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

Boring title, right?

Actually, the explosion of anger among the masses in North Africa (the “Maghreb”) in December-January 2010-2011 initially called the Arab Spring, which toppled three regimes in the region (Tunisia, Libya and Egypt), had roots in 1930s Algeria. Let me explain.

And by the way, this is the beginning of a series of three blogs on Rached Ghannouchi, that spin out of his book I am translating (Arabic to English), The Public Freedoms of the Islamic State. Ghannouchi is the founder (and still leader) of the islamist party Ennahda (“Renaissance”), which was voted into power in Tunisia on the heels of dictator Ben Ali’s desperate escape from the country. Ghannouchi wrote this book mostly as a political prisoner in the 1980s as a doctoral dissertation. Back to him later . . .

What we call “political Islam,” or islamism (I use the lower case ‘i’ to mark it off as an ideology), or the 20th-century movement to bring specific Islamic values into the sociopolitical sphere of the nation-state, goes back to the great modern Islamic reformer Muhammad Abduh (d. 1905). Abduh, who spent the last decade or his life as Egypt’s top cleric, or Grand Mufti, wanted a “modern” Islam that could help Muslims deal with the momentous and frightening changes wrought by Western colonialism. To accomplish this, he argued, you have to cut through all the dead wood, fanciful traditions and superstitions that accumulated over time, and learn from the luminaries of early Islam and the masters of its classical tradition. In one word, you turned to the salafs, or the “pious forbears.” Hence, Abduh labeled his thought salafi (see my blog, “Whence the Salafis?” for fuller treatment of this trend).

So the new salafi teaching that Abduh was able to establish at the most prestigious center of Islamic learning, Cairo’s al-Azhar University, spread to other centers around the world, and notably to the Zaytuna mosque complex in Tunis, where the Algerian reformer Ben Badis (d. 1940) went for training in the 1910s. His own efforts led to the founding of the Algerian Association of Muslim Ulama (“Islamic scholars”), or the AUMA in 1931, a movement that was sowing the seeds of Islamic reformism (islah) in this French territory.

[Note: Algeria was not a “French colony,” like Tunisia or Morocco. The French had simply annexed it in 1830, and native Algerians carried identity cards branding them as “French Muslims.” This was discrimination every bit as thorough and brutal as South African apartheid].

Meanwhile, a bright young Algerian man, Malek Bennabi (d. 1973), was sent to the town of Constantine, where the premier institute for training lawyers and clerks for the Islamic court system was located. By then, Bennabi, a voracious reader, had not only read Abduh’s magnum opus in Arabic, The Message of God’s Unity, but also anti-colonial writers like India’s Rabindranath Tagore in French. His morning ritual included perusing the French communist paper, LHumanité. Islam remained Bennabi’s compass and soul mate all his life, but he was also an Algerian nationalist through and through, with an insatiable curiosity for current events all over the globe. Long before the Non-Aligned Movement emerged, Bennabi was an internationalist.

How does a secular-leaning Muslim anti-colonial activist become an inspiration to a nascent islamist movement in neighboring Tunisia? That is what makes this story fascinating.

Ben Badis lived in Constantine and in his autobiography (in French, like most of his many books) Bennabi relates that he would often observe him walking to his office in the morning, as he and his friends sat in their café discussing the latest news. One day, though, he got up the courage to pay him a visit. As he recounts the meeting, it was a disappointment. Dressed in his Western attire, he was not even invited to sit down. The Shaykh in traditional scholarly garb listened to him politely as he waxed eloquent about Algerian independence and, among other items, the urgency of exploiting neglected farmlands. But Ben Badis stayed mostly silent.

Bennabi remained at least sympathetic to the Islamic reformist movement, but his driving passion was elsewhere. In 1930 he moved to France and obtained a degree in electrical engineering. And though he kept in touch with the political activities of his compatriots in the homeland, he was consumed by social issues, which he also discussed with members of a Catholic students club in Paris. There he made some lasting friends with peers who were doubly “other” to him – French and Christian. Alan Christelow, historian at Idaho State University, noted how these encounters helped to widen Bennabi’s horizons and develop a certain “ecumenical” spirit. He wrote this about him in a 1992 article:

 

“For Bennabi, dialogue between Islam and other civilizations was possible, indeed highly desirable, but such dialogue could not take place within an asymmetrical colonial framework.”

 

[For more on Algeria by Allan Christelow, see my blog reviewing his 2012 book around the theme of 19th-century patriot and Sufi Shaykh, the Emir Abd el-Kader]

After his graduation he married a French woman who converted to Islam and he began to write several books – some defending Islam (The Qur’anic Phenomenon, 1946), but most developing his thought as a self-taught philosopher of civilizations, like his seminal 1948 book, Les Conditions de la Renaissance (“Conditions for Renewal”).

Meanwhile, the Algerian resistance movement launched its guerilla war against French occupation of their nation in November 1954. Two years later, Bennabi went to Egypt, partly to join the patriots in exile and partly to improve his Arabic. President Gamal Abdel Nasser provided him with a stipend so he could spend his time writing. He stayed there until 1963, just a year after Algerian independence.

During those years, Bennabi lectured often in Arabic in Lebanon and Syria, as well as in Egypt, and developed a strong reputation as a thinker who could skillfully weave themes of anti-colonialism, Arab-Islamic pride, democracy and social justice. Further, he neither lost his passion for the dialog of civilizations, nor his thirst for knowledge. By then he was also reading about economic development, sociology and political science and blending his conclusions into a series of books.

More than anything, however, Bennabi was fascinated with the idea of civilization, and in particular, he wondered why after towering over other parts of the world for so long, Islamic civilization went into such a steep decline in the late medieval period. For an explanation, he looked to 14th-century historian, the Tunisian Ibn Khaldun (d. 1406), who is considered today as the forerunner of sociology, historiography, demography and economics, and who served as advisor to several rulers in North Africa and the Middle East of his time.

Here is a sample of Bennabi's thinking, quoting from an article I wrote, which appeared in the Maghreb Review in 2004 (“Fuzzy Reformist-Islamist Borders: Malek Bennabi and Rachid Ghannouchi on Civilization” (which you can now read in "ressources"):

 

“Significantly, Bennabi never writes about Shari’a. In fact he totally sidesteps the classical formulations of Islamic law (according to the various schools) and speaks only of the 'qur’anic spirit.' These are the values, he argues, that reflect the qur’anic virtues with which true Muslims should adorn themselves. Muhammad himself lay great stress on the moral virtues that form the bulwark of civilizations. A civilization can coast (or even expand for a while) on the basis of technology, science and reason, but without the strength of moral character ('l’âme seule permet à l’humanité de s’élever'), it will go downhill, lose its ascending force, 'drawn by an irresistible force of gravity.'

Here is Bennabi’s diagnosis:

‘When a society reaches this stage in its evolution, when the breath that gave it its first impulse ceases to animate it, the cycle comes to an end and that civilization makes its exodus to another arena (aire), where a new cycle begins, feeding on a new bio-historical synthesis. But in the arena that is vacated, the work of science loses all meaning. Whenever the outward radiance of the spirit ceases, rational work also ceases; it is as if the human person loses his or her thirst for understanding and the will to act—as soon as that momentum is lost, the 'tension of faith.' Reason disappears because its products perish in a milieu which can no longer understand or use them. Thus Ibn Khaldun’s work seemed to come too soon, or too late: it could no longer imprint itself on the Muslim genius which had already lost its own plasticity, its ability to progress, to renew itself. The qur’anic impulse progressively lost its momentum, and the Muslim world stopped like an engine that has consumed its last liter of gasoline’” (from his 1970 book, Le Problème des idées, pp. 25-6, my translation).

 

The other great contribution Bennabi made, as I see it, is his concept of “colonizability.” In his attempt to shake his fellow Muslims from what he saw as cultural and spiritual lethargy, he tackled several “myths.” One of those was, “we cannot move forward because of colonialism.” “Baloney!” he retorts. Well, actually, in his own words:

 

“There is an historical process that one should not neglect for fear of losing sight of the essence of things, of seeing only what they appear to be. This process does not begin by colonization, but rather by the colonizability that provokes it. In fact, to a certain extent, colonization is the most happy effect of colonizability because it inverts the social evolution that gave birth to the colonizable being in the first place: he only becomes aware of his colonizability once he is colonized. He then finds himself obligated to 'denativize' himself in order to become uncolonizable, and it is in this sense that one may understand colonization as an 'historical reality'” (Vocation de l’Islam, Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1954, p. 83).

 

Bennabi’s loyalty to the cause of Algerian independence was rewarded as he came home in 1963. He was made Director of Higher Education and given the mission of guiding the nascent Algerian University of Algiers, as well as those that were being built from the ground up in other major cities. He also gathered around him a number of students who discussed his ideas and implemented them in their own projects in one way or another.

Bennabi was also influential in the founding of the first islamist organization in post-independence Algeria (1963), al-Qiyam (“Values”). Although the reformist leaders of the AUMA had stood and fought with others for independence, the main organ of the nationalist fight (FLN: Front for National Liberation) took charge of Algeria’s government from the start as a one-party authoritarian system, much like their mentors in Egypt. It was Muslim in name, but mostly secular in practice and socialist in ideology, and its leaders banned the AUMA.

Hence, Bennabi’s helped to establish the al-Qiyam movement. But right from the beginning, two tendencies emerged within it. The first was led by some of the religious scholars issued from the AUMA who also had close ties with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Bennabi, by contrast, was a leader of the more pragmatic, nationalist and bilingual current.

Either way, the political movement focused on Islam was a threat to the ruling FLN party. They were closely watched, then seriously curtailed, then in 1970 they were banned.

By the 1980s, the leaders of the islamist movement that emerged at that time were all leaders who had been active with al-Qiyam. And by then Bennabi’s more reformist and pragmatic current had waned significantly.

Yet in the late 1960s, in neighboring Tunisia, a student movement was growing, which saw in Bennabi’s work the seeds of a political Islam that could bring democracy and positive socioeconomic development to their society. Rached Ghannouchi was already emerging as leader, and to him I will turn in the next post.

[This week I reconnected rather emotionally with Algeria, where I lived from 1978 to 1987, through an interview conducted in French with me and published in the daily Kabyle (the most influencial Berber tribe in Algeria) newspaper La Cité]

Who hasn’t at times confessed that if it weren’t for uncle so-and-so or aunt so-and-so, family reunions would be really nice? Families, like the wider concentric social circles growing around them, can be very diverse – ideologically, too, and even religiously.

We have good friends here from the Central African Republic. Like many other tribal groups in West Africa, their own extended family has Muslims and Christians, and until the recent civil strife, they all got along just fine.

But this one Egyptian family stands out, if only because one of them founded the first modern Islamic mass movement with a political edge – now called “islamism.” Hasan al-Banna (1906-1949) started the first cell of the Muslim Brotherhood in Ismailiyya, Egypt, in 1928. Though he had just recently arrived as a newly minted schoolteacher in that town midway on the Suez Canal, Banna preached in the cafés his version of spiritual renewal (he was also member of a Sufi brotherhood), taught basic Islamic doctrine and practice in adult evening classes he put together, started a couple of schools (one for boys, one for girls), and raised funds for other charitable projects among the town’s wealthier citizens.

Egypt in the 1920s was in the throes of revolutionary fervor. The Revolution of 1919 sparked continuous riots until in 1922 the British were forced to dissolve the Protectorate, while continuing to pull the political strings like a puppeteer from above. Then Muslims everywhere were shocked by the new Turkish ruler’s abolition of the Ottoman caliphate in 1924. And even worse than all that for an ardent young nationalist like Banna, Christian missionaries seemed to be everywhere starting schools, opening clinics, and even a university (American Presbyterians had just founded in 1919 the American University of Cairo). In some ways, the Muslim Brotherhood began as the mirror image of Western missionary activities in Egypt. Here is Banna himself commenting on these events in his diary:

 

“Mustafa Kamal had announced the abolition of the Caliphate . . . [in Cairo] it was thought that the Egyptian University could never be a secular university unless it revolted against religion and waged war against all social traditions which derived from Islam . . . I saw the social life of the beloved Egyptian people, oscillating between her dear and precious Islam which she had inherited, lived with during fourteen centuries, and this severe Western invasion which was armed and equipped with all the destructive influences of money, wealth, prestige, ostentation, power and means of propaganda.”

 

Meanwhile, he was often traveling to Cairo and elsewhere to begin and supervise other branches of his renewal movement. From my entry on the Muslim Brotherhood in the Encyclopedia of Islam and the Modern World (Macmillan, 2003; I was asked to update it for the 2nd edition coming out later this year):

 

“The society enjoyed phenomenal growth right from the start. Although it could boast only 5 branches in 1930, that number had jumped to 2,000 in 1949; by 1941 the society had become so influential that the British had the Egyptian prime minister arrest al-Banna and his lieutenant, Ahmad al-Sukkari, but he soon released them without British permission, fearing that their continued imprisonment would touch off a revolt that would topple his government.”

 

To say the least, Banna was an organizational genius, indefatigable visionary leader, and political whiz to boot! He was assassinated by government agents in 1949, victim of his own success, and hence, his inability to control a sprawling organization, and especially its “secret apparatus” (similar to other militias at the time that took inspiration from the Hitler youths). Somebody connected to the Society of Muslim Brothers had recently assassinated the Prime Minister. Banna was then eliminated.

 

Jamal al-Banna (1920-2013)

None of that was new ground for me, but in writing this book (Justice and Love: A Muslim-Christian Conversation) I discovered Hasan’s youngest brother Jamal for the first time. In an obituary in an English-language Egyptian newspaper, writer Noha El-Hennawy describes Gamal (the Arabic “j” in Egypt turns to “g”) as “the antithesis” of his brother Hasan. She’s not far off the mark.

Unlike his illustrious brother, he was sent to secular schools, dropped out of high school, but went on to study commerce at a technical school. His learning didn’t stop there, though. In fact, though Hasan wrote about fifteen books (and most of them were long tracts), his brother Jamal was a prolific author of over eighty books, most of them dealing with Islam and society.

Yet Jamal was self-taught, not a product of the prestigious Sunni center of learning in Cairo, al-Azhar University. His objective was to refute what he considered rigid and outdated rules from the past, while using the ulamas’ methods and writing in a way that the common people could understand. He also devoted many books to disprove the tenets of islamism. Though he always showed respect for his brother, he openly disagreed with the goals and practices of the Muslim Brotherhood – more on that below.

Jamal, like his elder, was an activist. Unlike him, his efforts were mostly in the Egyptian trade union movement, in which he became one the great leaders in the second half of the twentieth century. He was a forceful advocate for social justice, human rights, and especially, women’s rights. El-Hennawy calls him “a feminist at heart.” In particular, he argued from the Qur’an that there was no obligation for women to cover their hair and no impediment for women running for political office, even for head of state. And he was especially critical of traditional Islamic scholarship regarding the Sunna, the “exemplary model” of the Prophet’s words and deeds. Few hadiths (individual reports gathered in the main nine authoritative collections) are actually authentic, he claimed.

Eminent Egyptian sociologist Saad Eddin Ibrahim, who also paid for his human rights activism with three years in prison (1999-2002), convened an “Islamic Reform” conference in Cairo in 2004. In his opening address, he saluted Banna, and as he does, notice what he says about 9/11 (keep in mind that the ME has always been rife with conspiracy theories):

 

“Among the first to recognize the Muslims’ crisis among modern Muslims was our great brother Jamal Al-Banna. Ever since he joined the board of the Ibn Khaldun Center, he has been insisting that we take the initiative in the challenging battle of reforming Islamic thought to renew it, and to reach a living, ever-changing jurisprudence that fits the spirit of this age and adapts to its speedy changes.

Brother Jamal Al-Banna’s insistence transformed into a deafening shout as I sat in my prison cell in Turra, after the horrifying events of September, as I read about what he wrote on those events. He did not bow to the misguided mainstream that had somehow engulfed the Arabs and Muslims, who either were in denial that the attacks had taken place or that some Muslims were responsible. He did not deny nor doubt either fact. He repeated his mantra: reform, reform, reform.”

 

One last quote by Jamal al-Banna, and for this purpose I’ll just lift this paragraph from my manuscript:

 

“A strong critic of western-led globalization and the iron rule of transnational corporations, as well as the moral decay eating away at western societies, al-Banna ends up a stronger critic of the moral complacency, political corruption and rampant injustice within Muslim countries themselves. Ironically, he writes, more justice finds its way in the mechanics and dynamics of western democratic societies. Yet Muslims should know better, he moans. And then this memorable phrase—a jarring phrase, indeed—calculated to impel Muslims to action: 'It may well be that Islam is alive in a land that ignores its name, a land in which the banner of the cross is unfurled, more than in a land that raises the banner of the crescent.'”

 

The enigmatic Tariq Ramadan (b. 1962)

Said Ramadan was one of Hasan al-Banna’s right-hand men and he became his son-in-law. The great “persecution” (mihna) of 1954 – when the military junta purged the government of all Brotherhood members, executing six top leaders and sending thousands to prison – scattered the movement abroad. After several years in Saudi Arabia, where he participated in the founding of the Muslim World League, Ramadan settled in Switzerland, where he founded the Islamic Center of Geneva in 1961, which his son Hani (b. 1959) continues to lead today.

While Hani has written several books on Islam in French (his center, because of its Brotherhood connections, was put on a US terrorist list – and may well remain there today), his younger brother Tariq seems to have found more inspiration from his great uncle Jamal. After obtaining a PhD in philosophy from the University of Geneva (his dissertation was on Nietsche), he spent some time studying at al-Azhar University with tutors one on one, where he obtained several certificates in Islamic science disciplines.

Tariq Ramadan taught philosophy for a while at the University of Freiburg; then in 2004 he accepted a full professorship in Religion, Conflict and Peacebuilding at Notre Dame University, but his US visa was subsequently revoked by the US authorities, citing the “ideological exclusion provision” based on the Patriot Act. He was alleged to have contributed to a Palestinian charity that had ties with Hamas. The lower district court’s decision was reversed by a court of appeals in 2009 and Ramadan had this to say,

 

“The U.S. government's actions in my case seem, at least to me, to have been arbitrary and myopic. But I am encouraged by the unwavering support I have received from ordinary Americans, civic groups and particularly from scholars, academic organizations, and the ACLU. I am heartened by the emerging debate in the U.S. about what has been happening to our countries and ideals in the past six years. And I am hopeful that eventually I will be allowed to enter the country so that I may contribute to the debate and be enriched by dialogue.”

 

Ramadan is undoubtedly Europe’s most visible Muslim, appearing on television interviews in France, the UK and elsewhere, and a popular speaker at venues where young Muslims gather (he tweets in French, Arabic and English to close to 300,000 followers!). Founder and president of the European Muslim network, he often advises European politicians on religious matters at the EU headquarters in Brussels.

Ramadan is also controversial, as you might gather if you know anything about Europeans and Islam. Many have called him two-faced, or a wolf in sheep’s clothing. He faces Muslims’ criticisms too. Though he is invited to speak all over the Muslim world, he is clearly beyond the pale for many more conservative Muslims, Salafis and other staunch textualists – and of course, Muslim Brotherhood sympathizers (I wonder how he and his brother Hani carry on at family dinners!).

Yet, having read several of his books along the way, I see him using traditional Islamic methodologies to try and convince traditional Muslims to see their faith from a fresh perspective. In 2005 he issued a declaration in the form of a small book published by Oxford University Press (since 2009 he has been a Professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies at Oxford University), “An International Call for a Moratorium on Corporal Punishment, Stoning and the Death Penalty in the Islamic World.” Then in 2009 his book Radical Reform: Islamic Ethics and Liberation came out. The next year he published The Quest for Meaning: Developing a Philosophy of Pluralism.

Ramadan was a plenary speaker at the 2009 American Academy of Religion annual meeting in Montreal. Since it was in Canada, he could attend. I was there as well and I lined up after his talk to speak to him. We spoke in French, knowing that it was his “heart language” (his accent is almost Parisian, with no trace of the Swiss lilt). I showed him a proof of my book, Earth, Empire and Sacred Text. He said, “I would very much like to have a copy of that.” He wrote down his mailing address at Oxford for me to send him the book.

Tariq Ramadan is not so enigmatic to me. Sure, he knows how to tailor his message to each of his audiences. At times he ferociously defends his fellow Muslims who in Europe are often put down, stigmatized and criminalized; at other times, he’s like a pied piper, playing his tunes of revivalist Islam with a tinge of liberation theology to woo young Muslims away from extremist screeds on the internet.

Tariq is also the philosopher of The Quest for Meaning who takes his readers on an ocean voyage in which the human quest finds commonalities in all the world’s philosophies and literature, in Eastern religions and the monotheistic faiths – each one peering through the window of her own soul, upbringing and faith, to discover others on the ocean peering out of their own windows and now in conversation. The book is both rational and mystical, and really quite accessible to the average reader, but likely baffling to the average Muslim reader. When he writes “pluralism,” he means “theological pluralism” (there is only one Absolute Reality and many paths leading to it).

Tariq, unlike his brother Hani, is marching to the drumbeat of his great uncle Jamal; but unlike him, he’s on the world stage, projecting his voice, his pen and his ideas to a global audience.

I don’t think his grandfather Hasan could even understand where he’s coming from – or where he’s going. But then again, Hasan lived in a very different world. I’m guessing, had Hasan lived several decades more, he would not have been on speaking terms with his brother Jamal.

Jamal, just two months before his death had this to say in an interview. Asked in December 2012 where the Morsi presidency was going, he answered with these prophetic words,

 

“The mistake of the Revolution is that there is no room for individual freedom. The politics of the leader is against that of the masses. The situation is very bad. Before the Muslim Brotherhood took charge it was bad, but now it is even worse. The minds of the people are not developed. Their way of thinking is bourgeois, not revolutionary. They are professors and lawyers whose understanding is bourgeois. We are now seeing a reaction to the revolution and this revolution is far from a traditional revolution. People are disappointed and the leader is a tyrant. People want the regime down.”

This is the second out of three blogs devoted to my manuscript, which, as of this writing, has been sent out to anonymous reviewers by the publisher – Justice and Love: A Muslim-Christian Conversation.

In the first one we looked at the main Christian source for this book, Yale philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff. For him, justice is about the inherent dignity of people, by virtue of their creation in God’s image and their being deeply loved by God, to the point of sending his own Son to die on a cross for their salvation. That dignity translates into inalienable rights, argues Wolterstorff, and justice consists in finding ways to make sure that all receive what is rightly theirs – a seemingly impossible task in a world ripped apart by outrageous inequalities.

Now we look at the Muslim author whose writing and action, starting in 2007, initiated a sea change in Muslim-Christian relations – at least potentially, and this book wants to add to that impact. This is Jordan’s Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad (b. 1966), son of Prince Muhammad bin Talal.

Here I just want to cover three points about his writing: love is central to the Qur’anic revelation; the Common Word letter on love and justice; a short summary of his big book, now in its seventh edition, Love in the Holy Qur’an, and what it says about love and justice.

 

Islam is primarily about love

In a book about the Common Word letter he co-edited with Yale theologian Miroslav Volf, Prince Ghazi in one chapter responded to criticisms he had received about the letter (Volf did the same in responding to Christian critiques). The last criticism out of seven was this: that it was a concession to Christians by framing traditional Islamic discourse in the language of “love.” This was a common objection by Muslims, he wrote, but it also displays a glaring ignorance of their own faith tradition. In his words,

 

". . . this frequently underestimated aspect of our religion: the Grand Principle of Love. Indeed, the Holy Qur’an uses over fifty near-synonyms for love; English does not have the same linguistic riches and connotations, as was discussed in particular during the Yale workshop and conference in July 2008. If Muslims do not usually use the same language of love as English-speaking Christians, it is perhaps because the word 'love' for Muslims frequently implies something different for Muslims than it does for Christians.

            Our use of the language of love in ‘A Common Word’ is simply, then, a recognition that human beings have the same souls everywhere, however pure or corrupted, and thus that the experience of love must have something in common everywhere, even if the objects of love are different, and even if the ultimate love of God is stronger than all other loves."

 

But there’s an edge to this . . . Muslims continue to feel the sting of Christian polemics over the centuries which indict Islam as a religion of law and justice, but devoid of love. George Washington University professor Seyyed Hossein Nasr, arguably “one of the most important and foremost scholars of Islamic, Religious and Comparative Studies in the world today” (a quote from his website), wrote the Foreword to Ghazi’s book. “Love is in fact one of the central themes of the Noble Qur’an,” he asserts, “whatever naysayers, whether non-Muslims or even some Muslims who see only the external dimension of things, may assert.” Then this recommendation of Ghazi’s book:

 

“This unique work, therefore, is of great importance not only for Muslims, who at the present moment are so much in need of a deeper understanding of their religion and realization of the central importance of the Prophetic virtues of love, compassion, mercy and forgiveness, but also for non-Muslims and especially Westerners. For too long Western critics of Islam have asserted that while Christians view God as Love, Muslims hold the view of God as a vengeful God who emphasizes His justice alone at the expense of his Love and Mercy. This false and malicious view of the Islamic conception of God has been propagated over and over in orientalist writings and also asserted again and again by Christian missionaries who preach to those Muslims who would listen to them that the Islamic emphasis upon the Divine Attributes of Justice eclipses and nullifies the reality of the Divine Attributes of Love, Compassion and Mercy. The present book is a powerful response to this erroneous but prevalent view that is such a major obstacle to better understanding between the two religions.”

 

But before delving more into that book, let’s have a look at the Common Word letter. As penned by Ghazi, it is mostly about love for God and love for neighbor. That said, justice is still in the background.

 

Love and justice in the Common Word

You will remember that this was an open letter to the Pope (Benedict XVI) and “to all Christian leaders.” World peace will be unattainable unless Christians and Muslims, who form more than half of humanity, seek reconciliation after centuries of conflict. The good news is that what the two faiths have in common is at the very core of their traditions: love of God and love of neighbor. That’s the central message of the letter. And on the periphery you can find several interesting clues relative to justice.

Here I’ll take you directly to the conclusion, when Ghazi comments on the following verse: “Say (Muhammad): I am no new thing among the messengers (of God), nor know I what will be done with me or with you I do but follow that which is Revealed to me and I am but a plain warner” (46:9):

 

“Thus also God in the Holy Qur’an confirms that the same eternal truths of the Unity of God, of the necessity for total love and devotion to God (and thus shunning false gods), and of the necessity for love of fellow human beings (and thus justice), underlie all true religion:

[First, it quotes Q. 16: 36, then this verse:] ‘We verily sent Our messengers with clear proofs, and revealed with them the Scripture and the Balance, that mankind may stand forth in justice….’” (57:25).

 

Ghazi believes that love for one’s fellow humans includes justice. And then, at the end, after quoting Q. 16: 90 (“Lo! God enjoineth justice and kindness, and giving to kinsfolk . . .”), the letter mentions Mat. 5:9 (“Blessed are the peacemakers . . .”) and then comes the last sentence, “Let us respect each other, be fair, just and kind to another and live in sincere peace, harmony and mutual goodwill.” All these virtues, including respect and justice, come together under the umbrella of love, and produce “peace, harmony and mutual goodwill.”

 

Prince Ghazi’s Love in the Holy Qur’an

This man who graduated from Princeton University summa cum laude was already gripped by the idea of love at the time. “Love” was on his radar as a Comparative Literature major there, and he went on to Cambridge University for a PhD in that field. His dissertation title was “What Is Falling in Love? A Study of the Literary Archetype of Love.” Finally, he enrolled in what is considered by many as the first Islamic university in the world, the 10th-century Al-Azhar University of Cairo, traditionally considered as the most prestigious center of Islamic Sciences. Love in the Holy Qur’an is the product of that second doctorate.

As you might expect, this is a modern version of a scholastic treatise, but it remains very traditional, just the same. I call this a “literalistic” approach: the book is probably 90% quotations from the Qur’an, the hadith, and the classical Islamic commentators. The rest is Ghazi’s own skillful weaving of all this material in the service of his own thesis: that love is indeed central to God’s revelation in the Qur’an.

I don’t have the space here to go into any detail, but just to give you a taste of how justice and love interact. This mostly comes up in Chapter 17, “Love of Others (All Humanity; The ‘People of the Scripture’; Believers and Friends).”

Since all human beings were “created from a single soul” (e.g., Q. 6:98) and since they all descend from one pair, Adam and Eve; and finally, since the diversity of languages, ethnicities and cultures are among the Divine Signs (ayät) (Q. 30:22; 49:13), “God values every single soul as if it were all humanity, when it comes to saving its life or not causing its death” (Q. 5:32). After quoting several other verses, he notes, “Thus God commands Muslims to be peaceful and to be just toward every single human being, except those who wage war upon them, destroy their places of worship and drive them out of their homes.”

After three more pages of Qur’anic quotes, Ghazi offers this summary. Note here the connection between justice, forgiveness and rights:

 

“In summary: God has given each and every human being inalienable rights, and has obliged Muslims to have respect for all human beings; not to commit aggression against anyone; to be peaceful and to be just; to be merciful; to empathize with all human beings; to forgive them; to pardon them; to restrain themselves from anger; and even to repay evil deeds with kindness and “turn the other cheek” – and to do this with all people, whoever they may be and regardless of their faith (or lack of it) all the times, so long as they are not first waging war against Muslims.”

 

Here you have Ghazi unwittingly agreeing with Nicholas Wolterstorff that God endowed all human beings at creation with “inalienable rights” and has as a result enjoined on us all to act toward one another with profound respect, mercy, kindness and even repaying evil with kindness and “turning the other cheek.” That last phrase is an innovation in Islamic literature. Ghazi, after all, knows the gospels well and he’s made an admirable effort to bridge the gap between the two communities.

And then, after a two-page summary of quotations on the People of the Book (Jews and Christians, primarily), Ghazi concludes with this statement:

 

“God enjoins upon Muslims – in addition to having respect, justice and mercy in general towards all humanity – to have affection and admiration for the People of the Scripture in general (notably Christians and Jews). God says in the Holy Qur’an that the Jews were His most favoured people and that Muslims have a special affinity with Christians in particular; and God knows best.”

 

Love was not mentioned in any of the Qur’anic verses cited, so it doesn’t figure here. But notice how justice is paired with mercy, and that “affection and admiration” should be the hallmarks of Muslim attitudes toward Jews and Christians.

I end here, but not without looking you in the eye, dear reader, and saying, “do you realize how this Jordanian prince has invested his considerable assets? Not only his wealth, prestige, and influence … but his intellectual gifts?” His cousin, King Abdullah, convened an international conference in Jordan in September 2013 specifically to address the Christian exodus from the Middle East. Ghazi was influential in that initiative (see my first blog on the Christian exodus from the region).

Amidst the terribly negative publicity Muslims tend to receive in our media these days, would you be willing to counter that image with friends and acquaintances and actively build bridges between these two faith communities – thus directly contributing to peacebuilding in our conflict-ridden world? Prince Ghazi’s efforts should inspire us all!

As you can see from the sidebar on my homepage and as you found out last month if you follow me on Twitter, I have recently finished my manuscript, which is now called, Justice and Love: A Muslim-Christian Conversation. In this and the next 2 blogs, I want to summarize three important aspects of the book. Here I look at Yale philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff’s recent work on justice and how it feeds into this project. [I featured Wolterstorff on my blog, “Jesus and Justice”]

Next time I’ll come back to Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad of Jordan, examining his contribution to the 2007 Common Word letter and his book Love in the Qur’an (on this see my blog “Defining Power” ) Finally, we’ll explore the fascinating connections between three thinkers and activists, two of whom are blood relatives (Jamal al-Banna and Tariq Ramadan), and the third who ended up staying most faithful to Hasan al-Banna (Jamal’s older brother and Tariq’s grandfather).

The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, organized several Muslim-Christian conferences and the fifth one took place in 2006 at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. The edited book containing the papers presented was entitled, Justice and Rights: Muslim and Christian Perspectives (Georgetown U. Press, 2009). Its editor, Michael Ipgrave, wrote in his Introduction, “Justice is recognized by Christians and Muslims as one of the defining characteristics of God and sought by them as his purpose for a world that is manifestly unjust.”

Yet while Islam has a venerable and extensive tradition of religious law, Christians built on the foundation of Roman law and developed canon law in the 12th century, with Gracian as the author of its most influential work, Decretum (1140). But religious law is mostly a marginal concern in the Christian tradition, and this is partly why international law, which has grown out of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), has seemed more foreign to Muslims. The other reason why many Muslims have expressed reservations about it is that historically the UDHR builds on Western Enlightenment ideals at a time when Muslim-majority nations were barely emerging from under the yoke of Western colonialism.

Still, there was much convergence among both Muslim and Christian scholars about the connection between justice and human rights. That idea, coupled with the historic Common World letter addressed by top Muslim scholars to Christian leaders on the centrality of love in both traditions, is actually what brought me to this project. But the connection came to me from another book, Wolterstorff’s Justice: Rights and Wrongs (Princeton U. Press, 2008), and then from its companion volume, Justice in Love (Eerdmans, 2011).

Writing both as a Christian and as a philosopher in the analytic philosophy tradition, Wolterstorff argues that justice is about giving each person her due, or right, and that contrary to much of the literature over the ages, this is in full harmony with the imperative of love. In fact, agape love, the love God demonstrated for us in Jesus, and the love he enjoins on us, includes justice. As Wolterstorff puts it in the Preface of Justice in Love, these two imperatives come to us from Antiquity:

 

“One is the imperative to do justice, coming to us from both the Athens-Rome strand of our heritage and the Jerusalem strand. “Do justice,” said the prophet Micah in a well-known passage. The ancient Roman jurist Ulpian said that we are to render to each person his or her right or due (ius). The other imperative comes to us only from the Jerusalem strand: love your neighbor as yourself, even if that neighbor is an enemy. Do not return evil for evil, said Jesus.” (Justice in Love, Preface, vii)

 

Wolterstorff defines justice as acting toward each person in a way that reflects his worth. It’s about inherent, inalienable human rights. In this book, then, as I follow him, I am not directly concerned with distributive justice (mitigating economic inequality or fostering greater political participation for those on the margins), retributive justice (setting up a just penal system for those who commit crimes), or procedural justice (making sure that all parts and procedures of a state’s justice system work efficiently and fairly), though talk of a “just society” involves all of that, to be sure. This project is about primary justice – defining what is “justice” is and grounding it, not in some kind of natural order or social contract (“justice as right order”) but in certain rights that belong to human beings as human beings.

I agree with Wolterstorff that a social order is “just insofar as its members enjoy the goods to which they have rights.” Those rights fall into two categories: rights conferred on people by the issuing of legislation or even religious rulings; and natural rights that are neither conferred by any human or divine authority, but are inherent to humans qua humans.

Historically, the modern notion of human rights grew out of two of the most brutal wars in human history, but as I have argued elsewhere, it also points for Christians, Muslims and Jews to a theology of creation. As Christians in particular, we are reminded that, beyond the Christian affirmation of a fall from grace in Genesis 3, humanity appeared in Genesis 1 as the apex of a manifold creation that God declared “very good.” From that passage we learn that only humankind was made in God’s image and that part of that privilege was the mandate to manage the rest of creation as his stewards or trustees.

More, we read that God and humanity were joined by a bond of intimate love from the start, tragically broken by the fall. This is symbolized in the story of God coming to the Garden and calling out to Adam and Eve, ready to join them in their daily stroll. It was not to be, for they were hiding, ashamed of themselves. The rest of the Bible, then, tells of a loving God who unfolds his plan of redemption in order to restore that intimate relationship of love.

That is why I agree with Wolterstorff’s suggestion that it is God’s love for his human creatures that grounds the notion of human rights. This is also made more plausible from a Muslim viewpoint after the Common Word letter, as we will see in the next blog.

Just the same, tying human worth by virtue of creation to natural rights is debatable. One of America’s most respected theologians, Duke University’s Stanley Hauerwas, has argued against this notion in a lecture delivered at Emory University last year (watch it here). Though he applauds the ways in which rights have provided protection for the most vulnerable and have often been used to foster peacebuilding around the world, he doesn’t believe they can be “grounded” theologically. And, by the way, Hauerwas will be delivering a plenary address at this year’s annual meeting of the Society of Vineyard Scholars at our church in Media, PA next week. This will be followed by a panel on this theme and his paper is virtually the same as the one he delivered at Emory last year. And, truth be told, parts of this blog come from my own paper in response :)

Unsurprisingly, Hauerwas has mixed feelings about Wolterstorff’s account of rights. Part of it has to do with his genealogy of rights. And relatedly, it touches on a contrast between justice as right order and justice as natural rights or inherent human worth. Let me explain. For Wolterstorff, there are two main clashing narratives that seek to account for the origin of rights, as they are now commonly understood. The first is the “declinist” view, and it is the one favored by proponents of justice as right order, like Alasdair McIntyre, Oliver O’Donovan, and, presumably John Milbank (see his attempt to refute Wolterstorff), and Hauerwas to some extent.

Roughly, it begins with William of Ockham’s abundant use of the Latin ius (or “right”) to refer to natural rights, but whose nominalism led him to defend “natural” subjective rights and thereby promote an atomistic view of human society. Naturally, in this line of thinking, the great Western crisis came when Hobbes, Locke and their Enlightenment colleagues put to use this rights discourse to create political liberalism. Citizens were now seen as bearers of natural rights and the state’s mission was to make sure those rights were respected without infringing upon their fellow citizens’ rights.

This narrative stands in contrast to its rival, which for Wolterstorff is to be found in the recent works of medievalists Brian Tierney and his student Charles J. Reid, Jr., who argue that . . .

 

". . . a sophisticated understanding of rights [were] already operative in the legal systems of twelfth and thirteenth century Europe. This understanding of rights would become part of the medieval jus commune, the common law of Europe, that would in turn inform the polemical works of William of Ockham and the writings of early modern philosophers and theologians – figures as diverse and seminal in their own right as John Locke and John Calvin."

 

In turn, this idea that a person in need has a claim upon any fellow human who is able to help goes back to the Church Fathers. In fourth century Antioch, for example, the great preacher John Chrysostom in several sermons commenting on Jesus’ parable of Lazarus and the rich man declared that to withhold one’s possessions from the poor was to rob them. He added,

 

“We show mercy on [the poor man] not because of his virtue but because of his misfortune. . . . I beg you remember this without fail, that not to share our own wealth with the poor is theft from the poor and deprivation of their means to life; we do not possess our own wealth but theirs.”

 

The declinist narrative, then, dismisses natural rights as a contentious, selfish grabbing of rights at the expense of others. At worst, in our contemporary American society that worships at the twin shrines of capitalism and the almighty dollar, rights are about leveraging the justice system so we can sue our neighbor at the least pretext. At best, this liberal democratic view of rights is a pragmatic way of ordering society, while trying to minimize the harm likely to visit its most vulnerable members.

The other narrative, then, seeks to tap into the Christian tradition of justice in the Old and New Testaments as respect for the inherent worth of each person created in God’s image and dearly beloved in his eyes. What is more, adds Wolterstorff, justice as right order (or rights as assigned by the state) and justice as inalienable rights are in fact complementary and not at all incompatible. That’s why love and justice have to be linked.

This leads me to my last point, a practical one (a longer version of this is found in my Chapter 5). Doing justice will involve the church in political actions at some level or another. Here is a local and personal example. My wife and I live with my 88-year-old mother-in-law who has an aide come every night to care for her. One of the aides is an African American woman living in Chester just five miles from here, a predominantly black town of 34,000 right on the Delaware river. According to NeighborhoodScout.com, it is the second most violent community in America, just after Camden, NJ, just across the Delaware from Philadelphia. Early in January 2014 her 20-year-old son was shot dead in the street and till this day, like for so many others, her family has no idea who murdered him. He was not part of a gang, didn’t take or sell drugs. He was actually a talented rapper who still lived at home.

Last summer this lady told me there was going to be an organized protest against illegal weapons possession. It would be a march that Saturday from Chester to Media, the county seat, organized by the nonprofit organization, Delaware County United for Sensible Gun Policy. Their main platform is to call for universal background checks, a seemingly uncontroversial path to limiting straw sales that cause guns to proliferate on the streets. I told her I would go. As promised, I arrived at the meeting place by the Martin Luther King, Jr. historical marker. During the three years King was studying at Crozer Theological Seminary at the time just down the street, he also served as assistant pastor at this Calvary Baptist Church.

After a couple of speeches and instructions about the march, about a hundred of us made our way through Chester to the Chester East Side Ministries property. There on the lawn were planted over sixty crosses displaying T-shirts, each one with the name of the youth killed by gun violence, the date of the murder and the age of the victim (see photo above). I don’t have time to tell about the rest of the march, but I do want to ask, “What would King who spoke of humanity as the ‘beloved community’ think of Chester today?” King, after all, was fond of speaking of each person bearing God-given inalienable rights, so that “injustice anywhere was a threat to justice everywhere.”

Gun violence in Chester or in any American urban center is an injustice with complex ramifications and with a genealogy that includes the human propensity to greed and violence; also a past marred by slavery, Jim Crow laws, racial discrimination and a tangle of laws that allow the quality of education to be determined by a community’s income level, and much more.

No simple solutions, but justice and love require us to care enough about our neighbors both as individuals and as communities caught in a web of laws that at times need reforming. The good news of God’s kingdom in the person of Jesus Christ somehow must transform both the individual and her wider context. King’s “beloved community” also resonates with our Muslim brothers and sisters (Chester has 3 mosques and I am close to one of the imams). So we have a common mission cut out for us!

King’s practice of justice – and Wolterstorff would agree – was a statement about God’s infinite love making each human person worthy of respect and, I submit, of inherent rights.

You can’t escape it. Watch the news on TV or look at any paper’s headlines these days and you’ll read about the latest atrocities committed by the “Islamic State,” ISIL, ISIS or Da’esh (Arabic acronym).

Before I dive into the heart of the issue, I want to recommend some good reading on “The Islamic State.” The glamorous Queen Rania of Jordan summarized what most Muslims have said the world over – “drop the ‘I’ in ISIS; there’s nothing Islamic about them.” President Obama said as much himself.

Enter Graeme Wood and his 10,000-word article in the Atlantic Monthly, “What ISIS Really Wants.” I’ll be referring to this article later, but let me say here that Wood’s quote that ISIS was “smack in the middle of the [Islamic] medieval tradition” caused quite a stir. That they (selectively) use lots of early Islamic texts – more so hadiths than the Qur’an – and consider themselves “the true Muslims” and those who disagree with them apostates (the action of takfir) is beyond question. And too, that Muslim scholars and leaders may not excommunicate them (i.e., engage in takfir against them) is also true. Muslims have done just that many times over the centuries, but the Amman Message (2005) signed by leaders representing over 90% of Muslims worldwide strictly forbids it (on this see my recent blog on the ulama). But they read the Islamic tradition is a way that is very different from the mainstream. That indeed is the point of using the term “extremism.”

For a short yet incisive statement of this point, see Boston University scholar Kecia Ali’s article. For a much more nuanced statement by the scholar Wood quotes from the most (“the leading expert”), see an interview with Princeton’s Bernard Haykel. For a substantive piece on how ISIS tramples on all the basic notions of religious authority in Islamic law, see Sohaira Sadidqqi’s contribution to Jadaliyya (a great resource for critical thinking on the Middle East, by the way). Finally, here’s an American imam (an anglo convert, Joe Bradford) who puts ISIS in Islamic historical perspective without an ounce of defensiveness or apologetic posturing.

One last remark by a former top-level CIA operative in the Middle East and respected analyst, Graham Fuller. At the start of the year he offered his five predictions for 2015 inthe Middle East. The first was about ISIS, about which he opines that it’s not a viable state and that for reasons both internal and external it will crumble on its own. He adds, “To be convincingly and decisively defeated, the idea of ISIS, as articulated and practiced, needs to demonstrably fail on its own and in the eyes of Muslims of the region.”

Now I want to get to the Islamic State’s eschatology, but with just one preliminary thought on violence. Jeffry R. Halverson, a young Islamicist at Carolina Coastal University, expanded on something I have mentioned in passing before. With all this hype about violence at the hands of ISIS, we forget the context out of which this violence emerged. Our 2003 invasion of Iraq helped to create the al-Qaeda branch led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, which already was beheading hostages (remember Nick Berg?). The American assassination of Zarqawi didn’t stop that organization from evolving gradually from Iraq to Syria, when in time the vacuum created by the civil war gave rise to a new and more radical version of the original terrorist group. But there’s a wider lesson here:

 

“Human beings have a problem with violence. That’s the real truth. I know we like to think we’re advanced, especially in the developed world with its wealth and technology. But we’re still just as violent (sorry, Steven Pinker). The difference now is the developed world believes violence is “legitimate” only when performed by the official armies (or drones) of nation-states. The modern nation-state claims a monopoly on violence. Non-state actors, on the other hand, are illegitimate, abhorrent and barbaric. You have to follow proper channels.”

 

Eminent American theologian Stanley Hauerwas in his 2011 book, War and the American Difference, argues that WWI provided a kind of redemption for the American psyche from the horrors of its own civil war and since then has been addicted to war. In his words, “War is a moral necessity for America because it provides the experience of the ‘Unum’ that makes the ‘pluribus’ possible. War is America’s central liturgical act necessary to renew our sense that we are a nation unlike other nations.” President Eisenhower, himself a warrior, also warned about the unholy alliance of capitalism and war in his expression, “the industrial-military complex.” That said, the USA is not unique in this. Violence is a human problem, ever since Cain killed his brother Abel.

So does it make a big difference if violence is committed in the name of a deity? In Syria and Iraq, where ISIS is located, violence is perpetrated by a ruthless and cruel dictator who uses chemical weapons and cluster bombs on his own people; by an international coalition which bombs ISIS on a daily basis; by the Kurds, Iraqi soldiers and Shia militia with Iranian support who engage ISIS with ground troops. Does the religious label make the violence any better or any worse? Halverson presses his point with irony:

 

“Within this framework, violence in the name of a deity is outrageous, but violence in the name of a flag, freedom, democracy and (let’s face it) capitalism is a sacred duty (with its own martyrs), or at the very least a pragmatic necessity in a dog-eat-dog world. And you can get medals. The close relationship between ‘legitimate’ violence and nationalism also skews or even absolves the role that religion plays in these acts of violence.”

 

Enough said. But there might be something ominous about religion focused on a particular view of how God is winding down human history, especially if people feel that God has called them and their people to help make that happen by any means necessary!

 

The End Times in the ISIS ideology

Unlike other jihadi groups, the Islamic State is obsessed with the End Times. The Iraqi branch of al-Qaeda, already under the leadership of Zarqawi, was always talking eschatology. Will McCants of the Brookings Institution, now writing a book on this topic, tells of one of their members going to bin Laden in 2008 with the complaint that the leaders in Iraq were making strategic decisions based on when they thought the Mahdi (the messianic figure all Muslims, Shia and Sunni, believe will come in last days) will come. Bin Laden gave him a message to take back to the Iraqi militants: “Cut it out!”

The basic apocalyptic storyline includes the prediction that twelve legitimate caliphs will arise (al-Baghdadi sees himself as #8). One particular hadith says that a great battle will take place in Dabiq, Syria, which today is a small rural town not far from Aleppo. Da’esh conquered that whole area very intentionally and at great cost last year. It is said that the caliph’s enemy, “Rome,” will attack his army there.

If you think that’s far-fetched, this thinking is all over Da’esh’s social media presence. In fact, their online publication is entitled “Dabiq.” The masked executioner last December, just before beheading Peter Kassig, said, “Here we are, burying the first American crusader in Dabiq, eagerly waiting for the remainder of your armies to arrive.”

Mind you, as Wood shows, even in Da’esh ranks, there are disagreements as to who this “Rome” might be. It might be a code word for the western Christian world, which of course includes the USA, but it might also be Rome’s western capital built by the Emperor Constantine, today’s Istanbul. Turkey’s Attatürk, after all, dissolved the last caliphate over ninety years ago. One scenario is that the caliphate would defeat the Turkish army and then move on to sack Istanbul and expand in a spectacular way from then on.

But Islamic eschatology also foresees the rise of the anti-Messiah, the dajjal, who will come from Iran and massacre many of the caliph’s soldiers outside of Jerusalem, leaving only 5,000 survivors. That is when Jesus returns to defeat the dajjal and lead the Muslim army to victory. Whichever scenario you choose, martyrdom likely awaits many of the Islamic State’s fighters.

 

Armageddon and Dabiq

In a book now a bit dated (1995), Donald E. Wagner tells his story – how after being raised a typical evangelical Zionist he was exposed to a different view in college and then in seminary. What made the difference, as is the case with so many, was the opportunity to visit Lebanon, Israel and its Occupied Territories. The book is entitled, “Anxious for Armageddon,” with the subtitle, “A Call for Partnership for Middle Eastern and Western Christians.” Wagner lays out the basic Christian Zionist scheme:

 

“According to the future premillennial scenario, once Israel became a nation in 1948, the movement toward the last days of history was set in motion. Israel would gradually attain international acclaim and become God’s chosen instrument to fight the Antichrist. Each modern war won by Israel (1948, 1956, 1967, 1973, 1982) provided sufficient evidence to me that Israel was becoming a significant military power and might play the predicted role in the prelude to Armageddon” (p. 25).

 

According to one popular scenario at the time, a confederation of ten nations will invade Israel and try to destroy her. Wagner explains,

 

“A long, bloody battle will be waged at Armageddon. Jesus will return to save Israel and establish his millennial kingdom [a literal 1,000 according to most interpretations] in Israel. Born-again Christians will be raptured out of history” (p. 25).

 

In 1985, Wagner and another visionary leader, Ray Bakke, made a trip together to the Middle East with the mission of listening to political and religious leaders and discovering how the American church could be of assistance. The next year a large consultation came together in the region under the auspices of the Middle East Council of Churches and the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelism, which led to the founding of Evangelicals for Middle East Understanding (EMEU). Still today, EMEU remains a unique platform from which American Christians can hear the concerns of their coreligionists in that region, find ways to support them, and work for peace and justice for all.

Wagner’s book may now be twenty years old, but the theology and politics of Christian Zionism he depicted are very much alive today – so much so, that the outsized monetary and political influence of American evangelical Zionists on Israeli politics was covered in a documentary last month shown on Israel’s Channel 2 (watch it here with English subtitles). Christian Zionism is an international movement, as attested by Jerusalem’s International Christian Embassy. Just by looking at their website you can see how political the movement is: the first of several rotating pictures is a dark one with Hizbullah fighters, an ominous “danger” sign, and the slogan, “Not one bomb for Iran!” At one point in the documentary, you have Texas megachurch pastor John Hagee, also founder of the most influential Christian Zionist organization worldwide (Christians United for Israel) pointing to the Dome of the Rock and the Islamic Haram al-Sherif while saying, “There is no question that this is where the Temple of the Lord Jesus Christ will be.”

Just to be clear: these are my dear fellow Christians and it makes me very sad to have to write in this way. Yet I am compelled to do so: didn't Jesus our Lord and Savior call us to "turn the other cheek," "love our enemies"? Didn't he say "blessed are the peacemakers" and remind us that he who lives by the sword will die by the sword?

I'll be honest. That longing for Armageddon (which, admittedly is easier from two continents away!) doesn't seem all that different from the Da’esh rants about Dabiq to me. How is a thinly veiled call to destroy the third holiest Islamic site in the world not a Christian extremist collusion with Jewish extremists who dream of doing just that? And how is it not another way of saying, “Armageddon? Bring it on!”? In the case of ISIS, you have millenarian zealots breathing violence and martyrdom for their cause. As for Hagee and Christians of his ilk, they want to bring down the overwhelming firepower of the world’s superpower and its Israeli ally to engage the battle that will trigger Jesus Christ’s return.

Truly, there is something ominous about certain eschatologies and their potential for violence.

17 February 2015

Islamophobia Sows Fear

We may never know exactly why one angry white man burst into his neighbor’s apartment and “executed” three Muslim students with shots in the head.

We do know, however, that it shook up the whole region and, in fact, much of the Muslim world too, if the social media are any indication. Two days after, the Turkish prime minister chastised President Obama personally on the phone for saying nothing about it. The next day Obama said in a written statement,

 

“No one in the United States of America should ever be targeted because of who they are, what they look like or how they worship.”

 

Of course, such a vile act seemed even more tragic in light of how exemplary these three young people were. Deah Shaddy Barakat, 23, was a second-year dentistry student who had served the homeless in town and the needy in Syria. His new bride, Yusor Mohammad, 21, and her sister who was visiting them at the time were also model students and proud American citizens. Their families had emigrated from Syria and Jordan respectively.

Hundreds of students gathered for the vigil on the UNC campus the next evening (see picture above). Over 5,000 attended the funeral. But whatever the motive of this grievous crime, it brought to the surface an all-too-familiar fear within the American Muslim community. In fact, that fear never left them since 9/11. Dean Obeidallah wrote last year in The Daily Beast that the percentage of Americans holding a favorable view of Islam was 47 percent in October 2001. Today it is only 27 percent. No wonder incidents like this send shivers down the spines of our Muslim neighbors!

What’s even more appalling is that 45% of Protestant pastors believe the “Islamic State’s” Ideology represents true Islamic doctrine. And about 14% of Americans generally believe a majority of Muslims worldwide support its aims.

So was this a hate crime? Several investigations are underway. Middle-aged Craig Stephen Hicks was an angry man, as many of his other neighbors have attested. Angry about parking issues in their apartment complex, yes, but just angry in general. We also know from his presence on the social media that he was a proud supporter of Atheists for Equality (who like other such groups immediately broadcasted loud condemnations of this crime). But the killing came as no surprise to the father of the two young sisters, a local psychiatrist. According to CNN,

 

“Though Abu-Salha is in shock, he's not surprised. His daughter Yusor Mohammad had told him about the neighbor a few times before. He would appear mad about this or that, and at least twice, he had a gun in his belt, she had said.”

 

Then one evening, as they and some friends were playing a particularly animated game of Risk, Hicks appeared at the door yelling about their noise and the extra cars in the parking lot. He was also holding a rifle. Deah knew that the parking issue was a big issue and he had tried to be proactive about it, as his father-in-law told CNN:

 

Deah's brother, Farris Barakat, said Hicks had repeatedly harassed Deah about parking rules. Deah checked with the condo office more than once, and was assured Deah was following the rules.

“They gave him the clear and said, 'If Mr. Hicks bothers you again, please call the police.' And maybe they should have," Barakat told CNN's ‘New Day’ on Thursday.

 

My purpose here is not to rehash the details of this crime, nor even to weigh in on whether it was a hate crime or not. The sisters’ father immediately (and understandably) said it was. But even if the weight of initial evidence points in that direction, I believe there is a more important takeaway here. My Muslim readers, just by reading the title and knowing this fear in their gut, can guess where I’m going with this. This is an opportunity for my non-Muslim readers to experience just a bit of what it feels like being a Muslim in America right now.

I just want to make a couple brief points on this issue of Islamophobia.

 

Islamophobia and a bigoted media

I was driving along the other day listening to NPR, when this topic came up and Professor Omid Safi (formerly at UNC) was interviewed. Safi was recently appointed as director of the Duke Islamic Studies Center. Though the specifics in this case will take some time to settle out, Safi declared, what is clear is that this incident strikes fear in the heart of American Muslims who day in and day out have to live within a society that is mostly uncomfortable with their presence, if not hostile. And Islamophobia is on the rise. [“Islamophobia” is the term that was coined for anti-Muslim prejudice – the equivalent of “anti-Semitism” for Jews. And because it is so prevalent, there is already an abundant literature on the topic.]

For American Muslims, Islamophobia begins with the news media. In another interview (transcribed here) Mohammad Abu-Salha, the psychiatrist, emphasized this negative role of the media:


“They both, my daughters, wear the scarf. There is not a single week that our daughters don’t share with us their fear of walking down the street because of what the media is saying about us. Inflammatory media all the time. . . . They pick up the bad apples, and they magnify the picture, and they dwell on it day and night. We’re sad. We’re distraught. We’re shocked. We’re angry. We’re—we feel we were treated unjustly.”

 

Mohamad Elmasry, communications professor at the University of North Alabama, points to a number of academic studies about how Muslims are stereotyped “as a homogenised body, lacking diversity and difference, with other analyses showing that news coverage of violent conflicts in the Muslim-majority world ignores context and circumstances, implying that Muslims are inherently violent and prone to conflict.” So when non-Muslims are killed by Muslims, the stress is on how Islam is a central factor. When by contrast it is Muslims being killed by others, “the religious identity of the violent perpetrators is downplayed or ignored.”

The media outlets are notoriously selective, too. Consider the persecution (some would say “ethnic cleansing”) of the Muslim Rohingya people in Myanmar the last few years at the hands of the Buddhist majority. The Dalai Lama pleaded in 2013 with the Burmese monks to end the bloodshed and forced emigration as refugees. Have you even heard about it?

Likewise, when topics like al-Qaeda and ISIS come up, pundits wax eloquent about how Islamic doctrine is to blame, while Muslim scholars are rarely consulted. But there is a wider context that is even more relevant to the phenomenon of terrorism, as Elmasry remarks,

 

“Ignored in these analyses, of course, are the facts that Muslims in many Muslim-majority countries are often preoccupied, battling brutal dictatorships (which are often propped up by western nations, including the US), acute poverty, and regular bombing campaigns, all of which have helped create the conditions under which groups like al-Qaeda and ISIL - both of whom kill many more Muslims than non-Muslims - thrive.”

 

Yale professor Zareena Grewal highlights another side to the media biases. Author of the forthcoming book, Islam Is a Foreign Country: American Muslims and the Global Crisis of Authority, she sees the Chapel Hill killings as connecting the two hashtags, #MuslimLivesMatter and #BlackLivesMatter. Grewal notes that this crime does not come as a surprise to her community: “We know and expect ‘lone shooters’ to be white, heterosexual men; we know and expect their victims to be men of color, women, youth.”

Omid Safi, who also blogs for Krista Tipett’s NPR website On Being, agrees with Grewal. Deeply influenced since his college days by Martin Luther King Jr., Safi argues that it’s cathartic for the US Muslim community to mourn in a public way (“Let Our Suffering Speak and Be Public”). So many attended these students’ funeral that had to be held in the athletic field adjacent to the mosque.

We mourn, yes, writes Safi, but we don’t abandon hope:

 

“I want to believe, I choose to believe that the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice. I want to believe that light overcomes darkness and that hatred is bound to vanish before love. These nights make it harder to hang on to that faith.”

 

Then toward the end of his piece, he rejoins Grewal in linking this murder with other grievous crimes in our country. Though “Muslims are among the most vulnerable communities . . . we do not have a monopoly on suffering.” He cites the poor, the undocumented migrants, women, gays/lesbians, and African Americans. But Muslims, he adds, are among the few “who are routinely demonized by mainstream media.” For all these reasons, a new civil rights movement is needed for all of these causes. Then he comes back to link Islamophobia in the press with this incident:

 

“In some ways, this vile and heinous crime is the strange fruit of 15 years of the demonization of Islam and Muslims from the most public airwaves in this country. It’s a vicious combination: repeated dehumanization of Muslims and association of Islam with the worst of violence on one hand, and the sad reality of America being a nation with 300 million guns for 300 million people. It doesn’t take a systematic institution or movement to produce this kind of violence, only a few people here and there who ‘snap’ and actualize the violence that is in our public discourse. That broader discourse of Islamophobia — along with sexism, racism, assault on the poor — has to be addressed now.”

 

Islamophobia is real and it instills fear

In the above quoted article by Elmasry, we have to ponder his two questions, “But what if acts of anti-Muslim violence are consistent with at least some strands of current western ideology? What if Islamophobia has become so commonplace, so accepted, that it now represents a hegemonic system of thought, at least for relatively large pockets of people in some regions of the West?”

I won’t try to substantiate all the acts of intimidation, harassment, and even violence that Muslims experience in our country. I have dealt with this subject elsewhere (see for instance my blog, “McCarthyism Returns in the 2000s”).

I’ve written, for instance, about the years of legal battles before the mosque in Murfreesboro, TN was finally built. Then too, many mosques have been desecrated and even torched, like the Houston Islamic Center a few days ago.

I was disappointed to read that it was mostly Franklin Graham’s opposition that led Duke University to cancel a three-minute call to prayer on Fridays from the bell tower for the 700 plus Muslim students on campus. Regrettably, that could have been such an encouraging sign of interfaith cooperation and freedom of religion!

 

From fear to solidarity

Still, Safi points to signs of hope. These three students, after all, were proud Americans and Muslims. But this allegiance isn’t without challenges.

Today the White House opened a “Summit on Countering Violent Extremism.” Though many American Muslim leaders were invited, they find themselves in an uncomfortable position. On the one hand, they want to have a say on the issue of curbing militancy. On the other hand, one of the two most prominent Muslim American civil liberties advocacy organizations, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), issued a statement that included the remark, “Credible community voices who are not viewed as ‘being in the government’s pocket’ are needed.”

In light especially of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, organizations like CAIR are hard put to find a balance between promoting American values and national solidarity with the need to represent their constituency’s unease with some US foreign policy choices. So in a press release CAIR thanked President Obama for his condolences about the Chapel Hill murders and for the launch of an FBI investigation into this crime.

At the same time, they are glad that beside the common concern for the radicalization of certain Muslim youths the summit will address the more general issue of “lone wolf” terrorism – which in cases like of Timothy McVeigh can be devastating. The Christian Science Monitor reported that in Craig Hicks’ condo “the police found four handguns, two shotguns and six rifles – one a military-style AR-15 carbine – and a large cache of ammunition.” The same article tells of a study conducted by the Southern Poverty Law Center on the basis of sixty domestic terror incidents (including the radical right and homegrown Islamic terrorists) in the US. Nine out of ten of these incidents were carried out by one person only.

This is important in view of the fact that Islamic terrorism is not Homeland Security’s greatest challenge. Last summer the federally funded National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism issued a report on the top security threats in the US. Out of the top five threats, writes Mary Zeiss Stange, a Skidmore College professor, four are “in one way or another affiliated with the Christian Identity Movement, a hodgepodge of anarchist and white supremacist politics dedicated to white Christian activism. It's all about God vs. government, and shoring up the rights of Anglo-Saxon Americans.” Islamic terrorism is second, but the first place went to Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy and his sovereign citizen movement.

I’m not trying to underestimate the danger posed by Islamic terrorism. The rise of IS in the Mideast and al-Qaeda’s wanting to prove it’s not to be outshined are bound to increase terror threats at home. But along with Omid Safi and Muslim American organizations like CAIR, I want to emphasize that as Americans (sorry, I don’t mean to exclude my international readers!), we face a number of challenges, including “sexism, racism, assault on the poor,” and more.

I truly believe this North Carolina tragedy could become a teachable moment for all of us Americans. Along with these other challenges, let’s remember that “all lives matter” and that we Christians in particular can do a better job in reaching out to our Muslim neighbors. Instead of pressuring a university to cancel an initiative to honor Muslims’ Friday worship in a symbolic way, could we instead reach out in friendship to our Muslim neighbors like my friend Rick Love does with his organization Peace Catalyst International across eight urban areas?

A first step would be to read through Safi’s blog carefully and watch the short videos embedded. Trust me, you will grow to love and admire Deah, his wife Yusor, and her talented artist sister Razan, and you will begin to mourn their loss, as I did. Labels divide and create barriers. We are all people created by God and, as I like to write, we are trustees of his good creation and trustees of the peace and love essential to the welfare of our earthly community.

Like you, I’ve been glued to the media since Wednesday’s dastardly killings at the headquarters of the satirical French weekly. The outpouring of solidarity the world over has been impressive. The slogan “Je suis Charlie” has lit up both the streets and the social media.

At first glance, this is understandable. Such a heinous crime against journalism (even if it’s not the journalistic “establishment”!) goes to the very heart of what a democratic society cherishes – free speech. Censure the press and you lose a key pillar of a free polity. Then pretty soon political opponents are jailed and even tortured. As I wrote recently, this and much worse has happened to Egyptians who just four years ago toppled their dictator of thirty years and rejoiced that freedom had finally come. Democracy is both a cherished dream and a long, arduous road to follow.

“Je suis Charlie” is a cri du cœur … also a shout of outraged determination to resist those who would force their twisted worldview on us at the barrel of a gun.

That’s the first pitfall we must avoid in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attack: roll back our liberties out of fear of further violence. As the New York Times editorialized, “It is absurd to suggest that the way to avoid terrorist attacks is to let the terrorists dictate standards in a democracy.”

Charlie Hebdo does raise issues about the use of civility in the public sphere, but you have to admire their courage – holding fast to the centuries-old Parisian tradition of iconoclastic wit. Never mind too that it was a throwback to the generation of May 1968 that rebelled against all authority figures, starting with Charles de Gaulle and then all religious figures and creeds. And never mind that their influence had dramatically declined over the decades. They thrived on controversy, and provoke they did with gusto at every turn. All symbols of authority were lampooned. Andrew Hussey, cultural history professor and dean of the University of London’s Institute in Paris, noticed Charlie Hebdo’s cover picture this Christmas – “a goofy-looking Virgin Mary giving birth to an even goofier-looking Jesus.” Say what you want, but Charlie Hebdo and especially its chief editor, Stéphane Charbonnier, always spoke their mind. No religious group was exempted.

In 2006 Charbonnier published the Danish cartoons that had already roiled the Muslim world and in 2011 he published a special issue with Muhammad as the guest editor, temporarily changing the paper’s name to Charia Hebdo (French for Shari’a). The day after, their offices were firebombed. Then on the day of the attack the latest copy hit the stands with the French novelist Michel Houellebecq on the cover for his novel about a 2022 France ruled under Shari’a law.

As I said, Charlie Hebdo has long been pushing the limits of free speech, but, as Cas Mudde argues, people “are not Charlie” in part because they believe in “civility” – a notoriously difficult notion to define. In fact, it’s more likely the case that, down through the ages, civility “has been defined in line with the interests of the political establishment.”

Add to that the particular cultural ethos of the moment. At least in the US right now, the kind of virulent anti-Muslim discourse spewing out in certain circles would never be tolerated if directed to any other religious group. If you don’t believe me, have a look at the Council on American-Islamic Relations’ (CAIR) 2013 report on Islamophobia. Even when taking into account the fact that this is a Muslim civil liberties advocacy organization, the facts are overwhelming.

A press release that should sound the alarm for all of us came from French far-right National Front’s leader Marine Le Pen who wasted no time after the attack to press for political advantage. In her speech she castigated European political correctness and stated that this was “a terrorist attack carried out in the name of radical Islam.” Well, of course, and that’s what French president François Hollande had just said on the spot of the attack. But before all the facts were known, Le Pen had launched into how we are all threatened by this “murderous ideology.”

This leads me to the second pitfall with which this Paris attack might tempt us.

 

Blaming Islam and/or a billion and a half Muslims

To my mind, Nicholas Kristof has the right idea. In his column he asks what many are asking, “Is there something in Islam that leads inexorably to violent, terrorism and subjugation of women?” Examples of such extremism abound in each of these areas, he concedes, yet Muslims around the world immediately rushed to condemn this barbaric attack. Dalil Boubakeur, the rector of the Grand Mosque in Paris, trenchantly declared his opposition to the terrorists in the words, “This is a deafening declaration of war.”

That said, this attack was nothing new, despite its relative novelty in France. In fact, on the same day, forty people were killed by a suicide bomber outside of a police college in Yemen, likely the work of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Ironically, the older of the two brothers, Said Kouachi, apparently trained with the AQAP around 2011 and declared on the site of the shooting that he was avenging the Prophet in the name of al-Qaeda. Though details are sketchy at this point, it is likely that this is one more act connected in some way to the globla Salafi-jihadi movement.

For more historical background on this see my two-part blog (“Holy Wars” and “Jihad Revisited”). Suffice it to say here that the contemporary jihadi ideology is rooted in the writings of Sayyid Qutb, who was executed by Gamal Abd al-Nasser in 1966. Several groups, militant offshoots of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood that had foresworn violence in the late 1950s, arose in the 1970s, including the group responsible for assassinating president Anwar al-Sadat in 1981. But the true birth of the jihadi enterprise dates back to the last decade of the Cold War when thousands of foreign fighters converged to drive out the Soviets from Afghanistan. In that effort they benefitted from US money and weapons and it was there that Osama bin Laden founded al-Qaeda.

I mentioned “Salafi” – this is a theological/legal puritanical movement that was developing at about the same time, often with close ties with Saudi Arabia’s brand of fundamentalist Islam, Wahhabism. Yet the jihadis have always been a minority branch of that wider Salafi movement.

Marine Le Pen is right in calling Islamic jihadism a “murderous ideology.” ISIS is the latest incarnation of it, and to date its most virulent and ominous form (see my blog, “Justice Breakdown”). But she is wrong to manipulate it as a fear-mongering tool to boost her presidential run in 2017. She won 25% of the electorate in the May elections and could easily improve on that.

But it’s not just about the potential gains of Europe’s far-right parties. Anti-immigration feeling is at all-time high and especially in Germany, which has made more effort than others to welcome refugees from the tragic Syrian civil war. A coalition of German groups came together in October 2014 to form PEGIDA (“Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West”). At a time when the Eurozone struggles to kick start its anemic economy, it’s easy to see why immigration is such an issue.

Mixed in with economic factors are cultural ones as well. As Mideast violence spills over into Europe (including jihadi fighters coming home from Syria and Iraq), the older tensions caused by the need to accommodate different religious customs (halal foods, Ramadan fasting, and female dress) become more intense. Hence, the rise of right-wing politics.

Yes, there is more here than just Islamic jihadism. As we Americans rediscovered last summer in Ferguson, MI, the French hopefully will pay closer attention to the way ten percent of their population is marginalized and stigmatized. Read this piece by Adam Shatz and this plea by top scholar of European Islam Jocelyne Césari. Racism and all its attendant social and cultural stigmas and bondages, rears its ugly head in all human societies -- in one way or another. This is one known factor behind the radicalization of some European youth. But it's never just black or white. I've got to factor my own sin (collectively) in the equation too.

 

Being part of the solution

Unfortunately, the jihadi threat will be with us for the foreseeable future. But beyond its military containment, it’s not a problem that can be fixed by force. Muslim leaders have, and will continue to speak out against this perverse ideology. Ordinary citizens too can play a positive role.

You and I can be part of the solution by honoring more than just freedom of speech. Let’s do what Islamic Studies professor Omid Safi (Duke University) urged us to do as a response to this atrocity:

 

“Yes, let us cherish and stand up for the dignity of the freedom of speech. And let us always remember that speech, like religion, is always embodied by human beings. And in order to honor freedom of speech, we need to honor the dignity of human beings.

May we reach out to one another in compassion
May we embrace the full humanity of all of humanity.”

 

That, of course, is what this website is about – Christians linking up with Muslims and all others who will recognize and honor the inherent dignity of every human being in tangible ways. It means reacting to hatred with love, as Norwegian prime minister Jens Stoltenberg declared after the horrific acts committed by a “Christian” terrorist. It means too that those of us who claim to follow the One who died to save his enemies (including each one of us), will reach out in love and affirm their solidarity with their Muslim neighbors like many Australians did after the recent hostage crisis (“I’ll ride with you”).

By all means, join groups like those sponsored by my friend Rick Love at Peace Catalyst International. Or sponsor an interfaith peace-building art exhibition in Paris like pastor Paul-Gordon Chandler.

If anything, the Charlie Hebdo attack should move us to action to foster love and understanding, and not give in to fear or hatred.

 

[I wrote this the day before Chérif and Saïd Kouachi, the two perpetrators of the Charlie Hebdo attack, were killed and the tragic standoff with Amedy Coulibaly at the Jewish grocery store took place. Coulibaly's random killing of four Jews in that kosher store is chilling and apalling in a different way. My heart and prayers goes out to the French Jewish community who have been leaving France in droves over the last few years. This anti-Semitic edge of Islamic militancy is something very troubling (sadly, not new) and deserves more comments in a future blog.]

Modern day slavery is on the rise. In the 2014 UN Global Report on Trafficking in Persons (just published at this link) we read about the following tragic trends:

 

  • “Between 2010 and 2012 victims from at least 153 countries were detected in 124 countries worldwide”
  • In the first report (2012) one out of four trafficked persons was a child; now in places like the Middle East and Africa it’s two out of three
  • 70% of all the victims are female, and two out of three children trafficked are girls
  • More than 6 in 10 victims were transported across at least one national border
  • In a New York Times article about this report we read that … “While sexual exploitation remains the predominant reason for trafficking, victims are also increasingly used for forced labor”
  • Organized crime syndicates operate with near impunity because many countries do not enforce the laws they have passed on this issue; in 40 percent of countries there have been few or no criminal convictions
  • The opening sentence: “The exploitation of one human being by another is the basest crime. And yet, trafficking in persons remains all too common, with all too few consequences for the perpetrators.”

 

Sexual exploitation of children, I hope we can all agree, is the vilest form of cruelty to our fellow human beings. And as the report lays out in great detail, no part of the world is spared from this plague and women bear the brunt of this tragedy. I touched on some of this in a series of three blogs in 2012 under the title of “Religion and Patriarchy” in the category of “religion and human rights.” But so much more should be said, especially when you realize that every year over 12 million persons, with more and more of them now being children, are abducted and enslaved.

Note too that the percentage of trafficked persons used for forced labor is on the increase. We know, at least anecdotally, that many children are sold by parents who are too poor to care for their many children, and girls in particular. We also hear about young women hiring themselves out as maids to wealthier families in other parts of the world and being badly exploited in slave-like conditions. It could be in the United States or Europe, but even more likely in countries like in the Arabian Gulf area where laws and their enforcement are particularly lax. Here’s an article about Indonesian maids being treated as “modern day slaves” in Hong Kong.

All this to say that the International Organization for Migration (IOM) figure of 21 million is very likely just the tip of the global trafficking iceberg. In the official statement announcing the release of the Report on Trafficking of Persons, Yury Fedotov, the executive director of the UN Office of Drugs and Crime, wanted to emphasize that the statistics told only part of the story. “It is clear that the scale of modern-day slavery is far worse,” he wrote.

We're talking about the poorest of the poor here – those robbed of their basic human rights, stripped of all dignity and at the total mercy of their captors. But not far behind are the more than ten million internally displaced persons (IDPs)  who are now under the care of the UN Refugee agency (UNHCR). They have become IDPs through war and natural disasters. But just as many more people are being trafficked than simply those who can be counted, there are many more people suffering from famine and war than those directly managed by the UNHCR.

That there is often a direct link between the trafficking of persons and poverty is a point made by a respected NGO specialized in this work, the Institute for Trafficked, Exploited & Missing Persons (ITEMP). They point to the 2009 US State Department Trafficking in Human Persons report. Here is how a short article on their homepage frames the issue:

 

"By comparing gross domestic product information with source/destination information provided in the State Department’s 2009 Trafficking in Persons report, ITEMP personnel discovered a strong correlation between a country’s per capita GDP and their odds of being a source or destination country for international human trafficking. 

Every $1000 increase in a country’s GDP makes the country nearly 10 percent more likely to be a destination for international human trafficking victims.

Likewise, every reduction of $1000 in a country’s GDP makes the country 12 percent more likely to be a source for international human trafficking victims. 

‘By finding the roots of the problem, we can begin to look for permanent solutions,’ ITEMP Director of Operations Charles Moore said."

 

In the first blog we used stories and figures from the IOM to look at one aspect of that growing gap between rich and poor globally. We saw that the estimated 800,000 migrants who yearly entrust their escape from either crushing poverty or political instability to unscrupulous smugglers are only a small part of the total picture.

We discovered that, despite the spike in violence and political unrest in the Middle East, most migrants are motivated by the desire to provide financially for their families. Poverty is at the root of these mass migrations today.

And what is more, beyond the millions of refugees and persons trafficked, we learned that 21 percent of the world’s population lives in “extreme poverty” (living on less than $1.25 a day). That’s roughly 1.4 billion of our fellow human beings.

Poverty and the unequal distribution of resources – including basic necessities like food and shelter, but also access to safe water, good schools, electricity, health care, and more – is actually worsening in some of the developing countries (including the US), says the World Bank in a short “Poverty Overview.”

 

Lessons from growing inequality in the US

So the issues of modern-day slavery, the plight of the refugees and the “extreme poor” remind us that we live in a world plagued by inequality. But as an American citizen, I am also reminded of the fact that at home too the gap between haves and have-nots has grown wider in the last few decades.

Google’s chief economist Hal Varian teamed up with the New York Times' Upshot on a research project in the summer of 2014 seeking to correlate particular searches on the web with the easiest and the toughest places to live in the US. This was based on previous research that had demarcated these areas on the basis of six factors including life expectancy, education and income.

David Leonhardt explains that searches with the highest correlation to the poorest US counties (mostly in Kentucky, Arkansas, Maine, New Mexico and Oregon) covered the following interests and concerns:

 

“. . . health problems, weight-loss diets, guns, video games and religion are all common seach topics. The dark side of religion is of special interest: Antichrist has the second-highest correlation with the hardest places, and searches containing ‘hell’ and ‘rapture’ also make the top 10.”

 

By contrast, “In the easiest places to live, the Canon Elph and other digital cameras dominate the top of the correlation list. Apparently, people in places where life seems good, including Nebraska, Iowa, Wyoming and much of the large metropolitan areas of the Northeast and West Coast, want to record their lives in images.”

For Leonhardt this project shows that “[t]he rise of inequality over the last four decades has created two very different Americas, and life is a lot harder in one of them.” He explains,

 

“Income has stagnated in working-class communities, which helps explain why ‘selling avon’ and ‘social security checks’ correlate with the hardest places from our index. Inequality in health and life expectancy has grown over the same time. And searches on diabetes, lupus, blood pressure, 1,500-calorie diets and ‘ssi disability’ – a reference to the federal benefits program for workers with health problems – also make the list. Guns, meanwhile, are in part a cultural preference, but they are also a health risk.”

 

George Packer, a staff writer at the New Yorker, delivered the 2011 Joanna Jackson Goldman Memorial Lecture on American Civilization and Government at the New York Public Library’s Cullman Center for Scholars & Writers. It was entitled, “Inequality and Social Decline in America” (later published in Foreign Affairs Magazine). The nub of the issue is this, he writes:

 

“The persistence of this trend toward greater inequality over the past 30 years suggests a kind of feedback loop that cannot be broken by the usual political means. The more wealth accumulates in a few hands at the top, the more influence and favor the well-connected rich acquire, which makes it easier for them and their political allies to cast off restraint without paying a social price. That, in turn, frees them up to amass more money, until cause and effect become impossible to distinguish.”

 

Growing inequality, the result of this trend, “leaves the rich with so much money that they can binge on speculation, and leaves the middle class without enough money to buy the things they think they deserve, which leads them to borrow and go into debt." This was certainly one of the causes of the 2008 Great Recession and it “hardens society into a class system, imprisoning people in the circumstances of their birth – a rebuke to the very idea of the American dream.”

Two years later, President Obama put it in terms of upward mobility, or in this case, the lack thereof:

 

“The problem is that alongside increased inequality, we’ve seen diminished levels of upward mobility in recent years. A child born in the top 20 percent has about a 2-in-3 chance of staying at or near the top.  A child born into the bottom 20 percent has a less than 1-in-20 shot at making it to the top. He’s 10 times likelier to stay where he is. In fact, statistics show not only that our levels of income inequality rank near countries like Jamaica and Argentina, but that it is harder today for a child born here in America to improve her station in life than it is for children in most of our wealthy allies – countries like Canada or Germany or France.  They have greater mobility than we do, not less.”

 

This issue of inequality has loomed so large in our political and social discourse that the New York Times ran a series on the topic for a year and a half. It was moderated by Nobel-Prize in economics laureate Joseph Stiglitz (2001), who, in the closing article of the series (“Inequality Is Not Inevitable”) called the United States “the advanced country with the greatest level of inequality.”

I will come back to him, but first some figures from a study that was published this month. Henry Gass describes the project: “The study, from Emmanuel Saez of the University of California at Berkeley and Gabriel Zucman of the London School of Economics, uses a greater variety of sources to paint its picture of wealth inequality in the US than other recent analyses.” Here are some highlights:

 

  • Although US economic growth is “positive and steady,” it doesn’t benefit everyone equally, as “America’s overall wealth is being concentrated in fewer and fewer hands”
  • “the richest 0.1 percent of Americans [“160,700 families with net assets above $20 million”] have as much of the country's wealth as the poorest 90 percent”
  • “While the bottom 90 percent of Americans and the top 0.1 percent control about 22 percent of the country's wealth each, the top 0.01 percent of Americans [“16,000 families with a net worth of $371 million”] now control 11.2 percent of total wealth.” You have to go back to 1916 to find similar figures in the US
  • Though both have risen steadily over the past 40 years, “income inequality is less extreme than wealth inequality” and “wealth is ten times more concentrated than income today”
  • 1986 is the date when the average wealth of 90% of Americans began to stagnate and when the richest Americans’ wealth began to increase; the trend, so far, has shown no signs of abetting, and it is unique to the United States
  • Recently the proportion of wealth that the super-rich hold in bonds has increased in proportion to the wealth they hold in stocks – “meaning that an increasing portion of America's wealth could be inherited rather than built through business”

 

Back to Stiglitz. C.E.O.s make on average 295 times more than the typical worker, he says. This is an “ersatz capitalism”: our response to the Great Recession that struck late in 2007 was to “socialize losses and privatize gains.” That is, tax payers paid the bills, while the super wealthy pocketed millions more. No one was indicted and much less imprisoned for years of shady gambling on national wealth (my take on it). But this is no inevitable trend, he argues:

 

“If it is not the inexorable laws of economics that have led to America’s great divide, what is it? The straightforward answer: our policies and our politics. People get tired of hearing about Scandinavian success stories, but the fact of the matter is that Sweden, Finland and Norway have all succeeded in having about as much or faster growth in per capita incomes than the United States and with far greater equality.”

 

What is more, Stiglitz isn’t shy about laying bare the causes and manifestations of this rising inequality. In part he blames the bankers and corporate heads who in their passionate push for laissez-faire economics (less regulation, please!) nevertheless have welcomed the series of bail-outs that have characterized the era inaugurated by Reagan and Thatcher. Moreover, this economic privilege is undergirded by political privilege. In other words, “The American political system is overrun by money. Economic inequality translates into political inequality, and political inequality yields increasing economic inequality.” As a result, almost a quarter of children under five in America are poor.

Poverty and political powerlessness also correlate with a restricted access to justice. Reeling as we are with the fallout of a black eighteen-year-old gunned down by a white policeman in Ferguson, MI, we know that our justice system as a whole is broken. As Stiglitz puts it, the contrast between the two Americas couldn’t be greater:

 

“Where justice is concerned, there is also a yawning divide. In the eyes of the rest of the world and a significant part of its own population, mass incarceration has come to define America — a country, it bears repeating, with about 5 percent of the world’s population but around a fourth of the world’s prisoners.

Justice has become a commodity, affordable to only a few. While Wall Street executives used their high-retainer lawyers to ensure that their ranks were not held accountable for the misdeeds that the crisis in 2008 so graphically revealed, the banks abused our legal system to foreclose on mortgages and evict people, some of whom did not even owe money.”

 

Theology does matter

 In the first blog I wrote that inequality worldwide was a human rights issue, thus both moral and theological. If God created us all – each and everyone of us – in his image, calling us to be his representatives on earth, his khulafa’ or trustees over his creation, we should not tolerate the fact that millions of us are trafficked for sex or greed, or struggling to find food to feed their families, or forced out of their land by wars and then drowned in the sea by greedy smugglers or left to die of thirst under the scorching Texas sun.

According to the Qur’an,

 

“We ordained for the Children of Israel that if anyone killed a person not in retaliation of murder, or (and) to spread mischief in the land - it would be as if he killed all mankind, and if anyone saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of all mankind” (Q. 5:32)

 

This verse closely parallels some discussions in the Talmud, as I showed in one of my earliest blogs, “‘My Brother’s Keeper’ as Human Solidarity.” In the same vein, but more along the lines of poverty, we read in Deuteronomy, “Cursed be anyone who deprives the alien, the orphan, and the widow of justice” (Deut. 27:19 NRSV). Then this from Isaiah the prophet, “Learn to do good. Seek justice. Help the oppressed. Defend the cause of orphans. Fight the right of widows” (Is. 1:17 NLT).

Inequality to some extent is natural. Each human being is born with abilities and disabilities, and within a specific family, class and cultural context. Yet the kind of inequality we have been examining in these two blogs is egregious and an insult to the Creator.

There is a lot people of faith can do – yes, and people of compassion and human decency of all stripes – both locally and globally to reduce inequalities and contribute to human flourishing among those suffering the most. It involves both charitable ventures and political advocacy. In fact, instead of rivalries, misunderstandings, and polemics between religious traditions, let’s compete in good works; and better yet, let’s link arms, pool our strengths and get to work.

 

“Each community has its own direction to which it turns: race to do good deeds and wherever you are, God will bring you together. God has power to do everything” (Qur’an 2:148, Abdel Haleem translation).

In a twist of events one could hardly imagine in a horror film, a boat owned by smugglers deliberately destroyed their human cargo. They rammed into a rickety boat jammed with four or five hundred migrants (who had paid them a minimum of $2000), capsizing it instantly. Over one hundred children and many more adults perished in the instants that followed. And as the boat circled around them, the smugglers laughed sadistically.

Despite their cruelty, over one hundred managed to cling to various objects. They then locked arms to keep warm in the cold sea a hundred miles or so from the island of Malta, but most slipped under the waves as the hours turned into a day and then to almost four days. The handful who survived had resorted to drinking their own urine and struggled with hallucinations.

One of the survivors was picked up by the Pegasus, a ship that had just rescued 386 other migrants from another shipwreck. According to the survivors, all Palestinians from Gaza whose houses had been destroyed in the recent war with Israel, there were also migrants from Libya, Eritrea, Sudan and Egypt.

Just that week six other ships brimming with migrants went down. But this case was different. As the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein (a Jordanian national), declared, these smugglers are likely guilty of “mass murder” and should be brought to justice.

 

Some grim facts about migrants

 A couple of weeks after this particular disaster, the Geneva-based International Organization for Migration (IOM) published a study conducted over six months entitled, “Fatal Journeys: Tracking Lives Lost during Migration.” Here are some of its stark figures:

 

  • 8 migrants die every day, trying to reach richer and more peaceful countries
  • The IOM estimates that up to 800,000 people are trafficked across borders annually (this is part of a larger number of extremely vulnerable persons caught up in the sex trafficking and labor trafficking rings – representing altogether about 21 million people)
  • Since the year 2000, over 40,000 migrants have died worldwide – 22,000 of those trying to reach Europe; 6,000 died on the Mexican-US border; 3,000 in the Sahara desert and in the Indian Ocean
  • The pace is accelerating: over 4,000 have died in the Mediterranean this year alone; the Italian authorities estimate that 112,000 “irregular migrants” crossed into their borders, a threefold increase from 2013
  • Over 40,000 migrants arrived in Italy from North Africa in just the first half of 2014; 2,750 of those were unaccompanied children; 13,000 arrived in Greece and 2,000 in Spain crossing from Morocco
  • Libya, now a country descending into chaos, is the place of choice for departures
  • The study also documents general indifference to these migrants’ plight: apart from the IOM, there are no agencies anywhere tracking these deaths – quite a contrast to the media attention and millions of dollars spent on tracking the remains of the Malaysian MH370 flight!

 

I could not agree more with IOM’s director-general, William Lacy Swing:

 

“The paradox is that at a time when one in seven people around the world are migrants, we are seeing an extraordinarily harsh response to migration in the developed world. Limited opportunities for safe and regular migration drive would-be migrants into the hands of smugglers, feeding an unscrupulous trade that threatens the lives of desperate people. We need to put an end to this cycle. Undocumented migrants are not criminals. They are human beings in need of protection and assistance, and deserving respect.”

 

What’s behind these population flows?

The IOM Regional Director for Europe – which we now know to be the number one destination for migrants – is Bernt Hemingway. In a June 2014 blog he noted two realities dramatically clashing at the moment: the desperation of all of these migrants willing to risk their lives to survive, or at least find a better life, and the shrill and strident voices of condemnation of them in European societies. Those traveling include some of the most vulnerable – women, often pregnant, and children. On the other side, these people are painted as invaders, and even criminals seeking to steal their hard-earned benefits.

“Emotive language colours the landscape with visions of surges, hordes and invasions, and this has been amplified in the various national debates surrounding the EU elections,” notes Hemingway. Yet when you stop to think about it, his starting point is inescapable from a moral standpoint: “But we must understand that for most the situation is desperate, and work from there.”

He then adds, “The complex flows of people across the Mediterranean are a result of conflict, poverty, inequality and the quest to support or protect families when all options are exhausted at home.”

I have to inject here what I just learned and experienced in watching a jarring and gut-wrenching 42-minute documentary about thousands of deaths of migrants in Brooks County, Texas. Entitled “The Real Death Valley”, (improbably) sponsored by the Weather Channel and Telemundo Investigative. I didn’t just cry. I wept. These weren’t just statistics, but real human beings and in particular the story of two brothers marked for killing by gangs in San Salvador.

Brooks County is not on the Texas border. It’s 70 miles north of the Rio Grande river, which the travelers cross with their “coyotes” (smugglers). They are then taken in trucks to just a few miles of a major checkpoint where agents with dogs check for migrants. Then they are guided around the checkpoint by traversing huge private ranches for two or three days. But anyone sick or not able to keep up in the oppressive heat and humidity is simply left behind. Most of those who die fall into this category.

Back to the two brothers. The sick one, now terribly dehydrated, is close to death and the older brother calls 911. The local police, with only one officer at a time able to respond, usually calls the border police who are much better staffed. But sometimes the waiting time is too long, as in the case of this young man who dies after several hours. Fortunately, his brother is saved. I’ll let you watch the film to catch the rest.

Globally, however, war and the breakdown of law and order are not the leading causes of such hazard-laced migrations. In the MENA region (Middle East & North Africa) there is no doubt that the series of uprising in 2011 (optimistically dubbed the “Arab Spring” at the time) have left behind bitter conflict and several million refugees. But that is not the whole picture. Before this and still today, migration is caused by “poverty, inequality and the quest to support or protect families when all options are exhausted at home.”

Hence the topic of inequality I touch on here and in the next blog.

 

Inequality is a moral and theological issue

Some good news, to start with. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in May 2013 announced to the General Assembly as he rolled out the 2013 Human Development report that “[w]e are at the beginning of an historic journey.” This report aimed to build on and expand the original Millennium Declaration of 2000 and the ensuing Millennial Development Goals (MDGs) and chart the way forward past the 2015 goal. Ban summarized the objective thus:

 

“The post-2015 process is a chance to usher in a new era in international development – one that will eradicate extreme poverty and lead us to a world of prosperity, sustainability, equity and dignity for all.”

 

Growing up as I did in France, the French revolutionary slogan “liberty, equality and fraternity” was drilled into us school children. In the American version, the three “inalienable rights” trumpeted in the Declaration of Independence are “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The latter, I fear, has been reduced with time to economic opportunity. But equality of opportunity was never mentioned and, much less, emphasized. And that’s just at the national level, whereas the Secretary General is speaking about all humanity.

We certainly can rejoice that this 2013 report informs us that the share of extreme poverty in the world has dropped from 43 percent in 1990 to 21 percent in 2013 and that by 2030 most middle-class people will live in countries no longer considered “poor.” What is more, we can applaud the conclusion of the 25-member panel as to the proposed revision to the MDGs – specifically, “five major transformational shifts”:

 

  1. “move from 'reducing' to ending extreme poverty, leaving no one behind . . .
  2. “putting sustainable development at the core of the development agenda . . ."
  3. “transforming economies to drive inclusive growth . . ."
  4. “building accountable institutions, open to all, that will ensure good governance and peaceful societies . . ."
  5. “and forging a new global partnership based on cooperation, equity and human rights.”

 

That said, we’re still left with the IOM’s yearly figure of 800,000 people trafficked across borders. Grinding poverty still populates the daily suffering of a quarter of humanity and leads many to entrust their fate to the wiles of criminal smuggling gangs.

I am in the process of writing (or rewriting “Muslim Theologies of Justice,” as seen on my homepage) what is so far entitled, “Justice and Love: A Muslim-Christian Conversation.” My thesis is that justice – and I mean “primary justice” here – is about human rights. It’s about the basic rights of human beings simply because they are human beings. I started moving in that direction in my article (see it in Resources), “A Muslim and Christian Orientation to Human Rights: Human Dignity and Solidarity” now published in the Indiana International and Comparative Law Review.

All I’ll say here is that the UN body in the three decades following the historic Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was on the right path when it attempted to hammer out a more legally binding version of it in two covenants – the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). The United States is among a few countries that never ratified the ICESCR. Economic rights remain controversial in societies that pride themselves on individualism and the least possible regulation on the exploitation of capital.

The Prophet Muhammad was an orphan and the Qur’an constantly rebukes the rich who callously neglect or especially exploit the poor, the widow and the orphan. That’s why one of the Islam’s five pillars is zakat – the duty to redistribute 2.5 percent of your assets for the benefit of the poor on an annual basis (for more on this, see “Zakat and Poverty Allieviation”).

Jesus was the archetypal migrant, who owned nothing and “had no place to lay his head.” His teaching also reveals that he firmly believed the radical social justice discourse of the Hebrew prophets, as for instance Isaiah’s portrayal of “true fasting”:

 

“Free those who are wrongly imprisoned . . . Share your food with the hungry, and give shelter to the homeless. Give clothes to those who need them” (Is. 58:6-7 NLT).

 

Jesus summarized this in the two commandments in the Law of Moses: love God with all your heart, mind and soul; and your neighbor as yourself (see Mark 12:30-31 and parallels).

Solidarity is not only the right attitude to adopt toward fellow human beings in great need. It’s an attitude of love God calls us to put into action. More on this in the second half.

The core of the human rights paradigm is that all human beings by virtue of simply being human are bearers of inalienable rights. The intrinsic dignity of the human person, moreover, is the guarantee of the universality of the international human rights standard. Human dignity also includes human solidarity, as evidenced in international law by the International Covenant of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights ratified in 1966. This paper argues from a comparative perspective, therefore, that human rights discourse is reinforced by the central tenets of both Islam and Christianity in two areas, its universality and its application to the economic sphere.

 

“A Muslim and Christian Orientation to Human Rights: Human Dignity and Solidarity,” Indiana International and Comparative Review 24, 4 (2014): 899-920.

 

 

 

Books

  • Justice and Love: A Muslim-Christian Conversation
    Justice and Love: A Muslim-Christian Conversation

    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. 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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