Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Faithful suspicion…

Last weekend, I began a book that, in the late 1980s, caused a stir. Titled “The Satanic Verses” (referring to a disputed story from Islam’s founding), this novel narrates two men’s experiences of traveling from India to Britain. It’s a good read so far, literary and imaginative. I’ve gotten to some of the “controversial” sections and haven’t found them offensive. Of course, I’m not Ayatollah Khomeini who, in 1989, faced an angry Iranian public, tired from eight years of war with Iraq, upset by their government’s bungling, and thus- some commentators have suggested- the Ayatollah needed a scapegoat. Fortunately (for him), there was Salman Rushdie’s recently published book. So, in what I find an act of stunning hubris, he ‘informed’, “all brave Muslims of the world that the author of The Satanic Verses…(is)condemned to death. I call on all valiant Muslims wherever they may be in the world to kill (him) without delay.” This ‘ruling’, or fatwa, sparked multiple demonstrations in Muslim-majority countries, at which some were killed. And Rushdie spent the next decade-plus in hiding.

Now, I didn’t choose this novel because of recent demonstrations in Muslim-majority countries. I’ve been eyeing it for years, and recently found it on sale. Still, the parallels of that controversy and what’s been dominating recent news have seemed eerie to me, and sad.

Not that the Youtube video that sparked last week’s turmoil compares to Rushdie’s fiction. I haven’t seen the now infamous (and from all accounts, stupidly intolerant) video, but have heard it’s an amateurish, deliberate attack on the dignity of Islam and its founder. Rushdie, by contrast, painted an artistic, nuanced picture of the alleged “Satanic Verses Incident”, seeking to explore the concept of revelation. He deplores ‘fanaticism,’ self-describes as an atheist, but also professes respect for religious folk, Muslims included. Yet regardless of intent- intentionally demeaning or imaginative investigation- in both instances, people chose to take offense, leading to others’ deaths.

I suspect that today, as then, the reasons for the condemnations and resulting protests are more complex than, “The artwork offends Muslims.” For starters, some Muslims aren’t offended. And for most who are, the offense isn’t worth hurting, or murdering, other humans. But like then, these days we see hostile leaders using this otherwise obscure fiction to distract attention or gain power. For instance, on Monday, Hezbollah’s leader made a rare public appearance to denounce the anti-Islamic video and ‘warn’ the US. He’s done the latter many times before, it’s just now he sees an opportunity: Channel people’s frustrations to support his organization.

I find such behavior disgusting. Obviously, violence in reaction to art, however stupid or beautiful, offends my regard for the rights of free expression and of life itself. But beyond that, the cynical manipulation of religious sentiment for political gain in these cases angers me. Whatever the reasons for people’s protests- sincere spiritual offense, disgust with US foreign policy, frustration at inequality or poverty, or just plain ole bigotry- to then take advantage by marshaling pious devotion in favor of death and violence, that contradicts all I cherish about religion, Christian and Muslim.

After all, Jesus said, “Love your enemy.” Not that Muslims are Christian enemies, nor Muslim-majority countries the enemies of religiously-diverse America. But whomever chooses to call you ‘enemy,’ Jesus counsels, ought be treated in return with compassion, not derision. That’s the spiritually courageous, even responsible, reaction, as many Muslim leaders these days agree. For God, as Mohamed described, is All-Compassionate and Merciful. Or as 1 John puts it, God is Love. To stand up to aggression and defend the weak is, surely, a just application of those principles. But even when one must confront a bully with force (like, say, Hitler), religiously sincere people- particularly leaders- cannot advocate hate, and hate-inspired violence. It betrays the unifying, reconciling, forgiving force behind religion itself. It betrays God, as every great prophet made plain.

So whatever’s “really happening” in recent protests, I urge you to be suspicious of anyone using religion to stoke the flames. That’s not authentic Christian or Islamic faith. It’s a willful grab for power. And our God desires love and reconciliation, not division or hate.

Grace and Peace,


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