Mission

Humantrustees.org aims to foster understanding and cooperation between Muslims and Christians so as to empower them to live up to their God-given calling as “trustees of the earth.” This Christian initiative seeks to accomplish this goal through scholarship, teaching, news commentary, and networking between scholars, members of both communities, and with anyone else who is passionate about peace and human flourishing.
David L Johnston  

David L Johnston

This is a small excerpt from Chapter 10 of Earth, Empire and Sacred Text, which seeks to trace the Christian and Jewish exegesis of Genesis 1 and 2 over the centuries, particularly on the issue of humanity in the image of God (often referred to in Latin: imago dei) and God's mandate for humankind to rule over the earth in his stead. For the Jewish side, I was blessed to discover the following book:

Cohen, Jeremy. "Be Fertile and Increase, Fill the Earth and Master It”: The Ancient and Medieval Career of a Biblical Text (Ithaca, NY: Cornell Universtity Press, 1989).

Then in a conversation with ethicist Glen Stassen (Fuller Theological Seminary) a few years back I found out that he had written about the Puritan roots of the human rights concept. By the same occasion I want to recommend his pioneering work on "Just Peacemaking" -- a concept now that has caught on in several parts of the world.

 

 

 

The eyes of the world stared in disbelief at the clips of armored vehicles lunging into crowds of peaceful protesters in Cairo. Over 50,000 Coptic Christians, men, women and children, were marching on October 9 to protest the burning to the ground of a church in Aswan. Media personnel at the morgue witnessed bodies with bullet wounds and others partially crushed. Over two dozen people died that evening, most of them Copts.

 

A quick aside: this happened in Cairo, the capital city and microcosm of the whole country, with one fifth of Egypt’s eighty million inhabitants. Egyptians call it “Masr,” the same word for “Egypt.” We lived three and a half years in Ismailia, two hours northeast, midway on the Suez Canal, doorway to the Sinai Peninsula, and birthplace of the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928. Because of medical care and banking needs, we had to take collective taxis regularly to “Masr,” where the pediatric specialist was. To pray for “the peace of the city,” then, is to pray for the peace of the nation.

 

Three days after the deadly protest, a Coptic Orthodox press release issued from the UK denounced the unprovoked army violence, but also deplored the wave of attacks on Christians and their places of worship just weeks after the revolutionary displays of national unity in Tahrir Square. I quote,

 

“For the first time we saw churches burned and demolished with the army looking on and doing nothing. Christians lost their lives, while those who had promised to protect ‘every Egyptian’ looked on. Since then, we have had an escalation of violence from Imbaba to Atfih to Aswan, along with the terrorist bombing of a church in Alexandria earlier this year. The common denominator in all of these, and every other attack in the past decades, is that there has been insufficient official investigation, and an absence of prosecutions and convictions.”

 

In light of this, the largest church in the Middle East (7 million) calls for a thorough investigation and for Egyptians as a nation to choose one of two roads:

 

One, “positive reform and the building of a new Egypt that is cohesive and that instills a sense of citizenship, ownership, and responsibility into every Egyptian, ceasing to focus on the person’s religion, but more on his or her contribution and accountability to a single nation state.”

 

Or two: “we merely continue denying the reality of the presence of conflict, leaving unlawful acts unresolved and unprosecuted, presenting one part of the community as a justifiable target, and continuing to drive a wedge between members of a single society, and this will lead to the demise of all.”

 

Egyptian Christians, continues the document, are no strangers to persecution and martyrdom in their long history dating back to the first century. The God “who seeks to protect His whole creation” will not allow the Coptic Church to be destroyed. Rather, we should fear the weakening of all of Egypt, if the country does not stand together.

 

The media statement concludes with the church’s response: a three-day fast of repentance and prayer, believing that “God’s name with be glorified and exalted above all.” As it happened, all the Catholic and Protestant churches in Egypt joined with their Orthodox brethren in the fast.

 

I applaud all these true followers of Jesus: they’re calling for justice in a peaceable way . . . then turning to God in humble submission to his merciful ways. May it be so!

 

Another group of Christians did something very creative. The day after (what some are calling “Black Sunday”), the Bible Society of Egypt put an add in several newspapers with this verse from the prophet Jeremiah (writing to the recently exiled Jews in Babylon): “And seek the peace of the city… and pray to the LORD for it; for in its peace you will have peace” (Jer. 29:7). Contact information followed, and then this phrase: “Let us share together in prayer for peace and unity in Egypt.”

 

Ramez Atallah, the Bible Society’s General Director, offers this comment about the project:

 

“This is the first time we have been allowed to quote a Bible verse in any of our public advertising, and many people, from all backgrounds, have called the Bible Society to thank us for the timely message and positive role. One prominent political figure, the editor of a major newspaper, called to say that he is grateful for all that we are doing to promote peace and unity in these difficult days.”

 

The history of Muslim-Christian misunderstanding, conflict and even war is long and tortuous, and nothing grates the Muslim psyche more than the memory of Christian missionary efforts of the past. If you read Hasan al-Banna’s memoirs, you will notice this was a strong irritant which added to his motivation to reawaken his beloved umma (“Islamic community”) through the launching of his grassroots movement, the Muslim Brotherhood. No doubt, any advertisement for the Bible will strike some Muslim zealots as Christian propaganda exploiting a human tragedy for the sake of proselytism.

 

I disagree. This was meant as a peacebuilding initiative. And in fact, both Muslim and Christian responses were overwhelmingly positive. Atallah offers one example:

 

“A Muslim Arabic teacher called to say thank you for the beautiful verse that was used in the ad. His supervisor had asked him to say a word to the student body about National Unity, so he asked the Bible Society if he could use this verse, to share with all of the students.”

 

Still, the beginning of this blog demonstrated just how difficult implementing this vision would be in many villages and neighborhoods around the country. Nonetheless, a powerful prophetic voice rises up for those still willing to listen – from unexpected quarters.

 

The then influential Egyptian judge, Hasan al-Hudaybi, to the surprise of many inside and outside the movement, was named in 1951 the second General Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood. The founder, Hasan al-Banna, had been assassinated two years prior, almost certainly by government agents. Three years later, the “great persecution” (mihna) closed in the Brotherhood like a steel trap. The movement was dissolved, hundreds were arrested and six were executed.

 

Hudaybi, already sixty-three and in poor health was placed under house arrest for six years, then imprisoned for another seven years. These were trying times for him as a leader. As it turned out, persecution from the outside was light, compared with the bitterness of the strife within. His foe, eloquent with the pen and razor-sharp in his radical ideology, was none other than Sayyid Qutb. For Qutb, Egypt had long past the point of no return. It was no longer Muslim, as its laws and political institutions had been imported from the pagan west. As a jahili society (having reverted to the state of polytheistic pre-Islamic 7th-century Arabia), it had to be destroyed, so as to rebuild a new, pristine nation on the foundation of the Qur’an and Sunna (the Prophet’s good example).

 

In effect, Sayyid Qutb was reverting to the practice of the first “withdrawers,” the Kharijites, who isolated themselves in remote places, calling themselves the only true Muslims and launching attacks on the rest. To declare fellow Muslims “apostates” in Kharijite fashion – and thus to justify their killing– is to engage in takfir (labeling a Muslim “kafir”).

 

Hudaybi issues several pamphlets that aim to refute this dangerous ideology of takfir (see my 2007 article on Hudaybi in Comparative Islamic Studies). I won’t go into the arguments here – only to say that he won. His successors followed suit. Just a minority in the end embraced Qutb’s Manichean worldview. Nonetheless, his views inspired many radical and violent offshoots since then, and most recently, al-Qaeda and its allies.

 

As it turns out, Hudaybi’s prison travails bear directly on the issue of Muslim and Christian harmony in Egypt. In one particular pamphlet (“Our Constitution”), he explains that the Egyptian constitution is quite acceptable the way it is, as long as the moral content of Islam – which is the same as Christianity and Judaism, he adds – is respected. That is why educating the young is so important, he continues. Egyptian schools must intentionally draw on the moral fiber that is found in the Qur’an and the Bible. I quote from my own translation:

 

“It is good for Muslims and Christians to be trained by the spiritual formation provided by their respective faiths so that they come to agreement on what is good and virtuous. It is the government’s duty to provide this education with all seriousness in primary and secondary schools for both Muslims and Christians.”

 

This would be a good time for the Muslim Brotherhood to dig up Hudaybi’s wise and peaceable teaching. I believe we should see the Bible Society ads in this light. Now more than ever, common values and spiritual resources are crucial for the healing of this broken nation, especially in view of the dramatic demonstrations of national unity by Egyptians, both Muslim and Christian, during the spring protests in Tahrir Square (refer to the picture).

 

Paul-Gordon Chandler, author, Anglican priest and rector of St. John’s Church in Cairo, put it this way in a newsletter at the end of March:

 

“The scenes are moving, as Egyptians wave flags and carry banners depicting the cross and crescent embracing, with slogans such as ‘The crescent and the cross are one. We are all Egyptians, Muslim and Christian.’ Around the country, Muslim imams address religious harmony and the importance of unity in their Friday sermons. In the now world famous Tahrir Square, Muslims and Christians have prayed together for the unity and safety of Egypt. In essence the Egyptian revolution ended up as a summons to national unity, thereby condemning religious sectarianism. It has been deeply inspirational.”

 

I have no doubt that many of the young members of the Brotherhood who spontaneously joined the protesters in Tahrir Square in the first week of the uprising were following Hudaybi’s guidance, whether consciously or not. This is the kind of energy the army now in charge wants to dissipate at all costs.

 

Clearly, the ruling junta, by mowing down Christian protesters, calculated that fanning the flames of sectarian strife would strengthen their grip on power and divide the rising forces of democracy (see sociologist Khalil al-Anani's excellent article on this).

 

Equally, I can say that many ex-members (mostly in their 20s and 30s) left the Brotherhood for more pluralist pastures. Perhaps not so coincidently, I heard a young Brotherhood cadre (still in his twenties) speak at a think tank venue in Washington. His name was Ibrahim El-Houdaiby. I went up to talk to him after. Amazingly, he turned out to be Hudaybi’s great grandson, then in charge of running the Brotherhood official website. He has now left the organization and joined a more inclusive political party.

 

To sum up, I believe with Hudaybi that Muslims and Christians can draw upon their respective sacred texts and find the necessary resources to put aside past grievances and bitterness – calling for justice, while at the ready to forgive. And yes, I believe too the Bible Society was inspired to proclaim Jeremiah’s ancient message to the deported Jews in Babylon, now addressed to all Egyptians: “Seek the shalom (peace and prosperity) of the city!”


[I begin a series of four blogs introducing readers to important developments in the sociology of religion – and Islam in particular. The next ones are respectively, “Is Fundamentalism Still Relevant?”, "Whence the Salafis?" and "The Global Salafi Phenomenon"].

Roughly after the “Six-Day War” of 1967 and the passing of Egypt’s socialist president Gamal Abd al-Nasser in 1970, social scientists began to notice the rise of “political Islam,” or “islamism,” as we mostly call it now. Of course, this trend began with the greatest mass movement of Islamic sociopolitical transformation in the modern era, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, founded by Hasan al-Banna in 1928.

By the way, I always use the lower case “i” for “islamism,” as we are talking about a way of imagining how Islamic values might lead to specific political arrangements in our modern nation-state world. This is about political ideology, and only secondarily about religion.

Several leading sociologists believe that the heyday of islamism is over, and that the is experiencing a radical transformation, and thereby heralding the advent of “post-islamism.” In this blog, I highlight the work of Asef Bayat.

 

“Islam” and democracy

Bayat is an Iranian sociologist, who taught for over a decade at the American University of Cairo, then in the Netherlands, and now at the University of Illinois. In a recent book (Making Islam Democratic: Social Movements and the Post-Islamist Turn, 2007), he chided academics and pundits who wax eloquent about whether Islam is compatible with democracy or not. They’ve got the question wrong, Bayat says. You’ve got to start with religion and sacred texts.

He explains: whether concerning Bible, Qur’an, or Baghavad Gita, there is no “truth” except that which specific people see in the sacred text through the lenses of their own interpretation, which in turn is shaped by the received tradition, the questions raised by their own historical and sociopolitical situation, and their own convictions and inclinations. Even with specific doctrines long held in a particular tradition, distinct differences appear between individuals and groups. But especially when it comes to applying moral values to new social challenges or political directions, the sky is the limit as to possible choices and potential disagreements. In fact, that is what his book is about:

“A central argument of this book is that sacred injunctions are matters of struggle, of competing readings. They are, in other words, matters of history; humans define their truth. The individuals and groups who hold social power can assert and hegemonize their truths. Historical narratives in this book demonstrate how societal forces, notably social movements, play a decisive role in changing and shaping the ‘truth’ of holy scriptures” (p. 4).

So don’t talk to me about “Islam and democracy,” Bayat counsels; rather tell me how specific social actors have chosen “to determine the inclusive nature or authoritarian thrust of religions.”

You have a good example of this in my blog “My Brother’s Keeper,” which recounted the disagreement between qur’anic commentators who considered the verse “he who kills one person, it is as if he had killed all of humanity” to literally apply to all humanity, and those who limited the verse to a person who killed a fellow Muslim. Alan Iser, a rabbi colleague of mine at St. mwo4meph’s University, looked up this passage in the Babylonian Talmud and noticed that it reads, “he who kills a Jew”; but in the two earliest manuscript versions we read, “he who kills a human being,” as it is also stated in the Jerusalem Talmud. Apparently, in good sociological jargon, birds of a feather flock together, but they also can be very aggressive toward birds of another feather!

 

Islamism defined

Now let’s look at how Bayat defines islamism. Schematically, and using Egypt as his case study, islamism emerged . . .

 

- .  . . as a set of ideas that gave a particular social group a powerful sense of identity (“a language of self-assertion”);

- this set of ideas (or “discourse”) was used to mobilize . . .

- mostly middle-class business people, students, professionals, “who felt marginalized by the dominant economic, political, or cultural processes in their societies”;

- they were feeling marginalized at a time when in their eyes both socialism (in Egypt think of Gamal Abd al-Nasser’s regime, 1956-1970) and capitalism (Anouar as-Sadat’s regime, 1970-1981) had failed;

- this "Muslim middle class" was basically saying "no" to its "excluders": its national elites, its secular governments and their western backers (whether the USA or the Soviet Union)

 

 So in response, they cobbled together an authentically “Islamic,” genuinely Egyptian web of beliefs and practices that fused “piety and obligation, devotion and duty,” while imagining “Islam as a complete divine system with a superior political model, cultural code, legal structure, and economic arrangement – in short, a system that responded to all human problems” (p. 7). Their slogan, after all, was “Islam is the solution.”

Bayat’s book offers two case studies, Egypt and Iran. The 1979 Islamic Revolution of Iran imposed islamism from the top down, that is, by means of the state; whereas in Egypt, society was islamized from the bottom up. An “Islamic mode” of living was spread by person to person and by preaching in the mosque and through cassettes. As Bayat puts it, it was no revolution, but . . .

“a pervasive Islamic social movement with a conservative moral vision, populist language, patriarchal disposition, and adherence to scripture. By the early 1990s, through da’wa and associational work, the movement had captured a large segment of the civil society moving to claim space in state institutions” (p. 12).

In a sense, it was “a passive revolution,” in that by sheer popular and pervasive influence, it forced the state to adopt religious symbols as a means to hold on to power. Nevertheless, Bayat makes the point that in this tug-of-war the state always came out on top. Despite the Muslim Brotherhood’s success in capturing by the ballot just about every professional union, and despite its extensive and excellent charitable network, which in many cases outdid and overshadowed the work of state agencies and the more numerous secular NGOs, Mubarak’s regime managed to stay in control. Though the Brotherhood remained the best organized political opposition, it never succeeded in topping twenty percent in any legislative election. In the mid-2000s, the secular movement was making gains, yet without managing to topple Mubarak and his clique – until the “Arab Spring” of 2011, that is.

But that is the point. By the early 2000s the Islamic movement was losing steam, partially through internal divisions running along generational lines, and partially because Egyptians in general were more concerned with the nuts and bolts of democracy, and especially freedoms of speech, assembly, and association. Already, several sociologists were writing about “post-islamism.”

 

The post-islamist turn

As Bayat reworks an article he published in 1996, he characterizes post-islamism as both a condition and a project. First, as a condition, it refers to a movement that in many Arab countries ran out of options. It was simply not succeeding. He specifically points to . . .

“social and political conditions where, following a phase of experimentation, the appeal, energy, and sources of legitimacy of Islamism are exhausted, even among its once-ardent supporters. Islamists become aware of their system’s anomalies and inadequacies as they attempt to normalize and institutionalize their rule. Continuous trial and error makes the system susceptible to questions and criticisms. Eventually, pragmatic attempts to maintain the system reinforce abandoning its underlying principles. Islamism becomes compelled, both by its own internal contradictions and by societal pressure, to reinvent itself, but it does so at the cost of a qualitative shift.” (pp. 10-11).

As a project, post-islamism is a conscious reworking of the Islamic spiritual legacy so as to highlight its support for human rights and liberty, and hence, for a multiplicity of voices, since its texts have to be reinterpreted again and again in new historical contexts. In the case of Iran, the Revolution set the stage for a variety of internal movements of opposition:

“The end of the war with Iraq (1988), the death of Ayatollah Khomeini (1989), and the program of postwar reconstruction under President Rafsanjani marked a turning point toward post-Islamism. It expressed itself in various social practices and ideas, including urban management, feminist practice, theological perspective, and social and intellectual trends and movements. Youths, students, women and religious intellectuals, as well as many state employees, among others, called for democracy, individual rights, tolerance, and gender equality, but they refused to throw away religious sensibilities altogether” (pp. 11-12).

As I see it, the popular “green” opposition to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s reelection results led by reformist candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi in 2009 was violently repressed and failed at that stage. But Iranians, muzzled as they are by a ruthless authoritarian regime, have certainly not given up. They remain as pious as ever; but piety for them means justice, the rule of the people, and freedom of conscience. The Arab Spring may soon become a Persian reality.

 

Tunisia, Turkey, and Egypt

Not surprisingly, Bayat quickly published his thoughts on the Arab Spring (“Egypt, and the Post-Islamic Middle East"). What was striking to him was the sheer diversity of the movement. One of the early slogans was, “our revolution is civil; neither violent, nor religious.” The Muslim Brotherhood, wary after decades of battering, imprisonment and torture by the regime, joined the movement belatedly. The Salafis (more conservative and puritanical – see blog 3), appeared even later.

The roots of this uprising were discernible long before this. Egyptian Islam had undergone some radical transformations in the 1990s, argues Bayat. The Gama’a al-Islamiyya, the radicals whose campaign of violence claimed several thousand lives, laid down their weapons in the late 1990s, traded their former ideology for a peaceful da’wa (proselytizing) and an active engagement in the political process – something, of course, Mubarak expressly refused to grant them. But serious debates were taking place within the Brotherhood too. One result was the breaking off of a new faction, the “Middle Party” (al-Wasat), which advocated national unity in the name of democratic values. And to prove their point, they chose a Coptic Christian as their leader.

This religious transformation could be seen throughout the region. The largest islamist movement in Tunisia, al-Nahda, is back on the political scene after a ban of over two decades. Its founder, Rashid al-Ghannouchi (whose thinking I covered in several published articles) just came back from his exile in the UK. He chose to step down from any official position and give way to younger leadership. In all his interviews, he stresses that his party remains committed, now as then, to multi-party democracy and the respect of human rights in the international sense. Bayat rightly claims that he and other former islamists are now looking to Turkey’s ruling AKP Party as their model. Indeed, Turkey’s ruling islamist party has managed to pass several impressive reforms:

“It has (for example) abolished the death penalty, ended army-dominated security courts, removed curbs on free speech, brought the military budget under civilian control, authorised Kurdish-language broadcasting, and established workable relations with both the west and the rest of the Muslim world. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s prime minister and the leader of the AKP, is now one of the most popular leaders in the Muslim-majority middle east.”

To be sure, islamism as a dream is not dead. People of faith everywhere long to see the values found in their sacred texts embodied in the sociopolitical arena. But the facile slogan “Islam is the solution” no longer has the same resonance. As the public square in several mideastern countries has been cleared and swept, the political forces come forth to propose solutions are varied, even among the religious parties.

If anything, the Egyptian army’s outrageous attack on unarmed and peaceful Coptic demonstrators on October 9th reinforces Bayat’s thesis. In spite of the army’s henchmen and Muslim extremists who deliberately tried to stir up sectarian violence, the Egyptian people were not duped. One of the leading liberal activists who launched the February revolution, Shady el-Ghazaly Harb, had this to say the next day: “Cairo yesterday was a part of Syria. This is a threat not just [done] to the Copts, but to all of the people. We saw what would happen if we rose up against the army.”

What was the Muslim Brotherhood’s reaction? In an official statement it was anything but supportive of the Copts (“they chose a bad time to march”). But we know that many charismatic reformists have either left or been expelled from the party over the summer (see the excellent article by Stephen Glain on the “Fault Lines in the Muslim Brotherhood” in a whole issue of The Nation devoted to the Arab Spring). The establishment of an “Islamic state” is still their central platform. But whether they can actually mix politics with their staple offering of teaching and charitable programs in a democratic atmosphere is up for grabs.

I would venture to guess that with all the political wrangling ahead and the ideological cracks within the Muslim Brotherhood, it could well be headed for some major losses in the coming years. Already, many of the most capable and charismatic young cadres have left the movement (or been expelled). With their vision of inclusion and pragmatic alliance with the secular and Christian forces challenging the military’s hold on power, they are eloquent representatives of the post-islamist mindset.

This is an excerpt from Earth, Empire and Sacred Text, found in Ch. 2, "Beyond Modernism: Time, Space and the Self." I believe Muslims and Christians, in order to make their dialog more productive, must take a serious look at the intellectual, economic, social and political context of our contemporary world. Since Muslims live predominantly in poorer countries (Arabian Gulf Arabs are a small minority!), they are naturally more concerned about the disparity of power between rich and poor states, and about how the current "neoliberal" capitalist system on a global scale works to maintain the status quo rather than to empower the weak.

Hence, my book leans on a multi-disciplinary approach that seeks to bring the social sciences and the humanities to bear on how best to understand the challenges ahead of those who want to make the world more just and peaceful. Here I use one of the most quoted authors in the humanities, British geographer and social theorist David Harvey, now Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York CUNY.

It’s funny how thoughts run around in our heads, bouncing off a particular memory, a conversation, or an article just seen on the web. Here’s my story about today. I think you’ll find it just as fascinating as I did.

 This morning in my Introduction to Islam class I was lecturing on Islamic art and architecture. I asked the students why they thought that Muslims turned to calligraphy and arabesque (which depicts either floral or geometrical designs) as their privileged art forms. One student answered, “Because the abstract arabesque points to the infinity of God.” “Ah,” I replied, “You obviously did your reading for today!” Whether it’s the tiles of the famous mosques in Cordova or Granada, or some of the decorations of the Taj Mahal in India, these abstract forms draw our eyes beyond the diversity of the created world around us to the divine unity that gave birth to it in the first place.

 Then while eating lunch in my office, I read an article on the BBC website, “Nobel Win for a Crystal Discovery.” Israeli Daniel Shechtman, from the Haifa Technion (their equivalent of our MIT) was just awarded the Nobel Prize for chemistry, as a single researcher for his discovery of the structure of quasicrystals . . . a great story about a scientist whose research peers and superiors fiercely resisted, calling him an oddball, or worse, a deluded scientist going down a bunny trail.

 In 1982 he discovered a way to create quasicrystals in his lab at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Washington. First he heated up a combination of metals like manganese or aluminum and then squirted the molten mixture onto a cool surface. Then he sent an electron wave through this “grate”-like structure and observed how the metals' atoms refracted the wave.

 What he observed in his microscope dumbfounded him. The new elements looked like crystals, yet their structure was totally different. Crystals, as they multiply, repeat precisely their original form. These “quasicrystals,” however, were “made up of perfectly ordered, but never repeating, units.”

 Jennifer Carpenter, the author of the BBC article, had affixed the above picture to her piece –an arabesque from Islamic Spain. Further down she wrote,

 

“Irregular shapes, similar to what Dr Shechtman was seeing, are found in the medieval Islamic mosaics of the Alhambra Palace in Spain. The tiles that line the walls and floors of the palace are regular, and follow mathematical rules, but also never repeat themselves.”

 

 Bingo, I thought. We humans, as the apex of God’s marvelous creation, explore his universe in all directions. As God’s trustees on this earth we occasionally make astounding discoveries, just as Shecmwo4man did, but we also create. Islamic art was a form of worship, as were those fabulous cathedrals at about the same time, or eastern icons after prayer and fasting.

 Then I thought about Islam and mathematics, and began to browse. I found an article by Stanford mathematician Keith Devlin, who also writes a column on the Mathematical Association of America website. It was entitled, “The Mathematical legacy of Islam.”

 Beginning to read it, I was arrested by this bold statement: “As mathematicians, we are all children of Islam.”

 Much of what he said I had run across before. It’s true, the 9th-century Baghdad academy of science (“House of Wisdom,” directed, I should add, by a Nestorian Christian!) translated documents from the ancient Greeks, from the Indians, and from the Syriac scholars that preceded them.

 Then Devlin focuses on Al-Khwarizmi, astronomer to the Baghdad caliph, who was also a philosopher, scientist, theologian, and mathematician of note. Scholars at that time were “Renaissance men” long before the day! In any case, he wrote at least two books that set the course of mathematics later in Europe.

 About Al-Khwarizmi's first book Devlin comments:

 

“In particular, his book describing how to write numbers and compute with them using the place-value decimal system that came out of India would, when translated into Latin three hundred years later, prove to be a major source for Europeans who wanted to learn the new system.”

 

 The second one is entitled, “Kitab al-jabr w’al-muqabal” (“Book of restoration and compensation”). It was all about algebra – in fact algebra takes its name from this book title: al-jabr. Even more amazing is the origin of the word “algorithm” we use in math today. The Latin translations of al-Khwarizmi’s books began with “dixit Algorismi.” The name stuck, and was later used to refer to one kind of mathematical operation.

 Yes, I can see how we have all been impacted for good by the interfaith collegiality of Abbasid Baghdad or Islamic Spain (al-Andalus).

 So at the end of this tiring day, I still feel inspired by all these converging thoughts. Congratulations to Daniel Shechtman for his perseverance in the face of much opposition and ridicule! His discovery has made possible all kinds of wonderful applications in our daily lives. And God bless this year’s president elect of the American Chemical Society, Bassam Shakhashiri, who in the following comments given to the BBC on this Nobel Prize, would have made his Arab ancestor al-Khwarizmi proud:

 

"This is how we make progress in science. [If] someone comes up with a discovery that we are skeptical about…we [have to] take time to verify the observations and discuss the conclusions among ourselves. This is a really great example of the triumph of science. And an opportunity for all of us... who are curious about nature, to be vigilant, to be careful, and to engage in respectful debate about the interpretation of results."

 

 Let that “respectful debate” swell evermore from the far corners of the globe, and let human creativity flourish – under many religious labels – to the glory of the One Creator!

 

The Salam Institute for Peace and Justice (Washington, DC) is actively involved in conflict resolution between Muslim and non-Muslim communities in several parts of the world. Its co-founder and Executive Director, Mohammed Abu-Nimer, is the author of Nonviolence and Peace Building in Islam: Theory and Practice (University Press of Florida, 2003) and is Directorof the Peacebuilding and Development Institute at American University. He co-sponsored a series of two dialogs between Fuller Theological Seminary and the Salam Institute (of which I was a part) which resulted in the book, Peace-Building by, between, and beyond Muslims and Evangelical Christians (Lexington Books, reprint. ed., 2010).

[This was first posted on the Peace Catalysts Int'l website the week before 9/11 under the title, "Fear, Inc."]

 

The flames of suspicion, hate and fear swept over our country in the 1940s and 1950s, fanned by the zealous anti-Communist Senator from Wisconsin, mwo4meph McCarthy. Government employees, people from the entertainment industry, the unions and universities, were dragged before interrogation panels, some staged by the government, some privately sponsored. Thousands lost their jobs and reputations as a result, and hundreds were imprisoned. More gravely, the whole country was caught in a vortex of hysteria, mutual denigration and bitter debates.

The current campaign in the United States to vilify Muslims is certainly reminiscent of the McCarthyism of the 1950s. OK, it's not state-sponsored, and so it's on a smaller scale; but it's sure poisoning our public discourse, especially in this pre-election year.

If you don’t believe me, then just add up these phrases that bounce back and forth from the media, the blogosphere, and the lips of your neighbor next door:

 

  • “Practicing Muslims cannot be loyal Americans”
  • “There is no such thing as moderate Islam. Traditional Islam is radical Islam
  • “President Obama is a Muslim”
  • “Sharia is a threat to America”
  • “Mosques are Trojan Horses”
  • “Radical Islam has infiltrated America, the government and mainstream Muslim organizations”

 

These thoughts don’t just appear out of thin air. That is what a new study by a Washington think tank, Center for American Progress (CAP), is trying to show. Its 138-page report, “Fear Inc: Exposing the Islamophobia Network in America” (download here), points to seven foundations that together have contributed over $42 million in support of this campaign bent on exploiting the fear and ignorance of Americans about Islam after 9/11 (see Keith Olbermann’s interview of one of its authors).

Following the money trail is crucial, though never entirely possible. Yet at the very least, by exposing the funding traceable via IRS channels, the authors hoped that some of the donors would think twice about what they are funding. You can’t make Islamophobia disappear with a magic wand, but cutting off some of the money has got to help. And in fact, one of the foundations contacted CAP after the study was published, bitterly complaining that their name was associated with such illustrious merchants of hate. Bingo!

Sadly, lots of money is funneled through private foundations, corporations and individual donors, and often with precise political goals in mind. “Fear, Inc.” reveals that the top seven foundations typically give to conservative, right-wing causes and agents. The number one donor turns out to be The Donors Capital Fund, which in 2009, for instance, dispensed about $60 million for “mainstream conservative groups, none of which are Islamophobic” (p. 16). Yet from 2007 to 2009 they also distributed $21, 318, 600 to four of the most “islamophobic” organizations.

OK, so what is their definition of “islamophobia”? Actually, it’s a very helpful one: “an exaggerated fear, hatred, and hostility toward Islam and Muslims that is perpetuated by negative stereotypes resulting in bias, discrimination, and the marginalization and exclusion of Muslims from America’s social, political, and civic life” (p. 9). So it’s the reinforcement of “negative stereotypes” that 1) prey on existing fear and hostility toward Muslims, 2) by distorting and exaggerating aspects of Islamic beliefs and practices, 3) with the goal of discriminating against, stigmatizing and even excluding Muslims “from America’s social, political, and civic life.”

Who are these purveyors of hate and misinformation? They fall into four categories:

 

1. The pseudo-scholars and policy experts: here, five individuals share the responsibility for providing the catchy talking points (“mosques are a Trojan horse”). One of these, Frank Gaffney (see my blog “Sharia Conspiracy Theories”) uses his neoconservative think tank, The Centre for Security Policy, to broadcast a definition of “Sharia” no Muslim would recognize, but which allows him to state – rather ominously – that the Islamic sharia is the greatest totalitarian threat to US security. Next, lawyer and author David Yerushalmi’s rhetoric along the same lines has provided a backbone to the campaign in 23 states to outlaw Sharia (see my blog, “Sharia: Can It Be Outlawed?”). Add three more names: Steve Emerson’s overstated analysis of the “Islamic threat” by means of his think tank, The Investigative Project on Terrorism; Daniel Pipes’ Middle East Forum; and Robert Spencer (who has written the most books by far) and his website Jihad Watch.

 

2. Grassroots organizations and the religious right, providing “the muscle of the Islamophobia network” and successfully building on the momentum of the “Ground Zero Mosque” protest (which was neither a mosque nor at ground zero) in 2009-2010: at the top of the list is Lebanese-American Brigitte Gabriel, dubbed “a radical islamophobe” by the New York Times, who founded in 2007 Act! For America, which now boasts 573 chapters and 170,000 members worldwide. Its national Executive Director is former Christian Coalition strategist Guy Rodgers and its short-term goal is to turn fear of Islam into an electrifying tool in the upcoming presidential campaign so as to defeat President Obama. Another influential grassroots organization is Pamela Geller’s Stop Islamization of America, which in the words of the Anti-Defamation League “promotes a conspiratorial anti-Muslim agenda under the guise of fighting radical Islam” (p. 69). In the Religious Right category, you find John Hagee (Christians United for Israel), Pat Robertson (American Center for Law and Justice), and Ralph Reed (Faith and Freedom Coalition), and grassroots organizations like the Eagle Forum, American Family Coalition, and more recently, the Tennessee Freedom Coalition. Finally, some local Tea Party chapters have embraced Geller and Gabriel’s agenda.

 

3. Media outlets: these enable the mainstreaming of extremist rhetoric, and in particular, Fox News in network TV and radio personalities such as Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck. David Horowitz is also a major player in the field of Islam-bashing. His Freedom Center (founded in 1988), according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, has “helped spread bigoted ideas into American life. Through his two online magazines (FrontPage and Jihad Watch, both directed by Robert Spencer), blog (NewsReal), Islamofascism Awareness Week organized on hundreds of US college campuses, his Wednesday Morning Club and his annual Restoration Weekend in Palm Beach, Florida (Michele Bachman and Newt Gingrich were among this year’s speakers), Horowitz provides the backbone of the anti-Muslim cottage industry.

 

4. The political players: Republican representatives Peter King (NY, who organized the congressional hearings on the radicalization of the US Muslim community) and Michele Bachman are among three other colleagues the study mentions as intentionally using the slogans and material of groups mentioned above.

 

Lest we think this is a harmless use of democratic free speech and lively political debating, perhaps we should ponder the fact that Norwegian mass-murderer Anders Breivik in his rambling 1,500-page manifesto quoted Robert Spencer 162 times and Pamela Geller’s blog Atlas Shrugs 12 times. Hate speech can lead some people to act on it. Tragically, McCarthyism is making a comeback – and it has its clones in Europe too.

I believe we should applaud and support the interfaith, grassroots movement that is planning to use the tenth anniversary of 9/11 for bold acts of solidarity with the Muslim community – a community which, by the way, has incessantly denounced violence in the name of religion, and especially in this last decade (see the latest Pew Poll on American Muslims).

Finally, let me say as a Christian aspiring to follow Jesus who commanded love of enemy and embodied costly peacemaking: let’s use this opportunity to preach, pray, and implement the Father’s reconciling love on this Sunday morning, ten years after 9/11.

28 September 2011

The Common Word Letter

The 2007 letter by 138 global Muslim leaders and scholars addressed to the Pope and all Christian leaders was an historic initiative. Based on the premise that what unites Muslims and Christians is at the core of their respective faiths (love of God and love of neighbor), this was a call for the two communities of faith to work together to build a more peaceful world. It is part of a larger website, The Amman Message, which chronicles the most stunning show of Islamic unity in at least a millennium (2004-6). More than just a repudiation of all acts of terrorism, it was an effort a) to define who is a Muslim; b) to ban the practice of calling fellow Muslims apostates (takfir); c) and to agree on concrete benchmarks for those scholars/jurists who issue legal opinions (fatwas).

The Yale Center for Faith and Culture, founded by Professor Miroslav Volf, houses a "Reconciliation Program" run by my friend, mwo4meph Cumming, who founded and directed a women's health NGO for many years in Mauritania. Volf and Cumming hosted the first Muslim-Christian dialogue conference after the publication of the 2007 landmark letter to the Pope and all Christian leaders signed by 138 Muslim leaders and scholars from all over the world (The Common Word).

27 September 2011

Carl Medearis Website

Carl Medearis is a friend with years of residence in Lebanon, who is now in the forefront of Muslim-Christian reconciliation. Among his recent bestselling books are Muslims, Christians and Jesus, Tea with Hezbollah, and Speaking of Jesus.

Books

  • Muslims and Christians Debate Justice and Love
    Muslims and Christians Debate Justice and Love

    This was the page devoted to my small monograph published in Malaysia, Evolving Muslim Theologies of Justice: Jamal al-Banna, Mohammad Hashim Kamali and Khaled Abou El Fadl. It is now a 180-page (double-spaced) manuscript that should come out in 2019. You can also read a summary for each of the 6 chapters on the publisher's page. Here's the abstract, or précis:

     

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  • Earth, Empire and Sacred Text
    Earth, Empire and Sacred Text

    This book seeks to construct a Muslim-Christian theological discourse on creation and humanity, which could help adherents of both faiths work together to preserve our planet, bring justice to its most needy inhabitants and contribute to peacebuilding in areas of conflict. For more information or to purchase (now also in paperback!)

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