived a tortured existence and the circumstances of his death should prompt an outpouring of fervent prayers for his soul, not these gushing, Hollywood-esque bon mots about how his "myth" will survive "serious and shameful" accusations. All the artistic success in the world, we must realize, is a basket of straw if your personal life was a spiritual, human wreck. I really dig Michael Jackson's music, but as a Catholic, I don't have to buy into the myth that great art makes a great man. Michael Jackson's best chance to "never die" is the mercy of Christ, not his best-selling record."
I suppose it's not all that surprising that an entertainer who often seemed confused, or confusing, about race, gender and sexuality, would also leave us wondering about his religious beliefs. Here's Juan Cole, blogging about how religion fits into the Michael Jackson identity swirl:
"Jackson was a man of multiple identities, which helped account for his enormous worldwide popularity. It seems clear that he was deeply traumatized by his rough show business childhood, and that things happened to him to arrest his development. Just as a stem cell can grow into any organ, Michael's eternal boyishness made him a chameleon. Increasingly androgynous, he expressed both male and female. A boy and yet a father, he was both child and adult. In part because of his vitiligo, he interrogated his blackness and became, like some other powerful and wealthy African-Americans of his generation, racially ambiguous. Toward the end of his life he bridged his family's Jehovah's Witness brand of Christianity with a profound interest in Islam. He was all things to all people in part precisely because of his Peter Pan syndrome. A child can grow up to become anything, after all."
(Photo, by Hasan Jamali for The New York Times via AP, shows Michael Jackson wearing a black abaya while exiting a shopping mall in Bahrain with one of his children, also veiled, and a security guard, on Jan. 25, 2006.)
I’m now at the mosque, and directly across Malcolm X Boulevard are about a dozen or so protesters holding signs saying, “Prayer, Yes. Extremism, No!’’ The protesters have a two-man band, including a saxophone, playing an unusual medley of music ranging from “Amazing Grace” to “Embraceable You,’’ and they are handing out doughnuts to passers-by, along with brochures reading “what you need to know about the ISBCC/MAS leadership.”
In a bit of counterprotest theater, a group of young Muslims took white roses from the interfaith breakfast this morning and walked over to the demonstrators to hand them the flowers as a sign of peace and goodwill. Predictably, a shouting match ensued, surrounded by reporters and cameras, with a group of police standing warily by. Minds were not changed – it’s not even clear how well people could hear one another, if at all.
I tried to talk to a few of the protesters, but they said they had been instructed not to speak to the media, but rather to defer all questions to Charles Jacobs, who has been the mosque’s leading critic. Jacobs was critical of the flower gesture, saying, “they just want to surround me and give me flowers – they don’t want to talk to me,’’ and he urged reporters to focus on what he says has been problematic funding of the mosque by Saudi donors, and problematic literature in mosque-related facilities, such as instructions for wife-beating that were once posted on the website of the mosque in Cambridge, which, like the Roxbury mosque, is owned by the Islamic Society of Boston.
One supporter of the mosque pointed out to me that, although the vast majority of Boston’s Jewish leadership has boycotted today’s events, it seems likely that there were actually more Jews celebrating with the mosque supporters than protesting them – the breakfast’s honorary chairs included two Hebrew College officials as well as the head of the Workmen’s Circle, and the attendees included some young Jewish activists. One of the Jewish participants in the interfaith breakfast inaugurating the mosque, Enid Shapiro, e-mailed me to say, "The breakfast was quite extraordinary although I was very disappointed that representatives of the established Jewish Community (CJP) were not represented. The demonstration outside the Reggie Lewis Center was appalling and certainly did not represent me or in my mind the Jewish Community." Later, at the ribbon cutting, I ran into Rabbi Moshe Waldoks, who told me he saw around six local rabbis joining the celebration. “For those in the Jewish community who have been involved in dialogue with the Muslim community, we celebrate what our cousins are doing by establishing this symbol in the community for many years to come.”
A variety of Muslims talked to the protesters, including the Saudi architect of the mosque. Also talking with the protesters was Harvard pluralism guru Diana Eck, a religion professor and longtime mosque supporter, who brought her summer interns to today’s events to witness American pluralism in all its fervor and ferment. Eck said that the mosque “has been plagued with a series of misunderstandings, and the age-old tactics of guilt by association.’’ She called the suit and counter-suit that stalled the project “a huge blot on the face of Boston,’’ but said that the opening of the mosque, “on the positive side, has represented the kind of engagement that the new America really requires – this is the kind of engagement pluralism is really about.’’
(Photo above, by Michael Paulson/Globe Staff, shows the protests across from the mosque in Roxbury today, June 26, 2009.)
The opening ceremonies for the new mosque in Roxbury Crossing began this morning with a breakfast at the Reggie Lewis Track and Athletic Center at Roxbury Community College. There were perhaps 200 people here, including a number of folks who have been active in the Muslim and Christian communities. On the way in, I ran into Bishop M. Thomas Shaw, the Episcopal bishop of Massachusetts, and asked him why he is here; he noted that about 400 Muslims who work downtown regularly worship in St. Paul's Cathedral, and said he wanted "to honor them,'' he also called the new mosque "a very positive contribution to the Boston community, and one that is much needed for interfaith dialogue.''
Salma Kazmi, the longtime mosque spokeswoman and community relations director who left to get a divinity degree at Harvard, emceed the breakfast, kicking it off with an understated, "this day has been a long, long time coming,'' alluding to the 20 years of controversy, lawsuits, and financial challenges that slowed and nearly blocked the project.
Harvard Divinity School Dean William A. Graham, a scholar of Islam gave the keynote speech, and sharply rebuked the mosque’s critics (some of whom are planning to protest outside today), saying, “the mindless attacks in recent years from so-called religious people will soon be forgotten as the center proves itself a center for good people.’’ Graham said the mosque is a testament to American values of freedom and diversity, and criticized “stereotypes and caricatures of Islam” that he called “distortions of a great tradition.’’
“My hope and belief is that this Islamic Center will demonstrate… the power for personal and societal good that the Muslim faith has been and can be,’’ he said. He called the mosque, “a beautiful physical presence and a talented human presence” and “a potential blessing for all Bostonians, not just Muslim Bostonians.”
“I look forward to all that this community will do and say going forward,’’ he said.
Governor Deval Patrick had to cancel his appearance at the breakfast at the last minute to attend the funeral of a soldier from Massachusetts who was killed in Afghanistan, but sent along a video greeting that made his support for the project quite clear. Patrick opened his taped remarks with the Arabic phrase, "Assalamu 'alaykum," meaning “peace be upon you,’’ and called the mosque opening a “wonderful milestone.” He repeatedly spoke of “welcoming you into the community of faith in the Commonwealth,’’ and said, “I look forward to working with you.’’
“Even as I welcome you into the community of the faithful, I eagerly invite you to be part of our civic community,’’ the governor said. “Let’s build stronger bonds and better tomorrows together.’’
Interestingly, the mosque chose one of its more controversial backers, Walid Fitaihi, to recite from the Koran. Fitaihi has been a lightning rod for criticism because he wrote an essay in an Arabic-language newspaper calling Jews “murderers of prophets.” He has since apologized and the mosque said it had reprimanded him.
A string of local religious leaders offered greetings. Bishop Gideon Thompson, president of the Black Ministerial Alliance, said, “I celebrate with you this opportunity we have to create peace and hope in our city. Boston desperately needs all the help we can get…We need you in the city…Our city needs as much peace, love, joy and goodwill that will create an atmosphere of hope that will strengthen and bless our city.’’
The Rev. Jack Johnson, director of the Massachusetts Council of Churches, which represents Protestant and Orthodox churches, offered congratulatory remarks, called the opening “a significant moment.’’ “Your entrance in this neighborhood will deeply enrich us,’’ he said.
Rabbi Sanford Seltzer of Hebrew College, one of only a handful of Jews who attended an event largely shunned by Jewish organizational leaders leery of the mosque’s leadership, also offered praise, “at long last Islam has taken its rightful place as a full partner on the American scene.’’
The Rev. Ray Helmick, a Catholic priest who teaches theology at Boston College, said “you’ve had a very rough ride here in Boston where you were confronted by a great deal of bigotry and rejection,’’ and compared the response to this mosque to the bigotry that he said previously greeted Catholics and Jews in America. He called the mosque a “beautiful monument.’’
Later this morning, there will be a ribbon-cutting at the mosque, followed by the first official call-to-worship from the minaret, and an inaugural worship service.
(Photo, by Michael Paulson/Globe staff, shows the interfaith breakfast at Roxbury Community College on June 26, 2009.)
Today begins two days of ceremonies marking the official opening of the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center in Roxbury Crossing, a project that has been underway for two decades, has cost $15.6 million, and has been highly controversial.
In today's paper, I have a story about the mosque opening, and here on Boston.com we have the lovely video above, shot by Scott LaPierre, showing the summer program for kids now running at the mosque, as well as a photo gallery showcasing some of the images Suzanne Kreiter shot at the mosque yesterday.
Yesterday I posted an item noting that Governor Patrick is going to miss the inaugural breakfast because of a funeral, and last fall I posted an item about a climb up the minaret.
I'm heading over there shortly, and will be live-blogging the day's events. Keep your comments civil if you want them to be published.
Governor Deval Patrick, who was scheduled to headline the inaugural breakfast for the new Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center in Roxbury Crossing tomorrow (Friday) morning, has had to cancel his appearance in order to attend the funeral of a soldier killed in Afghanistan.
The mosque has been controversial, and local Muslims were excited about Patrick's appearance as a signal of the mosque's acceptance by the broader community. But Patrick's spokesman, Kyle Sullivan, said that Patrick is cancelling only because he wanted to attend the funeral of the late Kevin Dupont, of Templeton, who died after a Humvee in which he was riding struck a bomb. Patrick has made a practice of attending every funeral for a fallen serviceman or woman in Massachusetts.
Patrick has agreed to tape a video tribute to be played at the breakfast, and his deputy press secretary, Kimberly A. Haberlin, just sent me the following statement from the governor:
"As the President stated so eloquently during his address in Cairo earlier this month, the United States is entering a new era of partnership with our Muslim brothers and sisters, both abroad and here at home, and the Center will play a vital role in that partnership in Massachusetts. I congratulate the Islamic Cultural Center on their commitment to enriching our community life."
Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino is still planning to attend the ribbon-cutting, and I called him up this afternoon to ask why. Here's what he said:
"When you're mayor, you're mayor of all the people, not some of them, and the folks who are part of the mosque, and Muslims, are part of the city.''
I asked the mayor what he made of all the controversy that has surrounded the mosque. His reply:
"It has been controversial, and there is controversy when you have a religion from those countries. But we've got to start building those bridges. Yes, The David Project has been objecting, but I can't pick and choose. This is the religion they believe, the religion they practice. Are there some extremists in Islam? No question. But do I have some in my religion? Yes, there are. We have to get beyond that.''
We're publishing a story, video, and photo gallery about the mosque opening tomorrow morning in the paper and here on Boston.com, and I'll be liveblogging the inaugural events here as well.
(Top photo, by Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff, shows Gov. Deval Patrick at Thayer Public Library in Braintree on May 11, 2009. Bottom photo, by Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff, shows Mayor Thomas Menino at the Boston Harbor Hotel on June 9, 2009.)
The long-awaited, much-debated new mosque in Roxbury Crossing is scheduled formally to open at the end of this month.
The Muslim American Society, which is operating the new Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center (above), has scheduled two days of events to celebrate the completion of the building. The building had a soft opening last fall, during Ramadan, and has been in use since then, but the events June 26 and 27 mark the formal inauguration as the Muslim community prepares to expand programming in the building. The major inaugural events will include an interfaith breakfast at the Reggie Lewis Track and Athletic Center, across the street from the mosque; a ribbon-cutting, call-to-worship, and prayer service at the mosque itself; and a celebratory dinner at the Boston Marriott Copley Place. The dinner will feature a speech by U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, a Minnesota Democrat who is the first Muslim to serve in Congress; the breakfast will feature Harvard Divinity School Dean William A. Graham, who is a noted scholar of Islam, as well as a variety of local religious leaders; mosque officials say they expect Governor Patrick to attend the breakfast and Mayor Menino to attend the ribbon-cutting.
"I see this as continuing the historic role that Boston has played in the cultural and religious history of America,'' said Bilal Kaleem of the Muslim American Society. "This is where the Pilgrims landed and where a lot of the country's first churches are, and we really see Muslim history in America having one of its key moments here.''
Kaleem argued that the ISBCC is different from other mosques in America because it is located in the city (rather than the suburbs) and because in addition to serving as a mosque it aspires to function as a community center with a mission of "integrating Muslims into active civic life.''
The 68,000 square-foot mosque has a capacity of about 3,000 worshipers, and is already drawing about 600 to Friday worship, Kaleem said. The mosque has been in the works for nearly 20 years, has cost about $15.6 million so far (the Muslim community hopes to build a school on the site at some point) and has been riven by controversy and litigation over a variety of comments and organizational affiliations of mosque backers as well as over the city's role in providing the land for the mosque. Defenders of the mosque have suggested that the criticism is intensified, if not motivated, by bias; critics of the mosque have said they have legitimate concerns about the associations and ideas of its leaders.
(Photo by Michael Paulson/Globe staff, on June 8, 2009.)
President Obama gave his much-anticipated speech on Islam in Cairo today.
A few quick observations:
• Obama offered considerable praise for Islam, opening his speech with the Arabic greeting, "Assalaamu alaykum," as he called for "a new beginning," and as he issued a lengthy plea for peace. Each time he quoted from the Koran, and there were several, he was cheered (and he was also cheered when he talked of democracy and of women's rights). And he referred directly to the role of Islam in his own family history, saying, "I am a Christian, but my father came from a Kenyan family that includes generations of Muslims. As a boy, I spent several years in Indonesia and heard the call of the azaan at the break of dawn and the fall of dusk. As a young man, I worked in Chicago communities where many found dignity and peace in their Muslim faith."
• Obama's estimate for the population of Muslims in the United States -- 7 million -- is higher than that used by many social scientists, and is likely to be the subject of some debate. "Let there be no doubt,'' he said. "Islam is a part of America."
• He clearly rejected denial of the role that terror played in 9/11, or any conspiracy theories about what happened that day. "Al Qaeda chose to ruthlessly murder these people, claimed credit for the attack, and even now states their determination to kill on a massive scale."
• He also specifically rejected Holocaust denial. "Six million Jews were killed – more than the entire Jewish population of Israel today. Denying that fact is baseless, ignorant, and hateful." But he used that subject as a segue into his discussion of the concerns of Palestinians, saying, "it is also undeniable that the Palestinian people – Muslims and Christians – have suffered in pursuit of a homeland,'' and "Let there be no doubt: the situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable."
• He denounced "violent extremism" and violence, saying, "violence is a dead end. It is a sign of neither courage nor power to shoot rockets at sleeping children, or to blow up old women on a bus. That is not how moral authority is claimed; that is how it is surrendered.'' And he noted that African Americans in the United States won their own struggle for rights without violence.
• He called for religious freedom in the Muslim world, saying, "Among some Muslims, there is a disturbing tendency to measure one’s own faith by the rejection of another’s." But he also suggested the West can do better, saying of the US, "rules on charitable giving have made it harder for Muslims to fulfill their religious obligation. That is why I am committed to working with American Muslims to ensure that they can fulfill zakat." And he implicitly criticized countries such as France, saying, "It is important for Western countries to avoid impeding Muslim citizens from practicing religion as they see fit – for instance, by dictating what clothes a Muslim woman should wear. We cannot disguise hostility towards any religion behind the pretence of liberalism."
There is much more to chew on -- Obama talked about Afghanistan, Iraq, the Middle East, the economy, nuclear weapons, women's rights, democracy, as well as religious issues. The full text of his speech is below.
What did you think?
(Photo, by Gerald Herbert/AP, shows President Obama touring the Sultan Hassan Mosque with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in Cairo today, June 4, 2009.)
Here is the text, as prepared for delivery, of President Obama's speech to Muslims in Cairo today:FULL ENTRY
Pope Benedict XVI today arrived in Israel for a much-anticipated visit after four days in Jordan. He immediately touched on the two major issues looming over the trip, addressing the Middle East conflict by expressing his support for an independent Palestinian state and addressing strain in Jewish-Catholic relations with a visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial.
In today's Globe, columnist James Carroll reflects on the trip:
"Abstracting from the complications of Pope Benedict's own record of omni-directional religious insult, his role as a living emblem of what remains of Christendom, the generating core of Western Civilization, is enough to give his journey to Jerusalem special gravity. As the head of a church that has earnestly grappled with its legacy of anti-Semitism, yet understands how that legacy infects the air to this day, he can represent to Arabs the urgency of purging their own attitudes of its ongoing effect. Anti-Semitism no more. The popes who sent wave upon wave of crusaders to Jerusalem have been reversed only in recent years, and Benedict surely longs to continue that reversal. Crusades no more. As the Vicar of Christ in whose name so many colonial adventures were launched, he can stand repentantly with Palestinians who refuse to be treated as a colonized people. Colonialism no more. As the ultimate European, in the ultimate world city, he can acknowledge the new condition of human survival - that it belongs as a right not just to the "superior races," but to all.
However inhibited by strictures of institution or imagination, Benedict is a man of good will. Yet his role transcends his person. A symbolic figure on pilgrimage to a symbolic place, he has opportunities to heal ancient and modern wounds. So we wish him well."
The pope's trip to Jordan went quite smoothly, but over at the National Catholic Reporter, John L. Allen Jr. reports that there is already disappointment with the pope's remarks today in Israel:
"Pope Benedict XVI has long been a figure who draws mixed reactions, with many admiring his clarity and intellectual depth, and others turned off by his traditionalism and occasional lack of a popular touch.
The pontiff's keenly anticipated visit today to Yad Vashem, the main Israeli Holocaust memorial, is likely to become another chapter in Benedict's mixed reviews. Some are likely to see it as a stirring poetic meditation on memory and justice, while others will probably be more struck what the pope didn't say than what he did.
For one thing, there's no explicit expression of regret for Christian anti-Semitism, no allusion to the role that currents of thought within Christianity about Jews and Judaism may have played in preparing the soil for the Holocaust."
Of course, the trip is just getting underway. Tomorrow the pope is scheduled to visit the Western Wall and Temple Mount -- the holy sites of Judaism and Islam. Then he is to spend Wednesday in Bethlehem, Thursday in Nazareth and Friday at Christian sites in Jerusalem before returning to Rome. (One factoid I find amazing: Israel is deploying 80,000 people to provide security for the papal visit.)
The Vatican is posting the texts of the pope's remarks throughout his trip here.
(Photos, by Uriel Sinai/Getty, show the pope at Yad Vashem today, 5/11/09.)
This is a scene that immediately captured my imagination: last week, in the preacher’s room at Memorial Church in Cambridge, the Dalai Lama, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his advocacy of non-violence, turned to one of Harvard’s leading scholars of Islam and asked him about the meaning of jihad.
The Tibetan Buddhist leader briefly mentioned the exchange in his speech to at the church; it took me a few days to get more details, and now, here they are:
The 73-year-old Dalai Lama had been to Harvard multiple times, and on a couple of occasions had met Professor William A. Graham (right), a noted Koranic scholar who for the last several years has been the dean of Harvard Divinity School. The Divinity School, as well as the Harvard Graduate School of Education, co-hosted the Dalai Lama’s Harvard event last week, so Graham was with the Dalai Lama in a room behind the sanctuary while the assembly watched Tibetan dancers and listened to the strange sounds of a dhung-chen, a traditional Tibetan horn that sounded to me like a cross between a didgeridoo and a shofar. The Dalai Lama, preparing to give his speech about the teaching of compassion, was apparently thinking about the role of a divinity school at an institution like Harvard – he later talked about the importance of teaching comparative religion in university settings -- when he turned to Graham and asked him about Islam. I later caught up with Graham by phone, and here’s what he told me:
"We were simply talking about the virtues of doing comparative religion studies, which he believes in, and he said so many things are misunderstood, like jihad. He said he was thinking about the differences between greater and lesser jihad in Muslim jurisprudence. He had a few things to say about it – I didn’t get much of a chance to respond to anything – but he’s quite correct that the word jihad has been misused. Any traditionalist who knows his Islamic law knows that jihad is fundamentally defensive. The tendency has always been, with Muslim religious thought, to say the real jihad is the inner struggle with oneself, and the lesser jihad is actually having to take up arms. And, even then, Muslim law has ruled consistently that it has to be for defense of Islam. Obviously, various political leaders have taken and misused that -- rulers have always been able to find someone who can give a fatwa, saying it’s because they’ve been threatened or attacked or whatever, to say this is legitimately a jihad. But that’s why 9/11 was so thoroughly condemned by mainstream Muslim legal scholars and clerics, saying this should not be construed as an act of jihad."
Graham described the exchange as a form of "chit-chat" and said the point was "we need to understand more about other traditions – he was mostly just saying we need to know more."
But the Dalai Lama also seemed to draw a second lesson from the exchange, because in his opening remarks he not only paid tribute to the importance of educating students about religions other than their own, but he also made a more specific point, that Islam, like Buddhism and other religions, emphasizes compassion (the Dalai Lama’s most frequently mentioned priority). The Dalai Lama made his point visually, as well as verbally, pulling off his wrist his Buddhist prayer beads - called a mala -- while referring to Muslim rosaries and talking about how Islam fits into the family of faiths. Here’s what he said as he began his speech (his English is a little rough, but his meaning is clear):
"It is very, very important for religious school: comparative study of different traditions. Sometimes, unfortunately, the different religious faiths, sometimes instead of helping people, sometimes divide. In worst case, even bloodshed take place in the name of different faith. That not only in the ancient time, but also modern times sometimes it happen. So therefore the study of different traditions is very, very helpful, and I think make familiar to people there are many different tradition, and all tradition, in spite different philosophy, all have same purpose, to bring inner peace. And with that, I think all religion talks about sense of spiritual brothers, sisters, and also love, compassion, forgiveness, tolerance, contentment, self-discipline, all tradition consider these are very valued, these are important.
So, while we just were waiting there, I asked you, from the special field of Islam…I asked the meaning of jihad. In certain way, when threat towards one’s own tradition happening, then, for protection or defense one’s own faith, then certain kind of appropriate action. So that kind of concept I think all religion have the same sort of use. So sometimes people, it’s a little exaggerated: Islam is more militant, because of few individuals misuse to action. So since September 11th event, in many occasion I always come forth, with a defense of Islam. Islam like any other major tradition. I think the very praising Allah means love, infinite love, compassion, like that. I understand Islam, they usually carry rosary, all 99 beads, different name of Allah, all refer compassion, or these positive things.
No religion, no religious tradition say their god is full of hatred, full of anger, nobody say that. So Allah means infiniteness of love. So genuine follower of that kind of god, the meaning is, must practice love, compassion, because they are genuine follower of that kind of god. So in that case, more faith towards one’s own god, the person should be more compassionate person. That’s logical like that.
So it’s wonderful, comparative study. Usually my approach, about interfaith, and promoting religious harmony: firstly make clear all the differences. Then try to analyze the purpose of these different approach, different philosophy. Then more or less you can find that all different approach, all different method, different concept, meant for promote love, compassion, forgiveness, honesty, truthful, these things. So like medicine. There are a variety of medicine. Each medicine different. But all same purpose: cure illness. Some medicine serve to some illness. Some medicine is very harmful, very dangerous. But overall, all meant for better health, cure illness. So similarly, all religion like that."
(Photos of the Dalai Lama at Memorial Church by Mark Wilson of the Globe staff, 4/30/09. Photo of William Graham by Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard University News Office.)
Religious day schools are facing increased demand for scholarship assistance as the parents of their students lose jobs. I have a story in today's paper. An excerpt:
"Religious day schools in Greater Boston, some of which had been enjoying strong growth in recent years, are reporting increased requests for financial aid from families hurt by the recession and concerns about potential drops in enrollment.
The area's Jewish community last week became the first to act collectively, announcing $2 million from a national foundation to provide emergency scholarship aid to families whose children attend one of the area's 14 Jewish day schools or many Jewish summer camps and preschools.
The major source of financial aid for Catholic school students, the Catholic Schools Foundation, says its fund-raising is down by 15 percent, while requests for emergency aid from families in which a parent has lost a job or had work hours cut are spiking.
The situation facing religious schools is similar to that facing nonreligious private schools and colleges, all of which are far more expensive than the public alternatives.
'Every school and camp are reporting significant increases in the numbers of students and campers and preschool families needing scholarships,' said Barry Shrage, the president of Combined Jewish Philanthropies. 'We have hit a massive recession that looks like it's going to hit all segments of the community, from the poorest, who are already on scholarship, to the people in the middle class and upper-middle class, who never needed help before but now are fully unemployed.'"
(Photo, by Aram Boghosian for the Globe, shows Orna Siegel, the director of admissions at Gann Academy, a Jewish high school in Waltham, looking over files in her office on 3/20/09.)
In the Ideas section of today's Globe, Penn State humanities professor Philip Jenkins takes a look at accusations that the Koran is filled with violent language, and compares it to the Bible. An excerpt:
"Some Westerners argue that the Muslim scriptures themselves inspire terrorism, and drive violent jihad. Evangelist Franklin Graham has described his horror on finding so many Koranic passages that command the killing of infidels: the Koran, he thinks, "preaches violence." Prominent conservatives Paul Weyrich and William Lind argued that "Islam is, quite simply, a religion of war," and urged that Muslims be encouraged to leave US soil. Today, Dutch politician Geert Wilders faces trial for his film "Fitna," in which he demands that the Koran be suppressed as the modern-day equivalent to Hitler's "Mein Kampf."
Even Westerners who have never opened the book - especially such people, perhaps - assume that the Koran is filled with calls for militarism and murder, and that those texts shape Islam.
Unconsciously, perhaps, many Christians consider Islam to be a kind of dark shadow of their own faith, with the ugly words of the Koran standing in absolute contrast to the scriptures they themselves cherish. In the minds of ordinary Christians - and Jews - the Koran teaches savagery and warfare, while the Bible offers a message of love, forgiveness, and charity. For the prophet Micah, God's commands to his people are summarized in the words "act justly, and love mercy, and walk humbly with your God" (Micah 6:8). Christians recall the words of the dying Jesus: "Father, forgive them: they know not what they do."
But in terms of ordering violence and bloodshed, any simplistic claim about the superiority of the Bible to the Koran would be wildly wrong. In fact, the Bible overflows with "texts of terror," to borrow a phrase coined by the American theologian Phyllis Trible. The Bible contains far more verses praising or urging bloodshed than does the Koran, and biblical violence is often far more extreme, and marked by more indiscriminate savagery. The Koran often urges believers to fight, yet it also commands that enemies be shown mercy when they surrender. Some frightful portions of the Bible, by contrast, go much further in ordering the total extermination of enemies, of whole families and races - of men, women, and children, and even their livestock, with no quarter granted."
(Photo, by Shah Marai/AFP, shows students reading the Koran in Afghanistan on 3/23/06.)
Pope Benedict XVI today confirmed the dates for his much-anticipated trip to Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinian Territories, as well as his upcoming trip to Africa. The Middle East trip, from May 8-15, has taken on renewed significance given tensions over Israel's handling of the Gaza conflict and over the pope's lifting of the excommunication of a Holocaust-denying bishop. From the Associated Press story:
The pope's Mideast tour will touch Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories, with stops in cities including Amman, Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Nazareth, the Vatican said.
Though a detailed program has not yet been announced, officials in destination countries have said they expect Benedict to visit an Amman mosque, hold public Mass in Jordan and Nazareth and make a stop at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem.
There has been only one other official visit by a pope to the Jewish state, Pope John Paul II's pilgrimage in 2000. Pope Paul VI made an unofficial trip there in 1964.
Israeli President Shimon Peres, who invited Benedict to visit, called the trip "an important and thrilling event of the first order, that emanates a wind of peace and hope."
(Photo, by Gregorio Borgia/AP, shows Pope Benedict XVI during the Angelus noon prayer in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican today, 3/8/2009.)
A new Gallup poll of Muslim-Americans finds the group to be more ethnically diverse than other religious groups, and less likely to say they are thriving in the U.S.
The key findings:
• "Muslim Americans are the most racially diverse religious group surveyed in the United States, with African Americans making up the largest contingent within the population, at 35%."
• "Muslim American women are one of the most highly educated female religious groups in the United States, second only to Jewish American women."
• "Only 51% of young Muslim Americans are registered to vote, which is one of the lowest percentages among young Americans surveyed."
• "Of the religious groups studied, only Mormons (85%) are more likely than Muslims to say religion plays an important role in their lives."
On the question of how Muslim-Americans assess their lives, Gallup says:
"The 41% of Muslim Americans considered to be "thriving" is the lowest percentage among religious groups studied. However, when comparing percentage of "thriving" Muslim Americans with Muslims in other Western societies as well as those in predominantly Muslim countries, Muslim Americans are among the groups with the largest percentage of respondents who say they are thriving. (Of the predominantly Muslim countries surveyed, only Saudi Arabia's population has a similarly high proportion of thriving individuals.)"
A multifaith group of religious leaders from Boston, including Jews as well as Muslims and Christians, today is issuing a joint statement calling for a ceasefire in Gaza.
"We call upon Hamas immediately to end all rocket attacks on Israel, and upon Israel immediately to end its military campaign in Gaza,'' the statement says.
The Jewish signatories include several rabbis as well as the former presidents of Hebrew College and the Jewish Community Relations Council, but are predominantly drawn from the liberal wing of the Jewish community, and do not include the current heads of the major umbrella Jewish community organizations, who have generally not said anything that could be perceived as critical of Israel.
The most prominent signatories are the Christian leaders, also predominantly associated with liberal causes, who include the top local officials of the Episcopal Church, the Massachusetts Council of Churches, the United Church of Christ and the United Methodist Church, as well as the president of Andover Newton Theological School. The top local official of the Unitarian Universalist Association also signed. There are several Catholic signers, but no members of that church's hierarchy.
The Muslim leaders include several local imams and the leadership of the Muslim American Society of Boston.
Here is the full text of the letter plus the signatories:
"AN INTERFAITH DECLARATION FOR PEACE
We, members and leaders of the Muslim, Jewish, and Christian communities in Greater Boston - all having deep and symbolic ties to the land and peoples of the Middle East - are anguished by the events unfolding in Israel and Gaza. Recognizing the legitimate needs of all peoples, including all those living in the Middle East, for dignity, peace, safety and security –- regardless of religion, race, or national origin -- we issue this joint statement with the hope and belief that our interfaith voices will be heard clearly, above the din of war.
As guiding principles,
•We acknowledge the long, complex, and painful history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict
•We acknowledge the wide range of deeply-held beliefs, and intensely-felt narratives on all sides
•We acknowledge that all sides are capable of assigning blame to others, and asserting justification for their cause
•We observe that violence by any side begets more violence, hatred, and retaliation
•We deplore any invocation of religion as a justification for violence against others, or the deprivation of the rights of others
•We decry any use of inflammatory rhetoric that demonizes the other and is intended, or is likely, to promote hatred and disrespect
•We believe the conflict can be resolved only through a political and diplomatic solution and not a military one.
In the face of many competing narratives, we recognize that the overriding common need of the peoples of the region is the prompt implementation of a just and lasting peace. Toward that end, and particularly in response to the current hostilities,
•We call upon the United States and the international community immediately to intercede to help reestablish a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, toward the goal of a permanent cessation of hostilities
•We call upon Hamas immediately to end all rocket attacks on Israel, and upon Israel immediately to end its military campaign in Gaza
•We call for an immediate end to all strikes on civilian centers and citizens, both Israeli and Palestinian
•We call for lifting of the blockade on Gaza as to all non-military goods, for an immediate and significant increase in humanitarian aid to address the needs of the people of Gaza, and for all parties involved to join in taking responsibility to address those human needs
•We call on all parties involved in the conflict to work sincerely and vigorously toward a just and lasting peace that addresses and promotes the national aspirations of both the Israeli and Palestinian peoples
•We call on President-elect Obama to make clear that as President he will urgently assert US leadership to achieve a comprehensive diplomatic resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian and Arab-Israeli conflicts
Through this joint statement we affirm our commitment to engage with one another, even, and especially, during times of great stress. We also affirm our common humanity and our common belief – as Jews, Muslims and Christians - that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict must cease, that there is no military or violent solution, that all human life is valued, and that all parties must cooperate to make the peace – a just and lasting peace desperately needed and deserved by all the peoples of the region."
It’s that time of year again – list time. Actually, it’s way past list time. The Religion Newswriters Association issued their list of the top ten religion stories of the year weeks ago – of course, as a result, they missed the Madoff scandal, the Rick Warren/invocation controversy, and the Gaza assault. Revealer issued lists of the year's best religion writing and the year's best religion books and movies. Altmuslim offered a list of the top ten good news stories of the year. And Religion Dispatches has a list of the top ten year-end religion news lists, including those from Time, Christianity Today, and the Onion.
For this first new year of this new blog, I’m going to offer ten reflections about religion news and the year gone by, with a few anticipatory remarks thrown in as well. This is just a sampling; feel free to suggest other topics in the comments field.
1. The year that is ending was marked, in particular, by the multiple battles for the hearts and minds of religious Americans in the presidential campaign. There was often less there than met the eye – evangelicals continued to vote in large numbers for the Republican Party, despite vigorous efforts to lure them away by Democrats, and Jews continued to vote overwhelmingly for the Democratic Party, despite an unending whispering campaign on the Internet attempting to associate Obama with Islam and critics of Israel. Mitt Romney’s much-anticipated speech on faith and public life was probably not a turning point in American political thinking. Social issues played only a minor role in a campaign dominated first by Iraq and then by the economy. And, to the extent that religion was part of the political story, it was almost always as something to criticize or mock – the preaching of Wright, Hagee and Pfleger, the beliefs and practices of Palin and Romney, the middle name of Obama, the politics of Warren.
2. As the new year begins, it appears that the biggest story for all religions is likely to be the economy, which will increase demand on religious organizations for solace and assistance at the same time that it depletes their endowments and threatens their fundraising.
3. In the Catholic Church, the biggest news of 2008 was the successful visit to the United States of Pope Benedict XVI, who benefitted enormously from low expectations and won high marks for his decision to meet in Washington with five Bostonians who had been sexually abused by priests. That meeting was put together by Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley, who passed (without celebration) five eventful years as archbishop of Boston, seemingly settling into his role after surviving multiple controversies, moving the church’s longtime headquarters from Brighton to Braintree, completing a reshaping of his administrative team, improving the archdiocese’s grim financial picture and rescuing St. John’s Seminary from the brink of death. But O’Malley still faces enormous challenges; the diocese still spends more each year than it raises; five closed parishes remain occupied (for more than four years now!) by protesters; and the diocese’s accounts for clergy pensions and benefits are seriously underfunded. And the church remains, particularly in Massachusetts, at odds with the political culture, particularly over abortion and gay rights. So in 2009, I'll be watching how O’Malley handles the vigils and the pension funds; what he does to address the increasing priest shortage, most likely by asking more priests to oversee multiple parishes like the circuit riders of old; and how he manages critiquing a presidential administration supported by the vast majority of his parishioners. For the pope, a highlight of 2009 is expected to be a May visit to Israel, but that trip could be postponed or cancelled if the violence there continues.
4. Mainline Protestant denominations continued to be roiled by debates over homosexuality, and continued to grapple with declining participation and aging congregations. The split in the global Anglican Communion since the election of an openly gay bishop in New Hampshire began to formalize in 2008, as conservatives announced that they were establishing a separate North American province that would compete with the existing Episcopal Church in the U.S. and Canada. African American Protestant churches reflected on the state of black liberation theology after the incendiary preaching by Jeremiah Wright (a pastor in the mainline United Church of Christ) called attention to the risks of rhetoric in the age of Youtube.
5. The evangelical Protestant world was in the spotlight throughout the election, as the Democratic Party attempted, with little measurable success, to break the strong relationship between evangelicalism and Republicanism. But evangelical politics are clearly in flux – polls show younger evangelicals interested in a broader array of issues than their elders. And the tension was on display in awkward ways; the National Association of Evangelicals ousted a longtime long official, Rich Cizik, whose open attitude toward global warming and gay relationships caused some on the right to question his orthodoxy. And the flap over Obama's choice of Rick Warren to deliver the inaugural invocation reminded both evangelicals and Democrats that engagement between the two will be fraught with complexity.
6. For the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2008 brought an end to the presidential campaign of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, whose candidacy went further than that of any of the Mormons who have previously sought the nation’s highest office, but also called attention to a deep streak of anti-Mormonism in American culture, particularly among evangelical Protestants. The year also saw Mormons in the midst of a controversy over Proposition 8, the measure that would overturn same-sex marriage in California. Mormons, acting at their church’s urging, gave millions to the campaign, and the church was targeted by protesters after the measure passed. Locally, Mormons continued their institutional growth in eastern Massachusetts; eight years after building a huge temple on Belmont Hill, the LDS church this year broke ground for a new stake center in East Cambridge and announced plans to build a new chapel (being contested by neighbors) in Brookline.
7. For Jews, much of the year’s biggest news was concentrated at the end of the year, as multiple Jewish foundations and individuals lost millions of dollars in the alleged Ponzi scheme overseen by one of the community’s own; an investor named Bernard L. Madoff. And the Israeli assault on Gaza, in response to Hamas rocket attacks on Israel, brought renewed attention to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and to significant concern about Israel’s conduct by a variety of governments and groups. There was also the immigration raid on the kosher meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa, which has intensified a growing discussion about what relationship, if any, there should be between ethics and kashrut. Locally, the Combined Jewish Philanthropies offered a new plan for the Jewish community, which, as it turns out, called for intensified defense of Israel; the Jewish community locally also decided to close its community center on the South Shore. In 2009, watch for a potential consolidation of Jewish nonprofits as the economy and the Madoff scandal take their toll, and also keep an eye on how the Jewish community manages interfaith relations given the increasing criticism of Israel from other faith groups.
8. For Muslims, the year brought ongoing tension over the place of Islam in the West, as American Muslims continued to make incremental political gains, but were largely ignored by an Obama campaign wary of associating with an unpopular group. The use of terror by some Muslims – most recently the attacks in Mumbai – continues to pose a challenge to those who proclaim that Islam is a religion of peace. The Middle East crisis also looms large for American Muslims, who are attempting to persuade American policymakers to criticize Israel’s actions in Gaza. Many Muslims seized as a sign of hope Colin Powell’s denunciation, on Meet the Press, of the idea that there is something wrong with being a Muslim. And in Boston, 2008 brought the soft opening of the much-debated and long-delayed new Islamic Cultural Center in Roxbury, which is expected to fully open in 2009.
9. There were several notable deaths in the world of religion in 2008. Cardinal Avery Dulles, the scion of a famous, and Protestant, American family, who came to Catholicism by the banks of the Charles River, and who became the only American theologian ever named a cardinal by Rome, died in December at 90. Gordon Hinckley, the president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, revered by Mormons as prophet, seer and revelator, and a descendant of the last governor of Plymouth Colony, died in January at 97. Russian Orthodox patriarch Alexy II died in December at 79; Warith Deen Mohammed, the African-American Muslim leader, died in September at 74.
10. The business of religion journalism, like the rest of the journalism business, is, to put it mildly, in flux. The amount of space and resources committed to religion journalism by the mainstream media continued to dwindle in 2008, and several veteran religion writers around the country were laid off or bought out.
At the Globe, the powers-that-be retired the paper’s longtime religion column, Spiritual Life, as part of a budget-cutting effort, and launched this blog, Articles of Faith, in an effort to better engage with that segment of our growing on-line audience that is interested in religion. The blog has grown rapidly – thanks to Sarah Palin, the abortion issue, and a variety of other controversies, we had nearly 200,000 page views in November. I am grateful to all of you (well, most of you) who visited, bookmarked the site, subscribed to the RSS feed, and took the time to post comments or send notes as I experiment with this forum, trying to figure out what features and what types of posts are most useful, how best to balance the kinds of hot-button items that generate clicks with posts about news and culture that can be traffic-deadening, and also how best to balance blogging with reporting and writing stories.
This will almost certainly be my last blog post of the year; I’ve just arrived in California for a vacation, and, if the news and my own temperament allow me to tear myself away from the keyboard, Articles of Faith will be on hiatus for a bit. But please feel free to post your own thoughts about trends in the world of religion as comments on this blog, or shoot me an e-mail with suggestions for religion stories you think the Globe should pursue in 2009.
And, to one and all, Happy New Year.
(Photo, by Lai Seng Sin/AP, shows a New Year's celebration today in Petaling Jaya, Malaysia.)
Christian leaders are starting to speak out on the situation in Gaza, where Israeli forces, retaliating for rocket attacks against Israel, today attacked Hamas targets for the third day in a row, bringing the death toll in Gaza to over 300.
On Saturday I posted comments from Jewish leaders here; on Sunday I posted comments from Muslim organizations (updated this morning) here. Today comes the following statement from Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori:
"Yesterday afternoon in New York, outside the Episcopal Church Center, a demonstration took place in front of the Israeli consulate. The demonstrators included orthodox Jews. All were calling for an immediate end to the attacks in Gaza. I join my voice to theirs and those of many others around the world, challenging the Israeli government to call a halt to this wholly disproportionate escalation of violence. I challenge the Palestinian forces to end their rocket attacks on Israelis. I further urge the United States government to use its influence to get these parties back to the negotiating table and end this senseless killing. President-elect Obama needs to be part of this initiative, which demands his attention now and is likely to do so through his early months in office. I urge a comprehensive response to these attacks. Innocent lives are being lost throughout the land we all call Holy, and as Christians remember the coming of the Prince of Peace, we ache for the absence of peace in the land of his birth.
Immediate attention should focus on vital humanitarian assistance to the suffocating people of Gaza. In March of this year, I spent a day in Gaza visiting religious and community leaders and the Al Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza City, run by the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem. Since that visit, the situation, which was already devastating, has only worsened, with supplies of food, fuel, power, and medical supplies either cut off or indefinitely delayed. Our hospital must now try to treat the wounded under the most impossible circumstances.
I ask all people of faith to join with the Episcopalians in Jerusalem who this Sunday dispensed with their usual worship services and spent their time in prayer for those who are the objects of this violence. I pray for leaders who will seek a just peace for all in the Middle East, knowing that its achievement will only come when they have the courage to act boldly. But they must do so now, before the violence escalates further. It is only through a just and lasting peace that the hope of the ages can be fulfilled, that hope which we mark in the birth of a babe in Bethlehem."
Also today, the Vatican released a full translation of the comments made by Pope Benedict XVI after praying the Angelus yesterday:
"The Holy Land, which occupies the thoughts and sentiments of faithful around the world during these days of Christmas has again seen itself struck by an outbreak of unprecedented violence.
I am profoundly saddened by the deaths, the wounded, the material damage, the suffering, and the tears of the peoples victim to this tragic recurrence of attacks and reprisals.
The earthly homeland of Jesus cannot continue being witness to such bloodshed that is repeated without end! I implore an end to the violence, which is to be condemned in all its forms, and the re-establishment of the truce in the Gaza Strip. I ask for a show of humanity and wisdom in all those who have some responsibility in this situation. I ask the international community to do everything possible to help the Israelis and Palestinians out of this dark alley and not to resign themselves - as I said a few days ago in the 'Urbi et Orbi' message - to the twisted logic of confrontation and violence, but to give precedence to the path of dialogue and negotiation.
We entrust to Jesus, the Prince of Peace, our fervent prayer for these intentions, and to Him, Mary, and Joseph we say: 'Oh family of Nazareth, expert in suffering, grant peace to the world'. Grant it today, above all, to the Holy Land!"
(Photo, by Ariel Schalit/AP, shows Israeli tanks moving today at a staging area near Israel's border with the Gaza Strip, in southern Israel.)
Two leading U.S. Muslim organizations, the Muslim Public Affairs Council and the Council on American-Islamic Relations, have issued statements decrying Israel's ongoing airstrikes against Hamas in Gaza, which have reportedly killed more than 225 people, and which are Israel's response to rocket attacks from Gaza against Israeli communities.
Here is the statement from MPAC:
"Israel's latest military assault is a disproportionate and inhumane response to Palestinian militants' cross-border rocket attacks against Israel, which recalls its devastating and widely condemned military assault on Lebanon just two years ago. The U.S. must act swiftly and decisively to prevent an Israeli massacre of Palestinians, since Israeli officials have said the military strikes could continue for days or months, and could include ground forces.
While the U.N., the European Union, Russia and Egypt have harshly condemned Israel's use of force while also calling on Hamas to end the rocket fire, the Bush administration today blamed Hamas for the end to the cease-fire and demanded that it stop firing rockets and limited itself to calling on Israel only to avoid hitting civilians. MPAC also calls on the Obama transition team to be ready to fairly and constructively address the conflict in the Middle East when they take office.
Earlier this month, MPAC called on the administration to follow the footsteps of the U.N., which called for Israel to lift its stifling blockade on the Gaza Strip. The economy has been paralyzed; food, water and electricity are in short supply; and observers have described conditions there as "the worst ever." The policy of collective punishment has now escalated beyond the blockade to crushing military force that may be aimed at Hamas, but is also costing the lives of civilians who are struggling just to survive in the brutal economic situation.
In "Envisioning Peace: The MPAC Perspective on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict," MPAC calls for a two-state solution where each state is truly and fully sovereign on an equal basis.
Since the inception of Israeli occupation of the Palestinian Territories on the heels of the Six Day War in June 1967, scores of U.N. resolutions and calls by the international community for an end to the most crucial aspects of the occupation -- notably the relentless expansion of Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories -- remain unheeded.
And it is that occupation, now as then, that stands at the heart of the conflict between two peoples engaged in a vicious and utterly unequal struggle over territory. It has taken a terrible toll on all those involved in the conflict. Today, there is a generation of Palestinians who have known nothing but occupation and a generation of Israelis who have experienced only dominance over the Palestinians."
And here is the statement from CAIR:
"Despite the public ‘green light’ given to the Israeli military by the Bush administration, American Muslims join our fellow citizens who respect international law and the sanctity of human life in repudiating this massacre carried out using U.S. taxpayer-funded weapons.
It must be clear by now that the only future offered to the Palestinian people by the outgoing administration was one of perpetual subjugation and humiliation at the hands of the Israeli occupiers. Unfortunately, our nation’s timid response to this tragic episode will only serve to fuel anti-American sentiments in the Muslim world.
We therefore call on President-elect Obama to demonstrate his commitment to change our nation’s current one-sided Mideast policy by speaking out now in favor of peace and justice for all parties to this decades-long conflict.
We also call on world leaders to take direct action to end Israel’s counterproductive and wildly disproportionate attacks and to end the humanitarian siege of Gaza, which led to the recent breakdown of the ceasefire."
At the Vatican today, Pope Benedict XVI, who is expected to visit Israel in May, called for an end to the violence, saying, "The homeland of Jesus cannot continue to be witness to so much bloodshed, which repeats itself endlessly...I implore an end to that violence, which must be condemned in all its manifestations, and the restoration of the truce in the Gaza Strip.''
Yesterday I posted a statement from Boston Jewish leaders defending the attacks here.
UPDATE: On Monday morning, two local groups, the Massachusetts chapter of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADCMA) and the Muslim American Society (MAS Boston) issued statements on Gaza, and said they planned to visit the Boston office of Sen. John F. Kerry today to express their concerns. "As people of conscience, we will appeal to the humanitarian ethics of our elected representatives to call on them to work to end the attacks on the civilian population in Gaza," said Bilal Kaleem, the director of MAS Boston. "We seek an end to all attacks on civilians, whether from the IDF or Hamas."
(Photo above, by Eyad Baba/AP, shows Palestinian firefighters trying to extinguish fire today at a burning building after an Israeli missile strike in the Rafah refugee camp, southern Gaza Strip.)
I must admit that I was already experiencing some Rick Warren fatigue over the weekend (too much blog reading while snowbound...), but I perked right up when I heard this, which sounds like the start of a joke: Rick Warren met Melissa Etheridge at a convention of Muslims Saturday. It's hard to know where even to begin with this, except to observe that this must be one of those only-in-America moments, where an evangelical preacher who opposes gay marriage and abortion, and who is being vilified by gay rights advocates for the language he used to express his opinions, is invited not only to give the invocation at the inauguration of a president who supports abortion rights and gay rights (although, it must be noted, not gay marriage) but is also invited to speak at a convention of Muslim leaders (who don't support gay marriage either, but who also have never been high on the list of people evangelicals most often praise) where he meets a rock star, of whom he turns out to be an autograph-seeking fan, who is a lesbian (and, apparently, intrigued by Sufism) whose marriage to a woman may be invalidated by the ballot measure the evangelical supported, and the two of them talk.
It's not exactly clear what happened, but Warren later declared, "Let me just get this over very quickly. I love Muslims. And for the media's purpose, I happen to love gays and straights." And Etheridge's wife blogged, "hath hell frozenth over? rick warren was humble and kind. honey and i are to go to his church sometime soon. and honey invited him to our house for an afternoon, to be with our family.''
Maybe this was Obama's point in the first place.
(Photos, by Hector Mata/AP, show Warren and Etheridge at the Muslim Public Affairs Council convention in Long Beach on 12/20/08.)
Twice a year, the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life brings together about two dozen journalists for a few days of talks with academics and think tank scholars about, not surprisingly, current issues in religion and public life. The gatherings take place at a conference center in Key West; I’ve been a few times previously, and today and tomorrow am attending sessions on three subjects, “America and Islam After Bush,’’ “Religion and Race,’’ and “Religious Voters in the 2008 Election.’’
This morning was the Islam session, led by Vali Nasr (right), an adjunct senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council of Foreign Relations who is also a professor at Tufts’ Fletcher School and a fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School. Nasr argued that the United States has essentially overemphasized the importance of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the Middle East, and has underemphasized the significance of a battle over the balance of power between Iran and the Arab world, particularly in the Persian Gulf region. In fact, he says, the Palestinian issue “has become a front” for the larger struggle between Sunni and Shia Islam.
The Palestinian issue he said, “is an extremely important issue at the emotional level across the Muslim world, but it’s no longer the only issue. Imagine that tomorrow there’s a peace deal. It doesn’t change the fear of Iranian power in the Gulf.’’
Nasr said that Iranian leaders are often dismissive of Arab nations, whereas Arab leaders are fearful of ascendant Iranian power. And, he argued, Shiites are increasingly influential in multiple other nations. “Shia revival in the Middle East is one of the most significant trends in the region.’’
Jeffrey Goldberg, a national correspondent for the Atlantic, offered a response, largely supportive of Nasr’s analysis. Goldberg, a former Middle East correspondent for the New Yorker, called the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “an enduring and cynical drama” and said “The Jewish-Muslim rivalry is nothing compared to the Shia-Sunni rivalry.’’
“We are in many ways collateral damage,’’ Goldberg said. “There is an enormous crisis in one of the world’s greatest civilizations – Islam. Islam has become in many ways its own enemy. It’s really quite remarkable when you sit down and think about how the incredible savagery and cruelty that’s committed in the name of Islam is not met by a revolt of the silent majority of Islam. There are things we can do to mitigate the damage that the West suffers as Islam goes through this very long, very deep crisis, but I’m not confident at all that we are sophisticated enough to influence the outcome of this cataclysmic debate within Islam…I think that we’re in for a 20 or 30 or 50 or 100 year period when we essentially stand by and watch the world of Islam decide what is."
As for the oft-repeated response to terror by Muslims -- "Islam is a religion of peace" -- Nasr said, "I don't think any religion is a religion of peace. Fundamentally, religions are open to interpretation...We're in a time period where fundamentalism has made Islam very important, and fundamentalism is a particularly political beast. It's driven to conquer world power, to build states...and its path to power has been conflictual. The Iranian revolution was about hard power...and it was bloody. In the wake of that has come this wave of salafism and the like, and I think the current language of politics and Islam is not about peace, it's about conquest and power.'' Goldberg said, "I understood why George Bush said it (but) the categories are wrong...The history of Islam is not one of the 'meek shall inherit the earth,' it's the one who has the most forces.'' He argued that Islam is really a religion of submission, to God, and that Muslims believe that submission will lead to peace.
The attacks on multiple sites in Mumbai are rekindling the discussion of the relationship between Islam and terror, even before the perpetrators are definitively identified. Early reports suggest that the attacks may have been carried out by Pakistani militants involved in the conflict over Kashmir between India and Pakistan. But the choice of a Jewish target -- the Chabad House, where at least five people, including two rabbis, were killed -- as well as the targeting of American and British travelers, broadens the religious dimensions of the attack beyond the Hindu-Muslim conflict.
In Boston, the Jewish Community Relations Council this afternoon sent over the following statement, calling the attackers a "radical Islamic terrorist organization:"
"We are appalled by the absolute disregard for the value of human life displayed by these senseless acts of terrorism and we categorically condemn those responsible. The little known group Deccan Mujahedeen that claimed credit for the attack, and other radical Islamic terrorist organizations, continue to be a great threat to world peace. We call upon the nations of the world to collaborate to ensure that freedom and peace is safe and accessible for people worldwide. Though their targets were foreigners, the great majority of those gunned down were from the local population demonstrating the terrorists' willingness to indiscriminately take lives, as further shown by the women and children who were victims. As representatives of the Jewish community in greater Boston we find it particularly disturbing that a Jewish center was targeted and attacked and that five people were killed at the Chabad house including the young Rabbi and his wife. We join with the families of those killed, the Jewish community and the worldwide community in mourning the senseless deaths of innocent human life by vicious terrorists and pray for a complete and swift ending to the siege."And from Washington, the Muslim Public Affairs Council sent a statement suggesting that it is also concerned about the implications for Jewish-Muslim relations:
"MPAC expresses its condolences to the Jewish community and the various other communities whose members were involved in the tragic series of terrorist attacks in recent days. MPAC has sent letters of condolences to the Indian embassy, and encourages people of all faiths and nationalities to stand together against those who seek to divide our communities. Media reports indicate that more than 150 people have been killed in the attacks. Those responsible for these brutal and immoral attacks should be swiftly brought to justice. Islam considers the use of terrorism to be unacceptable for any purpose."
The Council on American-Islamic Relations yesterday issued the following statement condemning terrorism:
“We condemn these cowardly attacks and demand that all hostages taken by the attackers be released immediately and unconditionally. We offer sincere condolences to the loved ones of those killed or injured in these senseless and inexcusable acts of violence against innocent civilians. American Muslims stand with our fellow citizens of all faiths in repudiating acts of terror wherever they take place and whomever they target.”
But the attacks are already raising questions for many bloggers. Over at Beliefnet, Rod Dreher, who blogs as Crunchy Con, writes (sarcastically):
"Thanks, Muslim terrorists! You do so much for the world. Your Mumbai adventures on behalf of your faith have killed scores of people, and have jacked up tensions between two nuclear powers that hate each other...Look, I know that not all Muslims, nor, possibly, most Muslims, are behind these attacks. But the points made by Abdel Rahman al-Rashed in the wake of the Beslan massacre are as relevant today as they were then...As al-Rashed wrote at the time, 'Terrorism has become an Islamic enterprise; an almost exclusive monopoly, implemented by Muslim men and women.' Still is. Look at today's headlines. Draw the obvious conclusion.''
But at MuslimMatters, Amad writes:
"As Muslims, we condemn such senseless carnage against innocent civilians, wherever it may occur. This goes against the fundamental spirit of Islam, which promotes a culture of life and humanity, not bloodshed and violence. And another example of why extremist ideology, whatever that ideology may be, needs to be refuted and condemned."
(Photo, by Saurabh Das/AP, shows smoke coming out of Chabad's Nariman House, in Mumbai, after a rocket was fired at the building today.)
Danny Boyle seems to have a thing for dreamers. Four years ago, he directed "Millions,'' a small but wondrous film about a 7-year-old English Catholic boy who talks to saints and comes upon a lot of money. Now, the British director is back with "Slumdog Millionaire,'' a fantastical yarn about an Indian Muslim boy who is inhabited by a driving sense of destiny and also flirts with a great sum of cash.
The film opens today in Boston; I'm leaving the reviews to the critics (the Globe's Ty Burr is giving it a perfect four stars) but as a religion writer, I'm intrigued by Boyle's dance with faith in film. Slumdog, which I've seen twice in screenings, is not about religion, but there are obvious religious overtones. The three main characters, brothers Jamal and Salim and their friend, Latika, are all Muslim children who are orphaned in a horrific anti-Muslim riot instigated by Hindu nationalists. In a classic Boyle touch, as the riot is unfolding, Jamal has a vision of an icon of a Hindu deity, Rama, who springs menacingly to life with a bow and arrow in hand; Jamal blames Rama for the most tragic event of his life. There are other explicit religious references -- Salim, in particular, seems to become more pious as he becomes more corrupt; he is seen at one point kneeling in prayer on a prayer rug, and at several key moments he utters "God is good,'' a rough translation of Allahu Akbar, the standard expression of praise by Muslims. But Islam is almost incidental in the film; religiosity is mostly suggested via Jamal's urgent, unrelenting, fatalism.
I called the director, Danny Boyle (above), to ask him about the film. Here's a partial transcript of our conversation:
Q: What's with the characters' use of the expression 'It is written'?
A: For the Western audience, it's kind of cute, romantic -- it's cute and lovely. But in India, it means something very different. It means something quite extraordinary -- that you have fulfilled your destiny. We think of destiny, and of things being fated, as quite passive. But not there. It's something you have to fulfill -- your destiny...We wanted to make it the driving force of the film. Jamal is determined. He's not just an underdog having a dream, but he believes so much that it is destined to be, and he will do anything to achieve it.
Q: What is the role of religion in the world of the film?
A: It's quite interesting. Religion there feels much wider than it is here. It's not just that there are so many gods (in Hinduism). It's the penetration of religion. It feels like it permeates life.
Q: Are you religious?
A: I was brought up Catholic, and kind of abandoned it. I admired the way they prayed (in India) to deities. It's difficult to explain in Western terms the way they approach it, but it is not through narrowness. We think of God in quite a narrow way, but they think of God in the spiritual part of your psyche, the spiritual side of life.
Q: What role does Jamal's Muslimness play?
A: It's very important in the beginning, because his mother is killed in a riot, a religious riot, prompted by right-wing Hindu nationalists. But, beyond that, their religion was just part of their lives in a very ordinary way.
Q: Do you see similarities between the Muslim boy in this film and the Catholic boy in Millions?
A: There's a dreamer in both of them, whose dedication to his imagination is more important than the tactile stuff.
I was struck by the presence of Muslim protagonists in a film that is not about terrorism, and I was interested to note that the religious affiliation of the characters is not mentioned in the publicity material for the film or in much of the press coverage to date. But Muslim critics are paying attention; over at altmuslim, for example, Wajahat Ali enthuses, "I must point out that Jamal, the protagonist, is a sweet hearted and resourceful Muslim Indian boy who never once commits terrorism or a religiously motivated act of violence. Hallelujah! Furthermore, a really good-looking girl, his beloved Latika, actually fancies him without duress or coercion - what a welcomed rarity!"
Christian critics have focused on Jamal's (and Boyle's?) insistent hopefulness. In a rapturous review in Christianity Today, Brandon Fibbs writes, "Boyle infuses all of his films with a haunting spirituality, seen as plainly and overtly in Millions as in his elegant zombie movie, 28 Days Later. Each of his stories operates as vehicles to steer us closer to a worldview fired by shameless optimism." And the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (which recommends the film for adults) says of the film, "Though harrowing at times, director Danny Boyle's sweeping panorama of Third-World life -- adapted from Indian diplomat Vikas Swarup's novel 'Q & A' -- is ultimately hopeful, stressing the dignity of the underprivileged and the primacy of spiritual over material values...As the portrait of a man who encounters evil in many forms yet remains fundamentally innocent, and who gains wisdom from all he endures, 'Slumdog Millionaire' is an exhilarating celebration of humane values."
(Photo, by Ishika Mohan/Fox Searchlight Pictures, shows Danny Boyle at the Taj Mahal.)
James J. Zogby, the president of the Arab American Institute, sends along an interesting column he has written exploring the wary reaction among Arab Americans to the selection of Rahm Emanuel (right) as the next White House chief of staff. Zogby shoots down many of the wilder rumors about Emanuel, but also criticizes President-elect Obama for not doing more to assauge the Arab-American community's concerns. An excerpt:
"Putting aside the fiction or, more accurately, the slanderous myths, the truth is that Emanuel is an effective leader in Congress. He is a strong supporter of Israel. But then, how many members of Congress are not? Emanuel is Jewish and his father is an Israeli. Arab Americans should be especially sensitive to attacks on anyone based on religion or ethnicity. He has worked closely with and is liked by the Arab American Members of Congress from both parties, and he was the architect of the 1993 White House lawn signing ceremony for the Oslo Accords that brought Arab Americans and American Jews together. When, in 1994, Rahm accepted my invitation to a luncheon with Arab American community leaders, those who met him were impressed by his openness and honesty."
And one more:
"I am concerned by the slowness of the Obama camp to respond more quickly or effectively to address the situation. Modern political operations have learned the need to confront false stories, to manage perception, and to anticipate problems—and, here, the Obama team had been especially masterful. During the campaign, for example, they repeatedly demonstrated how tuned-in they were to public perception – and in particular to matters that might have created discomfort in the Jewish community. They knew that these stories needed to be shot down quickly. (American Muslims understood much of this, despite feeling slighted, at times.) But in this most recent instance, the Obama camp displayed both inattentiveness and tone-deafness to Arab misperceptions about who Rahm Emanuel is, and what role he will play."
(Photo by Charles Dharapak/AP)
The American News Project has fascinating footage of McCain supporters, some of them Muslim, confronting a fellow McCain supporter who claimed at a McCain rally in Virginia that Obama is "a socialist with an Islamic background.'' The video is here.
In today's paper, I have a story about Arab-American voters in Dearborn, Michigan. The story is part of a Globe series, Snapshot America, in which reporters are visiting cities and towns across the nation to ask people about how their communities have changed over the last eight years, and what issues are on their minds as this election approaches. An excerpt from the Dearborn story:
As America prepares to vote, the large and diverse Arab-American community of Dearborn finds itself striving but shunned, eager to engage but often unwelcome, and with concerns born of ethnicity overshadowed by concerns about the economy. "We need to stop the war and work on the local economy," said Norman Hamood, 48, who has been helping out at a convenience store since losing his job when his auto plant closed in 2005. Hamood, who was born in Michigan after his parents emigrated from Lebanon, went on to say, "America should be first."
There's also a video (below) and a slide show featuring pictures taken by Essdras Suarez of the Globe staff. (Essdras also shot the photo above, which shows a voter registration drive, part of the Yalla Vote campaign, at the Islamic Center of America mosque in Dearborn.)
Colin Powell's endorsement of Barack Obama yesterday has largely overshadowed the former secretary of state's comments about an issue that has dogged the Obama campaign: the false rumor that the Democratic presidential nominee is a Muslim (Obama is Christian). The rumor is damaging because there is a huge amount of animus toward Islam among the voting public -- a poll last year by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found that 45 percent of Americans said they would be less likely to vote for a candidate who was Muslim.
Powell (left), speaking on "Meet the Press,'' is among the first major public figures to question why it is a slur to call a candidate a Muslim. While explaining his concerns about the McCain campaign to Tom Brokaw yesterday, Powell (an Episcopalian) said the following:
"I'm also troubled by, not what Senator McCain says, but what members of the party say. And it is permitted to be said such things as, 'Well, you know that Mr. Obama is a Muslim.' Well, the correct answer is, he is not a Muslim, he's a Christian. He's always been a Christian. But the really right answer is, what if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer's no, that's not America. Is there something wrong with some seven-year-old Muslim-American kid believing that he or she could be president? Yet, I have heard senior members of my own party drop the suggestion, 'He's a Muslim and he might be associated terrorists.' This is not the way we should be doing it in America. I feel strongly about this particular point because of a picture I saw in a magazine. It was a photo essay about troops who are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. And one picture at the tail end of this photo essay was of a mother in Arlington Cemetery, and she had her head on the headstone of her son's grave. And as the picture focused in, you could see the writing on the headstone. And it gave his awards--Purple Heart, Bronze Star--showed that he died in Iraq, gave his date of birth, date of death. He was 20 years old. And then, at the very top of the headstone, it didn't have a Christian cross, it didn't have the Star of David, it had crescent and a star of the Islamic faith. And his name was Kareem Rashad Sultan Khan, and he was an American. He was born in New Jersey. He was 14 years old at the time of 9/11, and he waited until he can go serve his country, and he gave his life. Now, we have got to stop polarizing ourself in this way. And John McCain is as nondiscriminatory as anyone I know. But I'm troubled about the fact that, within the party, we have these kinds of expressions.''
The issue was previously raised most prominently by CNN anchor Campbell Brown, in a commentary Oct. 13. Here's what she said:
"So what if Obama was Arab or Muslim? So what if John McCain was Arab or Muslim? Would it matter? When did that become a disqualifier for higher office in our country? When did Arab and Muslim become dirty words? The equivalent of dishonorable or radical? Whenever this gets raised, the implication is that there is something wrong with being an Arab-American or a Muslim. And the media is complicit here, too. We've all been too quick to accept the idea that calling someone Muslim is a slur. I feel like I am stating the obvious here, but apparently it needs to be said: There is a difference between radical Muslims who support jihad against America and Muslims who want to practice their religion freely and have normal lives like anyone else. There are more than 1.2 million Arab-Americans and about 7 million Muslim-Americans, former Cabinet secretaries, members of Congress, successful business people, normal average Americans from all walks of life. These are the people being maligned here, and we can only imagine how this conversation plays in the Muslim world. We can't tolerate this ignorance -- not in the media, not on the campaign trail. Of course, he's not an Arab. Of course, he's not a Muslim. But honestly, it shouldn't matter."
The conversation is getting the attention of the Muslim blogosphere. Over at MuslimMatters, Amad writes of Powell:
"This honorable man spoke for the millions of Muslims, troubled by the 'Muslim smear' – the millions, a majority of whom will be voting for Obama not due to Obama’s faith but his policies, the millions who have been wondering, 'what if he is [a Muslim]?' Thus, we cannot let this moment get away, we cannot let these profound statements of Colin Powell get washed away in the rhetoric, and the giddiness or despair surrounding it(depending on which side of the Presidential election one is). Because endorsement will hopefully help a few troubled hearts reconcile with Obama, but the endorsement of millions of Muslims by Powell helps millions of troubled hearts find a little peace, that there are men in this country who are willing to speak the truth. Upright men in this country, who stand up to their own parties or to their own affiliated groups, and stand up and say that 'no sir, you cannot get away with this.' Stand up and say 'what if he is [a Muslim]?'"
Feel free to post your own thoughts here, but please be civil -- comments that include obscenities, hate speech, or encouragement of violence will not be approved.
(Photo from "Meet the Press"/NBC.)
Muhammad Masood (right), the former imam at the Islamic Center of New England's mosque in Sharon, is being deported to Pakistan for lying on immigration documents. (He falsely stated that he had returned to Pakistan for two years after graduate studies at BU, and he withheld the fact that he had been arrested for shoplifting in a case in which the charge had been dismissed.) Masood is a 50-year-old father of eight who has lived in the US for 20 years; his family will apparently remain here. In the Globe, Jonathan Saltzman reports:
"Although he was relieved he would not be arrested, the former imam of the Islamic Center of New England's mosque in Sharon was heartbroken about leaving his wife and children, said his lawyer, Norman S. Zalkind of Boston. Masood also fears returning to a volatile country where he could be in danger from Muslim extremists who reject his preachings of peace, the lawyer said. 'This is a very disturbing case to our office,' Zalkind told District Court Judge Douglas P. Woodlock as Masood sat silently at the sentencing hearing. 'His family has been living in this country for 20 years. He is totally petrified of going back to Pakistan.' Outside the courtroom later, Zalkind went further. He said the case reflects an anti-Islamic bias and accused US Attorney Michael J. Sullivan of using federal antiterrorism funds to pursue what are essentially immigration cases. 'Post-9/11, there's a huge budget for terrorism, and they don't find terrorists here in the United States,' Zalkind said. 'So they spend their money on these types of cases.' In a brief telephone interview, Sullivan said his office does not receive money specifically earmarked for combating terrorism and flatly denied that Masood's prosecution reflects an anti-Islamic bias. 'The fact of the matter is this individual lied to immigration officials a number of times over a number of years,' Sullivan said. 'The reason why he was prosecuted has nothing to do with his national origin or his faith.'"
On a recent Friday night, I swung by a Ramadan evening prayer service at the Islamic Society of Boston's new Cultural Center, because I was curious to see the building in use after all the controversy that has surrounded its construction. The last time I was inside, it was just a shell -- there were no interior walls -- just beams and a roof. Now, every night, hundreds of people are gathering for 'Isha and Taraweeh prayers.
The mosque -- still not officially open but in use during Ramadan -- has embraced a policy of openness, and so Bilal Kaleem, the gregarious executive director of the Muslim American Society's Boston chapter, graciously offered to give me and the Globe's photo intern, Travis Dove, a tour, which was all well and good until he asked if we wanted to see the interior of the minaret. That sounded pretty cool, I thought, even when he said we'd have to walk the multiple flights up. The part he neglected to mention until we were at the base of a stifling shaft was that there are no stairs -- the entire way up is a series of ladders mounted onto cement and brick walls. Travis and I climbed a few levels up, onto the roof of the mosque, which has a decent view of downtown from Roxbury Crossing, and a vantage point from which to see the mosque's dome (as well as the huge HVAC system).
But then, as the first cloudy hints of Tropical Storm Hanna moved overhead at about 10 p.m., we unlocked the tower itself, and looked up at ladder after ladder leading up into the sky. It was about that time that Bilal made a crack about how he should have had us sign a waiver. It was also about that time that Travis, carrying a huge backpack loaded down with lenses, chose to mention he's not that thrilled with heights. We climbed a few ladders up when I finally came to my senses. They don't pay me enough for this! There's no one to interview up there! And there's nothing to see -- it's pitch black outside! The ladders were sort of wet. Travis and I were both wearing slip-on shoes, which are always useful when travelling through airports or visiting mosques, but not so great on slippery ladders. As Bilal was pushing at the roof, trying to open some trap door, I started to wonder if there's some kind of minaret-climbing rider on the Globe's worker compensation plan for religion reporters.
I made it high enough to report that there's a nice view to be had of the crescent-topped mosque dome silhouetted against the distant skyline, but not high enough to tell you what it would be like if you were the muezzin who had to go up there five times a day to chant the call to prayer. Of course, the muezzin can't tell you either -- he's no fool -- they're going to broadcast the prayer summons (which will only happen during the day out of respect for the neighbors) by loudspeaker.
Travis ventured higher, and got the dramatic photo posted above. I asked Travis to explain how he made the picture, and this is what he said:
It was nighttime and there were no lights illuminating the dome, so I needed to make a fairly long exposure (one second). In order to avoid a blurry picture I knew I would have to keep the camera as steady as possible. Because I didn't have a tripod with me I had to pre-focus on the dome, stick half of my body out the window, and reach out to set the camera on the end of a stable ledge. The contrasting white balance between the night sky, the tungsten street lamps, and the fluorescent park lights helped make a more dynamic photo. Without being able to look through the viewfinder I made about 20 attempts at this picture while trying different exposures and compositions. This one was the most successful.
There's a story about the mosque in Monday's paper, along with an audio slide show (below) in which you can see more of Travis's work, underscored with the sound of the prayer service. Feel free to post comments here as well. I know Islam sometimes provokes strong feelings, so please remember, no obscenities and no hate speech if you want your comments approved.
Warith Deen Mohammed (right), who succeeded his father, Elijah Muhammad, as head of the Nation of Islam, but then led his followers to mainstream Islam, died yesterday at 74. He was a significant figure in the history of Islam among African-Americans, setting into motion an important transition; today most African-American Muslims are adherents of mainstream Islam. (About 26 percent of Muslims in America are black, according to the Pew Research Center.)
There are several interesting obituaries in this morning's papers. The Chicago Tribune explains W.D. Mohammed's role:
"In 1975, Mohammed succeeded his father as leader of the Nation of Islam, a religious movement that melds black nationalism with the Islamic faith. He immediately tried to move its followers toward traditional Islam, which led to a split between those who agreed with Mohammed's approach and those who joined a revived Nation of Islam under Minister Louis Farrakhan. His followers refer to the period when Mohammed took over the Nation as 'The Second Resurrection.' I don't think people understand the tremendous change that occurred when he made that move,' said Lawrence Mamiya, professor of religion at Vassar College. 'He moved people from that concept of black nationalism into universal consciousness of their faith.'"
In the New York Times, Douglas Martin writes:
"Imam Mohammed emerged from the cauldron of religious politics and internal rivalry that characterized the Black Muslims, as the Nation of Islam members were called, in the 1960s and 1970s. Following Malcolm X, who was drifting away from black separatism toward traditional Islam when he was assassinated in 1965, Imam Mohammed increasingly favored a nonracial approach to religion, without categorizing white people as devils, as Elijah Muhammad did. His father excommunicated him several times for this dissidence."
And from the obituary by Patricia Sullivan in the Washington Post:
"He disbanded the militaristic security force called Fruit of Islam and decentralized the rigidly structured religion. He removed chairs from mosques so its members would kneel in prayer five times a day. He advocated that observant members read the Koran in Arabic and urged the African American-centric organization to exhibit racial tolerance. The changes won the respect of Sunni Muslim leaders worldwide but startled longtime Nation of Islam members who were used to a philosophy of black supremacy and the practice of unquestioning loyalty to Elijah Muhammad. Those rapid changes caused a split in the old Nation of Islam. W.D. Mohammed changed the organization's name, reforming it as the American Society of Muslims. In 1977, his rival Louis Farrakhan revived the Nation of Islam and, with it, the often anti-white and anti-Semitic message. Although less well-known to the public than Farrakhan, the soft-spoken Mr. Mohammed led a far larger congregation."
(Photo, from 2002, by Alex Garcia of the Chicago Tribune, via AP.)
In the new issue of Boston Spirit, James A. Lopata writes about gay Muslims struggling to reconcile their faith with their sexuality. An excerpt:
"He prays five times a day, fasts during Ramadan, attends mosque every Friday for services, and abstains from alcohol and pork. 'My faith in Allah is supreme. I am not amenable to conversion to any other faith,' he said. But he refuses to describe himself as a devout Muslim. 'I’m old enough to admit that I’m gay,' he said. He frequents gay nightclubs, is active with MASALA, and is in a relatively new relationship—long distance—with a man. 'And I attend Cher concerts,' he said with a smile."
The story is predominantly local in its focus, and describes efforts by gay Muslims to organize in the U.S.; a recent documentary film, "A Jihad for Love,'' took a global look at the subject of homosexuality in the Muslim world.
A new summer camp that is trying to use collaborative art projects to forge friendship and communication between Israeli and Palestinian teens has wrapped up its first summer. The camp, called Artsbridge, brought 30 young adolescents from the Middle East to the campus of Endicott College, in Beverly. Globe North published a two-part series on the experiment, by James Sullivan. In today's piece, he reports:
"In many ways, Artsbridge, which ended its first year with a celebratory gallery showing at Endicott earlier this month, is designed like any other summer camp. The students - 15 Palestinians and 15 Israelis - played games, like dodgeball. They did karaoke, scavenger hunts, tie-dying. They played Rock Band and took a field trip to Blue Man Group. They complained about being awakened too early. But these young people, raised in fiercely sectarian neighborhoods from the West Bank to the Gaza Strip, were also asked to participate in dialogue sessions that were sometimes raw and emotional."
The earlier part of the series is here.
(Photo by Jonathan Wiggs of the Globe staff.)
In USA Today, religion reporter Cathy Lynn Grossman takes a look at a new effort to count mosques in the United States, and the complications and controversy associated with trying to enumerate religious populations in a country where the census is barred from asking such questions. An excerpt:
"For minority religious groups, particularly Muslims and Jews, higher numbers can mean enhanced social and political clout in the U.S. public square. On the campaign trail, will a politician stop by a synagogue or a mosque? When members of Congress vote on Middle Eastern policy, which home state constituency has more influence? When the school board sets next year's vacation calendar, whose holy days are recognized? 'Numbers are a major factor in being marginalized or being recognized by decision-makers in public policy,' says Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council for American-Islamic Relations, a civil rights and advocacy group and a sponsor of this second mosque census."
(Photo above, by Justine Hunt of the Globe staff, shows a mosque under construction in Boston in July 2006.)
"This week, 13 Saudi women completed a crash course in international diplomacy, blazing a brazen path for the future of their country, where women still can't drive or vote - nor, in many cases, travel, work, or see a doctor without permission from a male guardian. 'As graduates, we become pioneers by taking the road less traveled and pave it for others to follow,' Dina Madani said in a graduation speech urging her peers to become pioneers not only in education, but also in the workforce and society. 'We want to be the catalyst that hastens the development of our country.'"
(Photo above, by Pat Greenhouse of the Globe staff, was taken at a graduation ceremony for 13 Saudi Arabian women at the Fletcher School on July 31.)
"The polarizing group that has brought hundreds to City Hall to protest and support Israeli policies in the Middle East, is pushing another non-binding ballot question to city voters in November. The resolution would direct State Rep. Denise Provost, D-Somerville, to 'vote in favor of a non-binding resolution calling on the federal government to support the right of all people, including non-Jewish Palestinians of Israel, to live free from laws that give more rights to people of one religion than another.'"
(Hat tip: Adam Gaffin)
The Christian Science Monitor today looks at that conference on Christian-Muslim relations at Yale -- the one at which Sen. John F. Kerry spoke last night. An excerpt from the story, written by Monitor religion reporter Jane Lampman:
"Those involved see the initiatives, if sustained, as breaking down misperceptions, strengthening mainstream religious voices on the world stage, and diminishing the influence of extremism."
U.S. Sen. John F. Kerry tonight at Yale is to give a major speech on interfaith dialogue in which he will suggest that the future of humanity depends on a greater understanding between religions.
"We’ve barely broken the seal on the 21st century, but already it’s been marked not just by burning buildings and occupying armies and riots and roiling images of bloodshed and humiliation, but also by an even more widespread and dangerous worry—by a question you hear whispered and spoken quietly: What if we can’t live together?,'' Kerry says in remarks prepared for delivery at a Christian-Muslim conference organized by Yale Divinity School.
The conference, with about 150 attendees, was prompted by "A Common Word," an important statement issued last year by Muslim theologians and clerics about Christian-Muslim relations.
Kerry, reflecting on his Puritan ancestors as well as his Catholic upbringing, makes a plea for coexistence, if not agreement, between faiths, saying, “Somehow, we have to find a way to agree that faith may be worth dying for, but it cannot be worth killing for. We have to strive for a global ethic that allows each of our religious faiths to express themselves fully but also allows us to unite around common ethical ground.”
Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat who narrowly lost the presidential race in 2004, says that many Americans, including politicians, know too little about Islam. And he connects that lack of knowledge to America's decision to go to war against Iraq.
“My pride in America’s successes is tempered by knowing that we are a long way from mutual understanding with the Muslim world today,’’ he says. “…We have major politicians who couldn’t tell you the difference between Shi’a and Sunni— so it’s no wonder that we attack a secular dictator in response to radical fundamentalist terrorists.”
And Kerry argues that religion is often exploited for political purposes.
“Extremism and violent sectarianism often represent a human attempt to capitalize on the failures of governance and civil society,’’ he says. “This applies to failed states like Afghanistan, where in the 1990s the Taliban arose to fill a chaotic vacuum, but also to many other places where the state, the society, and the religious order don’t do enough to remedy unfairness, lack of education, or social alienation. I don’t just mean a place like Sadr City in Baghdad— this is true of Cairo or even the desolate immigrant suburbs around Paris. People exploit religion to drive a wedge and gain a foothold—and failed states, failed civil societies, and frankly corruption in governance empower them to do so.”
The full text of Kerry's remarks, as prepared for delivery (he might vary slightly in the spoken version) are posted below (if you don't see them now, click on "full entry.") And we've just enabled comments on this blog, so if you have thoughts, please post them; please be patient if they don't appear immediately -- I still have to figure out how this feature works.
(Photo by Getty, taken on Capitol Hill July 9.)FULL ENTRY
In the Ideas section of today's Globe, Navy Commander Philip Kapusta and Marine Captain Donovan Campbell make a proposal for what they call "neocontainment." An excerpt:
"What we face today is not wholly novel: It is a war of ideas, mirroring the Cold War. Like the Communists, violent Islamic extremists are trying to spread a worldview that denigrates personal liberty and demands submission to a narrow ideology. And, as with the Cold War, it must be our goal to stop them. The United States should therefore adopt a new version of the policy that served us so well during that last long war: containment."
"Don’t be too alarmed by the apparent high level of support for bin Laden in the Muslim world. Such support is soft, and can be made softer still with the right policies."
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(The Rev. Garvin Warden, pastor of Greenwood Memorial United Methodist Church of Dorchester and a member of the New England United Methodist Federal Credit Union. Photo by Pat Greenhouse, Globe staff.)
Have you seen the Globe today?
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Dennis Deveney etching a gravestone. Photo by Matthew J. Lee, Globe Staff.
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