Nothing more fun than that, right? “Hey, guys, this party is pretty lame. Let’s turn it up a notch by talking about Islam!” “Aw snap! Things are about to get awesome up in here!”
Firstly, something about Charlie Hebdo. I would never say, “I am Charlie,” because I am not. I don’t think it’s funny. I don’t think it’s good work. It’s crass, disgusting, puerile, and frankly repugnant. But I believe the freedom to be repugnant is absolutely essential. Once lines start to be drawn around freedom of expression, it’s a quick slippery slope to the bottom. Thought Police of every hue are and always will be my enemy.
Secondly, stop equating Islam with the word “religion.” Often, it is stated directly. “All religions have their problems.” It partially comes from a good place of wanting to protect religion from blame. But it also comes from a place of political correctness that breeds a false understanding of religion and what that phenomenon necessarily entails. When was the last time Buddhism resulted in terrorism? Religion is the coming together of a set of beliefs concerning a higher power with practices designed to achieve understanding of and communion with that higher power. The Sevenfold Path does not lead to terrorist attacks.
But we are men of action and lies do not become us. (To quote The Princess Bride.) When people equate Islam to religion, they’re not thinking of Buddhism. They’re thinking of Christianity, with a subtle threat implied – Christians shouldn’t criticize Muslims because both faiths have skeletons in their closets. Which is true. Much violence has been committed in the name of Jesus Christ. In the modern era, there is the sex abuse scandal. Although it hasn’t received press, Protestant Churches haven’t been immune to this issue. A 2010 study showed 58% of American ministers arrested for sex crimes involving children were Protestants. Because Catholics are a minority, it is true that Catholic priests committed this crime at a higher rate than Protestants, but the problem is widespread throughout Christianity.
Recently, Aziz Ansari, one of my favorite comics, freaked out on Twitter at Rupert Murdoch (a man with plenty of skeletons both in and out of his closet). Murdoch stated that Islam needed to “destroy the cancer” in its midst. Aziz went bananas, creating a hashtag #RupertsFault, ironically claiming that Rupert, a Catholic, was to blame for the pedophiles in the Catholic Church. Interestingly, a few days prior, I had said precisely the same thing on Facebook that Rupert Murdoch said on Twitter, and received precisely the same reaction from a handful of millenials. Like Aziz, their reaction was intense and absolute.
I love Aziz Ansari, but he lacks the ability to discern between culpability and responsibility. He’s not alone. I see this lack of discernment everywhere on the internet.
As a Catholic myself, I am not culpable for the actions of those priests, but I am responsible for the future of my faith. Every Catholic similarly holds this responsibility, just as every American is responsible for voting and participating in our Democracy. (Whether we choose to shoulder that responsibility is another question.) Although the Catholic Church is led by the Pope, change frequently begins with the laypeople – as well it should.
Peace-loving Muslims are not culpable for terrorist attacks, but they hold responsibility for the future of their faith. And let’s be honest once again – there is no major religion in the world so shot through with barbarism as Islam. I say this as someone who grew up with a hero worship of Islamic culture. That might sound strange, but I did. I was a voracious reader and rather obsessed with people like Sir Lawrence of Arabia and far more with Lady Anne Blunt, an English woman and adventurer who became so Arabianized she thought in Arabic. I wanted to be her, and travel to Arabia, and do what she did. At the time, which was the early to mid 80’s, I still conceived of the Middle East as existing just as it did in the Ottoman Empire. Which was, you guys, by and large, a very good Empire, and it was absolutely stupid the way Europeans abolished the caliphate in the wake of WWI. You reap what you sow, and the ignorance of Western Civilization has time and again done nothing but worsened the situation in the Middle East.
Although there is plenty of blame to throw around as to how we got here, where we are now is undoubtedly a place of extreme crisis within Islam. Not in Hinduism, or Buddhism, or Christianity – Islam. There are three million displaced Syrians. Three million refugees from Syria alone. The Middle East is the only place in the world where war is the number one contributing cause to the shortening of lives. Islam at its best is not this. Islam at its best is the Islam of the Dark Ages, that maintained the accumulated wisdom of civilization while Western Europe threw it all away. Islam at its best produces writers like Rumi. Islam at its best is about freedom, not fundamentalism.
Islam is at its nadir. But you know what troubles me as much as Islam at its nadir? That to state this blatantly obvious fact is to court ridicule, to invite oneself to be labeled as intolerant, an oppressor of Muslims victimized by the West. Just as evil is its opposite. To state that Islam has been – and in many places still is – a faith of great beauty is to invite ridicule of another kind, to be called an appeaser, a denier of the truth about Islam’s barbarous nature.
We live in a world uninterested in understanding, but only in agenda. It is easy enough to pick and choose our opponents’ words that best suit our purposes, and so we do. Relentlessly. We do not name things as they are. We are not an honest people. Nor are we brave. We live in a fear-based emotional economy, and scare tactics are our currency. A healthy society must be unafraid of criticism. A healthy society must embrace personal responsibility. So frequently our compassion is misplaced, as we seek to protect the weak not by empowering them to do better, but by shielding them from the truth. The truth is, no matter who is to blame for your current state of affairs, you are the only one who can get yourself to better place. Others can help you and help should be sought, but ultimately your success or failure is in your hands. Just as this is true for individuals, so it is for Islam.
Islam is at its nadir. We are working hard to follow them down into the pit.
In closing, I’d like to post a link to an article written by a French Muslim philosopher. Like the Murdoch tweet, he also used the word “cancer” to describe the problem within Islam. I have a special affection and respect for those who don’t just stand up to the outside world, which is easy enough to do, but who stand up against their own people – without abandoning them. Cheers to the brave and honest people of the world, people like Abdennour Bidar, who embrace responsibility for themselves and their people.