08 February 2012

Detroit's TheCall Seen through Muslim Eyes

Written by 
Haroon Moghul is an Associate Editor at Religion Dispatches, Senior Editor at The Islamic Monthly, and a Fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU). Haroon Moghul is an Associate Editor at Religion Dispatches, Senior Editor at The Islamic Monthly, and a Fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU). http://www.icnyu.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=298&Itemid=1

[A slightly different version of this blog was posted on the Peace Catalysts site in Nov. 2011]

Haroon Moghul is the epitome of the young, charismatic and connected American Muslim leader. A PhD candidate at Columbia University, he is a sought-after speaker on the interfaith circuit (including CNN, NPR, the New Yorker and the Guardian). He’s also a popular blogger and a regular contributor to the Huffington Post and Religion Dispatches. A web bio says he lives with his wife in New York City.

Moghul’s latest piece in Religion Dispatches describes his experience as an “undercover” Muslim attending an all-night Christian prayer vigil at Detroit’s Ford Field stadium. But these weren’t just any Christians. This was a TheCall event led by New Apostolic Reformation leader Lou Engle – the man who helped launch Governor’s Rick Perry’s presidential campaign at a Christian prayer rally last August.

A rally to send prayers over the Michigan mosques “like sending special forces into Afghanistan” doesn’t just send shivers down the backs of Muslims like Moghul; it gives Christians like me the jitters. But aren't you an "evangelical" too, you might be asking?

Quick parenthesis: I don't like labels, but I’ll accept the “evangelical” one, so long as you identify me with my friends at Peace Catalysts, and with a large wing of the movement that cares deeply about living out the love, respect and compassion Jesus showed toward the poor and despised of his day. Yes, I strongly believe his cross and resurrection are the lynchpin of human history; and that’s precisely why I’m so passionate about peacemaking, social justice, preserving the planet, and interfaith dialog.

I think Jim Wallis and Sojourners magazine nicely represent the growing number of evangelicals like myself who give the lie to those on the Religious Right and the secular Left who “describe evangelicals as zealous members of the ultra-conservative political base” (see his editorial in Sojourners, February 2012, or the Huffington Post article). Pigeonholing religious people – of any faith tradition – is risky business.

Meanwhile, back in Detroit, local clergy got wind of the upcoming TheCall rally. They were so upset that they set up an alternative rally of their own at the same time (see Detroit Free Press article). To Engle’s assertion that TheCall was “about turning America back to God” these Detroit church leaders retorted that he was preaching “a radical ideology that promotes hatred of gays, Mormons, Oprah Winfrey, Catholics and, increasingly, Muslims.”

The Rev. Oscar King, senior pastor of Northwest Unity Baptist Church in Detroit, also objected to TheCall’s patronizing attitude: “They're acting like we're some Third World, underdeveloped country and they're going to bring us Jesus.” Add to that a militaristic ethos that blends the spiritual with actual US foreign policy: “Leaders of the rally are calling upon Christians to target mosques across metro Detroit, comparing their efforts to the Crusades, D-Day and U.S. wars in the Muslim world.”

Actually, Haroon Moghul’s experience during the first five hours of the rally was mildly positive. First of all, no derogatory references to Muslims and no mention of gays at all. Sitting near the front, like everyone else he was swaying and dancing to the Jesus rock music, “perfectly blending in” (and likely scared not to!). Then too, he was awed by the diversity of attendants – this part “seemed to be a public relations dream come true.”

Still there was a gnawing sense that the kaleidoscope of colors and ethnicities was simply like the “united colors of Benetton” – a marketing ploy by multinationals to sell their merchandise and plug the neoliberal system that allowed them to better plunder poorer countries in the process. Or a political campaign with faces of color, “even while social mobility goes into steep decline and the middle class is eviscerated.”

I’ll come back to the political message, but at this point Moghul drops a fascinating comment. He’s uncomfortable with the music and the “worship” it represents, mostly because it’s coming from a faith tradition very foreign to him. He explains that for him as a Sunni Muslim (hinting that he has some Sufi sympathies as well) “worship” is about “the effort to establish an immediate, intimate, and contemplative connection with God”; it’s about a spirituality based on a religious law that lays out specific rituals and provides guidance in daily life.

Moghul couldn’t help it – he felt like an outsider, “because, after all, religions are not interchangeable, like different color cars of the same make and model.” Yet that was not what he found objectionable about the gathering. It was normal: he was not a Christian, and therefore could not resonate with the ambient spirituality.

Around 11 p.m., Moghul decided to take a break. He retired to an Arab restaurant, ate a meal served by a waitress in hijab, and then caught a couple of hours of sleep. Refreshed, he returned to the stadium for the 3 to 6am culmination of the vigil focusing on Muslims. This is when Moghul did start to object.

Entitled “Dearborn Awakening,” this section of the program offered prayers against the rising Islamic movement in America, of which Dearborn was its “Ground Zero.” This conspiracy discourse was taken straight from the popular speaker, US Army Lt. Gen. William Boykin, who regularly asserts that “Islam is a totalitarian way of life” and that “it should not be protected under the first amendment”; furthermore, that there should be “no mosques in America,” since “there is no greater threat to America than Islam.”. TheCall’s own rhetoric was all about “taking back the land” occupied by Islam in this country. That was troubling enough, writes Moghul, but the worst was yet to come.

That was when a former Muslim, “Kamal,” stood up to speak. Several aspects of this man’s story coalesced to convince Moghul that Kamal was a fraud: his ex-terrorist Lebanese background, his military missions at age 8, the erroneous claim that martyrs become “messiahs,” or that violent jihad is the only way to salvation. Maybe he wasn’t a fraud, muses Moghul, trying to give him the benefit of the doubt. But then all his talk about Muslims worshiping an idol, a false god, in total contrast to the loving and compassionate God of the Bible – this was an outright lie, a complete misunderstanding of the teaching of Islam.

So Moghul’s biggest problem with TheCall was about the outright lying and distortion of Islam. Here’s the heart of his article, the one great takeaway from his undercover experience that night:

 

“All the friendly diversity from Friday night, the warm and smiley openness, had vanished. Love and freedom were convenient catchphrases justifying the identification of nearly one-quarter of humanity with the demonic. It’s one thing to say that you’d like Muslims to convert to Christianity. Fair enough. Many Muslims want Christians to convert to Islam. It’s another thing to so brazenly misrepresent Islam. Conflicts in the past could be safely broached, but when it came to today’s war on terror, the disingenuousness and ill-spiritedness of choosing a former Muslim with the worst possible perspective on Islam revealed Engle’s agenda and its overlap with fearmongering Islamophobes.”

 

Here’s my own takeaway, in the spirit of Peace Catalysts’ stated values.

1. Above all, we seek to represent Muslims honestly, with credible research; but too, we do this with a bias toward love and peacemaking.

2. Moghul had no problems with Muslims and Christians wanting to share their faith – both sides just need to do outreach with respect and a heart that is open to listen to and learn from the “other.”

3. Let’s be up front about our politics. Moghul nailed it: Engle is closely allied with the current Republican caucus. He seems to be allergic to the idea of any state trying to provide a modicum of social justice. Unfortunately, this tends to go hand in hand with an aggressive foreign policy that seeks to uphold global US hegemony, militarily and otherwise. Politics do count, but neither should we be partisans. So as much as possible, let’s stick to principles and values that transcend current political divides – like the Bible and the Qur’an’s bias toward the poor and the inherent dignity of every human being, regardless of race, ethnicity, class, or religion.

4. As a Christian, I weep over the deceit (whether intended or not) of having great worship music and inspirational messages about the rainbow nature of the church worldwide coupled with an attempt to shove under the radar a program aimed at demonizing a billion and a half Muslims. That is so sad!

5. Our best retort, however, is not to demonize TheCall in return, but to multiply successful initiatives and cooperative ventures between Christians and Muslims that really do make a difference in the world, all in remaining true to our Lord Jesus.

 

To close, I want to thank Haroon Moghul for going to TheCall in Detroit and for writing this honest piece on his experience. I’m trying to follow Christ with all my heart, mind and strength. This piece forces me to be honest about the degree of integrity with which I do that.