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

I begin here a two-part blog post on Turkey. What has captured the headlines is the Trump administration love affair with Saudi Arabia (apparently uninterrupted by the grisly murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggji) and its support of its proxy war against Iran in Yemen, now in its fifth year. But it is not just the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) and Iran battling for preeminence in the wider Middle East. You have to add Turkey to the mix, the heir of the Ottoman Empire, and its leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who would like to revive some of its past glory.

So much could be said about Turkey, about the Syrian civil war next door, and especially about its 3.6 million registered Syrian refugees. That is almost four times the total number of Syrian refugees now present in Europe. Despite the agreement with Europe in March 2016 to halt the flow of refugees in its direction in exchange for a substantial aid package, Turkey is now moving to expel many who were not registered and who may lose their lives once back in Syria. There are no good or even foreseeable solutions to the human disaster caused by Russian-backed dictator Bashar al-Assad in neighboring Syria.

The purpose of my blog is always to look behind the news headlines and consider the wider context, and in most cases as it touches on contemporary Islam and Muslim-Christian relations. So here and the next installment, I want to look at …

1) The meteoric rise of a moderate islamist party in the Muslim world’s most secular nation;

2) The evolution of President Erdogan from a staunch defender of democracy and human rights to a decidedly more authoritarian ruler

3) Erdogan’s foreign policy seeking to increase its influence in the ME and beyond

4) The curious phenomenon of white supremacy amidst a revival of a “clash of civilization” campaign by some of Turkey’s ruling elites

The last two points I will reserve for the second half, but here allow me to start and give you a skeleton version of Turkish history, from Ottoman Empire to the fierce secularism of modern Turkey’s father, Ataturk, to the soft islamism of Erdogan and his AKP party.

 

How religion gradually crept back into the Turkish republic

My last duty (I hope) as translator of Rached Ghannouchi’s classic book, The Public Freedoms in the Islamic State, is to be one of its proof readers. As I was in the second chapter the other day (“Human Rights and Freedom in Islam”), I reread this section:

 

“In the West, they [human rights] originated in the struggle against the Church and the absolute rule of kings, who both had a share of political authority, though it was later entirely snatched away from the former and given to the people; still, one source of authority remained. This marked the Western state with an individualistic stamp and with a nationalist, secular, and legalistic spirit. The situation in Islamic countries, however, is different, as they did not experience this avoidance of religion nor for the most part the split between political power and the religious community. Even in periods of oppression, the Shari‘a continued to constrain the political ruler in two important areas: the authority to enact laws and the imposition of taxes.”

 

If you read my trilogy of blogs on “The Impossible Islamic State,” you will know that Ghannouchi’s last sentence has some historical truth to it but also that the reality is more complex. Historically, there was indeed a tug-of-war between the religious scholars (ulama) and the rulers who derived a good bit of political legitimacy from their good relations with the former. But there were always tensions between them, and no two regimes – from large empires to local petty dynasties – were alike in this regard. Still, his main point here is valid, namely that democracy in the West grew out of a long history of autocratic rulers using Christianity to keep their realms under control. Think of the Emperor Constantine, or of Charlemagne and the Holy Roman Empire, or of the medieval popes who until the Reformation held sway over the kingdoms of Europe.

Ghannouchi as a Tunisian likely sees the breaking point as the French Revolution. That would be true. Marie Antoinette and her husband King Louis XVI were executed by the revolutionaries and the French Catholic Church suddenly lost all political connections. The division between religion and state in France is the most extreme among all Western nations (laïcité). Unlike Britain and Germany, for instance, it has no national church, and unlike the US, religion is completely banned from the political arena, except when it comes to blackballing Muslims. But as you know, the relation between religion and state, and indeed the origin of human rights before and during the Enlightenment is much more complicated than Ghannouchi lets on here.

That said, Ghannouchi’s point is that religion and politics have always comingled to some extent in Muslim lands is true. But then Turkey is the great exception, or is it? And that matters too, because Ghannouchi saw Turkey’s AKP as a model Islamic parties elsewhere could emulate. In this part of my post I quote from a very readable piece written by liberal Turkish Muslim writer Mustafa Akyol who resides in the US. He is most famous for his Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty (now only available as an Audible Audiobook – see also this intro from the New York Times). I encourage you to read the full text of his essay https://tcf.org/content/report/turkeys-troubled-experiment-secularism/ , which was a policy report part of a project launched by The Century Foundation supported by the Henry Luce Foundation, “Citizenship and Its Discontents: The Struggle for Rights, Pluralism, and Inclusion in the Middle East.”

His first main point is that in the 19th century, the Ottoman Empire had embarked on series of reforms, partly under Western and Russian pressure, aiming to give all of its Muslim and non-Muslim peoples equal citizenship rights, including “more rights and opportunities for women, and the annulment of some of the illiberal aspects of sharia, such as the death penalty for apostasy.” Yet these reforms (“Tanzimat”) were imposed from the top down, without any participation from the traditional Islamic scholars (ulama). The result was a bloated, “overempowered state,” which in the hands of Attatürk, the general who by dint of military conquest reclaimed some territories from the Greeks in the aftermath of the Ottoman Empire’s humiliating defeat in WWI as one of the Axis Powers.

So this legacy of bureaucratic centralization and state overreach was passed down from the Ottoman Empire to the Turkish Republic, which Akyol calls “revolutionary.” Why? It was an all-powerful, autocratic state that sought to transform society through and through. The caliphate was abolished in 1924, and “Atatürk’s ideological blueprint, which came to be known as ‘Kemalism,’ rested on two main pillars: Turkish nationalism and secularism.” This was completely new: “Nationalism implied a nation-state built for Turks, in contrast to the multiethnic Ottoman Empire. And secularism implied that Islam would not be allowed to have any significant public role in this new, modern, Western-oriented republic.”

Secularism for Atatürk meant dismantling most all of the institutional structures of religion: he dissolved the “ministry of Sharia” and banned the Sufi brotherhoods and schools of religious learning (madrassas). The Turkish language from now on would no longer be written in the Arabic script but in the Latin alphabet and the Islamic calendar was replaced by the Gregorian one. Men had to adopt Western clothing and women had to uncover their hair. All of this was in the name of progress and it was called laiklik, a version of the French laïcité.

Kemalist nationalism (“We’re a Turkish nation”) met with mostly approval and still does – except of course, for the large Kurdish minority, which has taken up arms multiple times to claim its independence, or at least a larger measure of autonomy.

Kemalist secularism, by contrast, has consistently been opposed by most Turks, who have remained on the whole quite religious. Akyol lists several Center-Right political parties since the 1950s that have pushed at minimum for a more religiously-friendly secularism. But then you have those who outright opposed it, those in favor of a state run by religious principles, or the islamists who consistently polled between ten and fifteen percent of the electorate. They hail from several currents:

 

“These Islamists consisted of Sufi orders; the popular “Nur” movement led by Said Nursi (1877–1960), along with its various offshoots, including the Gulen Movement; intellectuals, some of whom got inspired by the Iranian Revolution of 1979; and ordinary pious Turks who felt humiliated by a Westernized elite.”

 

The political founder of this movement was “Necmettin Erbakan (1926–2011), who first appeared in the late 1960s with his National [here, code word for ‘Islamic’] Order Party.” He founded various parties, which the military (always in charge up to the 2000s) closed down one after the other. But in 1996, he managed to be named prime minister. But this was too much for the military, which forced him to resign. This event is recalled in Turkish history as the “post-modern coup.” But these secular ruling elites, particularly in continuing to back the ban on women wearing the hijab in public buildings, including the universities, were by this time overplaying their hand. This kind of imposition of laiklik was, as Akyol puts it, was clearly “about the state’s duty to secularize society by imposing a “way of life” that had no visible trace of traditional religion.” Or put differently, “The main concern of Turkish secularists was freedom from religion, and almost never freedom of religion.”

Here I have to add a little known fact about the Shia-related sect, the Alevis who make up over 15 percent of the population. Distinct from the Alawis in Syria (also about 17 percent, including dictator Bashar al-Asad), they trace their teachings and practice from the 13th century Sufi saint, Haji Bektash Veli. But they have also incorporated insights and practices from Buddhism, Shamanism, Zoroastrianims and though self-identifying as Muslims, they worship in cemevis instead of mosques, do not pray five times a day nor fast during Ramadan. Staunch supporters of Turkey’s secularist state, like other religious factions they too found their religious activities curtailed but were also persecuted by the majority Sunni Muslims. Under Erdogan (see next section), they have enjoyed more security but they have also suffered from the ruling party’s deliberate “Sunnification” of public education. Then in 2013, when state subsidies were expanded for Sunni institutions, they were deliberately overlooked. Turkish Alevis, more than ever, feel not just discrimination but the total erasure of their distinct and proud identity. The history of Turkish secularism, to say the least, has many twists and turns!

 

The soft Islamism of the AKP

At the turn of the new millennium, two movements coalesced to craft a message that appealed to the majority of Turks: the Development and Justice Party (AKP) and the Fethullah Gulen movement (a quasi-Sufi movement under Gulen’s leadership which by then had followers in the millions mostly in small business circles). These two remained close allies till about 2013. They defined their position as followers of the British and American versions of secularism, obviously in opposition to French laïcité.

The year 2003 marks the beginning of Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s rising star, first as prime minister in 2003, then after successfully pushing through a constitutional amendment, as president since 2014. His platform from the start was full acceptance of a secular constitution with an emphasis on democracy and the respect for human rights. The latter, however, include religious rights, so gradually the Turkish culture wars tipped to the advantage of the religious. Here are some of those signs:

 

“In the early 2010s the headscarf ban gradually vanished in all state institutions. Sufi orders and other Islamic communities found more freedom—and in fact, privilege—than ever before, at least as long as they supported the government. . . . The Sunni majority keeps enjoying the blessings of state support for their faith—evident everywhere from the huge budget of the Directorate of Religious Affairs, which finances all mosques with taxpayer money, to the education system, which includes compulsory pro-Sunni religious education.”

 

Notably absent from the AKP’s agenda is any tampering with the state’s laiklik ideology. He doesn’t need to, says Akyol. Kemalist secularism has been essentially “defanged.” This is largely because of the amazing success of Erdogan and the AKP, which reinforced Turkish democracy and liberalized the economy. Emmanuel Karagiannis from Kings College London explains in his recent book, The New Political Islam: Human Rights, Democracy, and Justice (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018), that the AKP’s rise can be credited to the “Anatolian Tigers, namely the small to medium-sized export-oriented businesses based on family networks in Anatolia [central Turkey].” In essence, you had “a class of entrepreneurial Muslim bourgeoisie” that was “seeking political emancipation.” They represented “a kind of Islamic Calvinism that urges devout Muslims to work hard while abiding by Muslim values” (87). But then after winning the 2007 parliamentary elections by garnering 46.6 percent of votes, the AKP “was able to expand its support base and reach middle-class and professional Turks from urban centers.” The next year Turkey joined the Group of Twenty (G-20) major economies and seemed even closer in its official bid to join the EU.

 

Creeping authoritarianism

The AKP’s nearly fifty percent win in the 2011 parliamentary elections apparently signaled a green light in Erdogan’s mind to begin settling scores with political enemies. The 1997 military coup mentioned above was the third such military intervention in Turkish politics. Erdogan had already begun using evidence of a fourth coup, this time aimed at him, in a series of trials beginning in 2008 uncovering a military plot known as the Ergenekon case. Guney Yildiz for the BBC in 2013 writes that “[f]ollowing five years of legal proceedings, the court delivered 17 life sentences to formerly prominent figures of the military establishment, along with politicians, academics and journalists.”

During this struggle to limit the power of the military in the late 2000s, the powerful “Hizmet” (“Service”) movement, founded and spearheaded by the Sufi-like cleric Fethullah Gulen (living in Saylorsburg, PA), had become an ally Erdogan firmly counted on. In fact, Gulenists helped to fill many government positions of people sacked by Erdogan without due process. But already in 2010, the AKP “discovered” some heavy-handed investigations into their affairs by a police force largely in the hands of Gulenists. Erdogan then began accusing Hizmet of being a “parallel state.” The official split didn’t come till 2013, but with that in mind, the reaction to the attempted military coup of July 2016 makes complete sense.

Written a year later, this article sums up nicely what we know about the coup attempt. The bloodiest of all previous coups, a section of the Turkish army coordinated attacks in Ankara and Istanbul, with explosions coming from tanks and even fighter jets bombing the parliament building in the capital. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was even kidnapped for a while. Yet, miraculously it would seem, Erdogan slipped through unscathed, warned by his brother-in-law (to this day no one knows how or why Turkish intelligence didn’t manage to alert the president). Then too, crowds supporting the government flowed into the streets of Anatolia, Ankara and Istanbul. The dramatic end came swiftly:

 

“The crowds resisted tank fire and air bombardments and, with the help of loyalist soldiers and police forces, they defeated the coup attempt in a matter of hours. The government swiftly declared victory and scores of troops that had taken part in the coup surrendered on the Bosphorus Bridge in Istanbul.”

 

Yet in those few hours, 241 people had died and 2,194 others were injured. Erdogan’s reaction was just as swift. He blamed the coup on Hizmet, though Gulen has denied any involvement in it, and then embarked on an unprecedented crackdown on perceived political enemies, while declaring a state of emergency. Almost two years later, just before the referendum on the presidency, the BBC offered some numbers: over 107,000 public employees (soldiers, police officers, teachers and judges) were forcefully dismissed from their jobs; over 100,000 appealed via the state of emergency commission; 19,600 cases were reviewed, but only 1,010 were reinstated. According to the main opposition party, the Republican’s People Party (CHP), over 5,000 academics and 33,000 teachers lost their jobs. A New York Times article from March 2018 chronicles the sentencing of 24 journalists to prison for their alleged role in the coup. More were sentenced before and after that as well, so that Turkey has the highest number of any country of jailed journalists. Altogether, Turkey now has over 50,000 political prisoners pending trial.

The Washington Post’s Editorial Board had this to say after last year’s presidential election and referendum on the expansion of presidential powers: “President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s victory means a five-year term in an executive presidency of expanded powers. How he will use those powers has been amply telegraphed by his actions in recent years, especially after the failed coup attempt of 2016, when he imprisoned or silenced his critics and attempted to neuter civil society. The strongman just got a new lease on a bigger place.”

Much more could be said about this, naturally, but I will end the first installment here and begin the second one with Turkey’s foreign policy aspirations.

I confess to being surprised that I haven’t touched this topic more than once, and that back in January 2012 (though I do have a ten-page paper on Christian Zionism and the I/P conflict in Resources, the ideology without which President Trump could not do what is doing with this issue). We lived there for three years as a family in the mid-1990s; I spent five weeks there doing some research in Hebron for my doctoral dissertation in 1999; my last visit, however, dates back to 2002. Still, I closely follow the political situation and keep in touch with some people. Lately I wished I could attend one the international conferences hosted at the Bethlehem Bible College (where I used to teach), called “Christ at the Checkpoint.”

I have never been very optimistic about a comprehensive Israeli-Palestinians peace deal, and the recent one by the Trump administration, reportedly to be announced in June 2019, is likely dead on arrival. The chief negotiator on the Palestinian side, Saeb Erekat, made it clear that “the constant position of the Palestinian leadership that any solutions ruling out the international resolutions and the creation of a sovereign Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital will be rejected.”

In this post, I will first give a couple of examples of how Israel grievously violates Palestinian rights as enshrined in international law, and then argue that the winning strategy that finally brought down the apartheid regime in South Africa is the only possible path to Israeli-Palestinian peace.

 

Military occupation and home demolitions

I’m borrowing part of this material from the case study introducing Ch. 2 of my upcoming book, Justice and Love (5 out of 6 chapters start with a case study, while Ch. 1 is itself a case study on racism in the US). So what do I mean by “military occupation”? What Israelis call the “Six Day War” in 1967 ushered in an era of Israeli control over the Gaza strip (previously under Egypt), the West Bank (under Jordan) and the Golan Heights (under Syria), an era that continues until today. Many books have been written about various aspects of Palestinian life under Israeli occupation, but here I only highlight one aspect of this overall campaign of ethnic cleansing (a term used by noted Israeli historian Ilan Pappe).

Don’t take my word for this. Have a listen to one of the oldest and most established Israeli human rights organizations focused on these issues. The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories in 1989, better known as B’Tselem, Hebrew for “in the image,” from the creation story on the first page of the Torah, “And God created humankind in his image” (Gen. 1:27). Its mission as seen on its website is clearly formulated in terms of human rights: “Israel’s regime of occupation is inextricably bound up in human rights violations. B’Tselem strives to end the occupation, as that is the only way forward to a future in which human rights, democracy, liberty and equality are ensured to all people, both Palestinian and Israeli, living between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.”

Here is the kind of discourse B’Tselem used in a special report from February 2019 (“Fake Justice: The Responsibility Israel’s High Court Justice Bear for the Demolition of Palestinian Homes and the Dispossession of Palestinians”):

 

“The planning apparatus Israel has instituted in the West Bank serves its policy of promoting and expanding Israeli takeover of land across the West Bank. When planning for Palestinians, the Israeli Civil Administration endeavors to obstruct development, minimize the size of communities and increase construction density, with a view to keeping as many land reserves as possible for the benefit of Israeli interests, first and foremost for the expansion of settlements. Yet when planning for settlements, whose very establishment is unlawful in the first place, the Civil Administration’s actions are the very reverse: planning reflects settlements’ present and future needs, aiming to include as much land as possible in the outline plan so as to take over as many land resources as possible. Such planning leads to wasteful infrastructure development, loss of natural countryside and relinquishing open areas.”

 

When B’Tselem uses the word “unlawful” for the construction of settlements, they are referring to the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949, which forbids the building of settlements in militarily conquered territory. So while bankrolling the expansion of these Israeli communities in the “Occupied Territories” (UN language), Israelis strictly limit and impede Palestinian natural population growth. One way they do this is to deny 96 percent of building applications (B’Tselem’s figure covering the period of 2000-2016). Another way is to demolish homes that have been built “illegally.” From 1988 to 2017 the [Israeli] Civil Administration issued 16,796 demolition orders. Out of those, 20% were carried out and 18% are still pending in the courts.

What is certain, however, is that the pace of home demolitions has accelerated in recent years. From 2006 through 2018, B’Tselem documented the destruction of “at least 1,401 residential units in the West Bank (not including East Jerusalem), causing at least 6,207 people – including at least 3,134 minors – to lose their homes.” At least 1,014 of these people saw their homes razed more than once!

 

Incarceration of children

Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP) highlighted in 2018 the issue of child detentions in the West Bank. Israel as an occupying power is a signatory to the Geneva Conventions but human rights organizations working in these territories (B’Tselem, UNICEF, Defense for Children International) “have extensively documented reports of mistreatment of Palestinian youth within the Israeli military detention system. Such allegations include both unreasonable use of force (such as threats, intimidation, long-term handcuffing, beatings, and solitary confinement) as well as lack of due process of law.” Here are some troubling figures cited by a 2016 U.S. State Department Human Rights Report for Israel and the Palestinian Territories:

      • 1.3 million Palestinian children in West Bank.
      • 500-700 Palestinian children detained annually.
      • 84% of detained children have not been read their legal rights.
      • 75% of detained children report experiencing physical violence. 
      • 66% of detained children are held in solitary confinement for average of 13 days. 
      • 41% of children are arrested during the middle of the night.
      • 33% of detained children sign confessions not in their native language.

As you might guess, these figures – both the home demolitions and the incarceration of children – are only the tip of the iceberg of Palestinian life under Israeli occupation. From the construction of the “security barrier” which cuts off many Palestinian farmers from their olive groves or fields, to the many checkpoints which make travel within the West Bank painfully slow and unpredictable (and worse yet for the very few who are able to secure a job within Israel), to all the heavy regulations that routinely cripple the Palestinian economy – all these and many more daily injustices explain why Palestinians even in the West Bank wholeheartedly support the international campaign to boycott Israel as a means to end this occupation (I wrote “even,” because life is much more grueling and dangerous in Gaza where even potable water is almost impossible to get and power is on for less than two hours a day!).

 

The BDS movement

As the Wikipedia article on BDS makes clear (I’m guessing it may have been watered down by some pro-Israeli hands), the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions campaign does not command universal support among those who actively support the two-state solution as envisaged by the Oslo Process of the early 1990s. Though historians disagree about the exact antecedents of the movement, they do agree that the first BDS conference was held in Ramallah (West Bank capital of the Palestinian Authority set up by the Oslo Accords) in 2007. It established the BDS national committee to be the organizing body of an international movement.

According to the BDS website, its goals are threefold:

      1. 1. Ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the Wall;
      2. Recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and
      3. Respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their home and properties as stipulated in UN Resolution 194.

The movement’s main reference and source of inspiration is the original boycott of South Africa’s apartheid regime in the 1980s. As you might expect, the movement has met with mixed success internationally (see again the Wikipedia article). But my goal here is to highlight the Christian support in Israel/Palestine and the US (though admittedly not in most evangelical circles, that is, in the so-called Christian Right). But first let me circle back to the rumored peace plan put forward by Jared Kushner and his father-in-law, President Donald Trump.

 

The European Union’s support for the two-state solution

The British newspaper The Guardian published a letter by thirty-seven “high-ranking former European politicians” urging the European Parliament to stand behind the two-state solution and refuse any peace initiative by the US that undermines “the multilateral, rules-based international order” – an order which has opened up an unprecedented era of peace and stability in Europe itself.

The current American administration has taken steps to distance itself from some important building blocks of that system of international law:

 

“It has so far recognised only one side’s claims to Jerusalem and demonstrated a disturbing indifference to Israeli settlement expansion. The US has suspended funding for the UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) and for other programmes benefitting Palestinians – gambling with the security and stability of various countries located at Europe’s doorstep.”

 

You can read the trepidation of these seasoned leaders between the lines. The letter further clarifies where these leaders draw their red lines in the sand:

 

“European governments should further commit to scale up efforts to protect the viability of a future two-state outcome. It is of the utmost importance that the EU and all member states actively ensure the implementation of relevant UN security council resolutions – including consistent differentiation in accordance with UN security council resolution 2334, between Israel in its recognised and legitimate borders, and its illegal settlements in the occupied territories.”

 

Then this statement that almost certainly refers to the BDS movement: “Furthermore, recent escalating efforts to restrict the unhindered work of civil society have made European support for human-rights defenders in both Israel and Palestine, and their critical role in reaching a sustainable peace, more important than ever.”

Why again is this important support for the two-state solution? Look no further than what is likely to be unveiled by the Trump administration in June 2019, as explained here. The most likely scenario is that with the support of Israel and Saudi Arabia Trump’s plan is about flooding the Palestinians with money in exchange for their civil rights.

 

Some Christian voices in support of BDS

Rev. Naim Ateek, a Palestinian Anglican clergyman with whom I worked while teaching at the Bethlehem Bible College founded the Palestinian Center for Liberation Theology (or Sabeel – meaning both “the way” and “the spring” in Arabic) in the late 1980s. We attended his Arabic services at the St. George’s Cathedral in East Jerusalem. I would also help out leading the liturgy with him and we cooperated in his youth ministry endeavors. His landmark book was Justice and Only Justice: A Palestinian Theology of Liberation (Orbis, 1989). Sabeel is also a co-sponsor of the Christ at the Checkpoint conferences (CATC).

In a recent letter by Friends of Sabeel North America (FOSNA), the executive director Tarek Abuata wrote the following: “As we set our gaze on the liberation of Palestine, we are building a movement that reflects Jesus’ multiple and vibrant forms. The stakes are high and the struggle is long, but we are not deterred. It is our task to work with stubborn endurance to that end.” Then this statement: “We are pushing BDS campaigns in denominations, congregations, and local cities. We are uplifting Palestinian voices through our Palestinian Narrative Training program . . . We are leading ethical pilgrimages to occupied Palestine.”

Here are two contrasting articles on the last CATC biennial conference (June 2018). One was written by a journalist friend of mine, Jayson Casper, who attended it for Christianity Today. His tone is appropriately balanced and seeking to give voices to both supporters and critics. But you can tell that the old fortress of unconditional evangelical support for Israel is developing serious cracks, and especially among the millennial generation. Mark Labberton, president of Fuller Seminary, was a plenary speaker (pictured next to the Bethlehem Bible College president, Jack Sara, a former student of mine), and so was Eugene Cho, who is the lead pastor of the urban, multicultural Quest Church in Seattle.

No mention of BDS in that article … But it was plainly mentioned in an article in Israel Today strongly critical of CATC. Likely a messianic Jew himself (that is, a Jew believing in the Jesus of the New Testament), Arthur Schwartzman wrote that most of the Palestinian discourse put nationalism above Christ despite the theme of the conference, “Christ at the Center.” The Palestinian foreign minister gave a speech, he complained, and nothing critical of the Palestinian Authority was said by anyone. Then he adds, “Support for the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement was also heard.” I know for a fact that far and away most Palestinian evangelicals see the boycott movement as the only nonviolent tool capable of pressuring Israel to change the status quo.

Finally, the NGO Monitor (a pro-Israel think tank in Jerusalem), indicates that CMEP supports the Kairos document, which calls for participation in the BDS campaign. That 2009 document is a carefully crafted theological statement by a coalition of Christian churches on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. One article under the heading “Resistance” argues that the BDS movement integrates “the logic of peaceful resistance.” Then this statement:

 

“These advocacy campaigns must be carried out with courage, openly sincerely proclaiming that their object is not revenge but rather to put an end to the existing evil, liberating both the perpetrators and the victims of injustice. The aim is to free both peoples from extremist positions of the different Israeli governments, bringing both to justice and reconciliation. In this spirit and with this dedication we will eventually reach the longed-for resolution to our problems, as indeed happened in South Africa and with many other liberation movements in the world.”

 

A new wind among house Democrats?

The young female freshman congresswoman from Minnesota, Ilhan Omar, has been repeatedly attacked and smeared by Republicans for her outspoken support for the BDS movement. Her Palestinian-American colleague from Michigan, Rashida Tlaib, holds the same position though manages to raise less controversy.

Nevertheless, both of them raised more than eyebrows over this past weekend, as armed hostilities between Israel and Gaza flared up once again. Newsweek spotlighted Omar and Tlaib for bucking the Democratic consensus by condemning neither side but by focusing on Gaza’s human suffering. In particular, Omar tweeted:

 

“How many more protesters must be shot, rockets must be fired, and little kids must be killed until the endless cycle of violence ends? The status quo of occupation and humanitarian crisis in Gaza is unsustainable. Only real justice can bring about security and lasting peace.”

 

I cannot say that better (with one caveat: I would have deleted "rockets must be fired," though I know she condemns this kind of indiscriminate killing). The fight for justice for Palestinians must go on in earnest, except only in peaceful ways. The international campaign for Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions on Israel, realistically, is the only way to nudge the party that holds all the cards to dismantle its military occupation of 52 years. Admittedly, Palestinian divisions have nicely played into the Israeli colonial strategy – divide and conquer.

But this year especially, Israel is dreading a potentially bruising blow to what is left of its international goodwill. Its long-desired hosting of the immensely popular Eurovision song contest in June 2019 could be marred by protests. And though all 42 participating countries will come, many artists are boycotting the event. The pro-Palestinian social media are calling for “A Week of Action against Eurovision in Tel Aviv” with “loud, visible, mass nonviolent protests.” Though leaders known to the Israeli intelligence services will certainly be banned from entering Israel, there is much angst about unexpected protests among the crowds or even from the stage. We shall see.

What is certain is that Israel fears the BDS campaign more than any acts of terror. One of the most vocal and influential backers in the US, Berkeley professor Hatem Bazian, has endured first hand an operation of threats and intimidation run by ex-Israeli intelligence agents. The sophistication of these methods betrays the level of anxiety among Israeli leaders regarding the BDS movement.

They too know that the kind of peaceful, direct mass action as practiced by Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. worked powerfully to bring down apartheid. We hope and pray it will bring down the Israeli occupation and usher in peace and prosperity for those two nations side by side.

This was a paper delivered at a the Society of Vineyard Scholars which in 2014 was held in Columbus, OH. Stanley Hauerwas is one of America's most influential theologians and public intellectuals, and it struck me when I was reading him that he could see no theological justification for human rights. In his view, they are the product of the secular Enlightenment and now also the symptom of all that is wrong with market capitalism and its attendant consummerist society. It is a sign of our postmodern hyper-individualism. In this paper I examine his views of human rights, and those of influential lawyer and writer Steven L. Carter, who as a Christian takes Hauerwas to task on this issue, but from a different angle. I end with a brief look at Pope Francis' first public document Evangelii Gaudium and its teaching on human solidarity. I conclude (unsurprisingly for those who follow my blog) that the Chistian doctrine of creation (Muslim and Jewish too) provide ample grounding for a theology of human rights.

This is the longer version (about twice the length) of a case study that begins my fifth chapter in Justice and Love: A Muslim-Christian Conversation. Having taught an introductory course in Islam at the West Africa Theological Seminary as a two-week intensive course on three occasions, I have been eager to read more about the history of that nation's sectarian tensions. This is a very brief introduction to the question, but one I believe will be useful for anyone trying to grasp how the 1999 Sharia controversy irrupted and why it has been somewhat resolved since then. That is the focus of this paper and not the issue of Boko Haram. It is mentioned in passing, but that would be a separate topic.

In reaction to remarks made by Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), which questioned the offensiveness of white nationalism or white supremacy, the US House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a resolution (424-1) on January 15, 2019, condemning that ideology. Specifically, the House “once again rejects White nationalism and White supremacy as hateful expressions of intolerance that are contradictory to the values that define the people of the United States.” Ironically, the only vote against it was by African-American representative from Illinois, Bobby Rush, who felt it didn’t go far enough by specifically censuring Steve King.

Then over this past weekend, a photo from the Virginia governor’s medical school yearbook page turned up with a “black face” next to a man in KKK gear. Nearly everyone, and especially fellow Democrats, are calling for him to resign. The NAACP president, Derrick Johnson, quipped, “When are we going to address it – the issue of intolerance and racism and not seek to sweep it under a rug that can never cover it up?"

"Addressing the issue" is the purpose of this blog post. This is Black History Month, but too, after a very thorough reviewer of my manuscript, Justice and Love: A Muslim-Christian Conversation, I felt compelled (his/her critique was spot on!) to rework parts of the book, including dedicating a whole chapter to the question of racial justice in the United States. So this is a good lead-in to that task.

Though much of this blog post is about Jim Wallis’s 2016 book, America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to the New America, I want to begin with a key concept in John Dawson’s 1992 book, Healing America’s wounds. I end with my own experience this year at a Martin Luther King Jr. prayer service.

 

John Dawson’s “identificational repentance”

Dawson, a New Zealand missionary to Watts, Los Angeles since the early 1970s, wrote Healing America’s Wounds in the wake of the deadly Rodney King riots in 1992, which killed 59 people and caused billions of dollars in property damage. And this was all in their neighborhood.

I referred to Dawson’s book in both parts of my Fourth World post in December 2017 (see here and here), because of his useful recounting of all the broken promises made to the Native Americans. That is only half of the equation, however. Slavery, followed by Jim Crow and the sordid treatment of Blacks in so many areas of civic life – even after the Civil Rights Act – is the other half of that tragic equation. Dawson has much to say about that too.

I have no space here to recount Dawson’s persuasive arguments from the Old and New Testaments about covenants, curses and blessings, but allow me to highlight two of his points, which will then lead us into the Wallis book. First, each nation has a God-given personality, along with divine gifts it contributes to other nations, or even just ethno-linguistics groupings among humankind. He sees this wonderfully played out in the huge mission agency he belongs to – Youth With A Mission (YWAM). Dawson’s mother Joy Dawson was one of its earliest leaders (founded in 1960, it is very decentralized with 1,200 centers in 180 countries and with over 20,000 staff and volunteers; see its website and the wiki article on it). It’s from this vantage point that he could write back in 1992:

 

“Modern missionary enterprise is no longer a European/American activity; it is the Latinos, Asians and Africans who are mobilizing in great numbers. The churches of the nations, when combined, bring us a picture of God’s character and personality that cannot be accommodated in one language or represented adequately through one people” (34).

 

This certainly aligns with the picture at the end of the Bible that John paints of God’s people in the New Heavens and the New Earth. Rather than disembodied spirits, they are resurrected people. What is more, they seem to still belong to various “nations” and as such, they bring their gifts to impart blessing to the whole assembly of redeemed humanity:

 

“I saw no temple in the city, for the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. And the city has no need of sun or moon, for the glory of God illuminates the city, and the Lamb is its light. The nations will walk in its light, and the kings of the world will enter the city in all their glory. Its gates will never be closed at the end of the day because there is no night there. And all the nations will bring their glory and honor into the city” (Revelation 21:22-26).

 

What does the United States have to contribute? Dawson begins to enumerate: “Breadth of vision, communication skill, hospitality, generosity, flexibility, openness; my list is long” (35). But as with other nations, it comes with “a tangled web of righteous and unrighteous roots.” From some of the early Puritan settlers it offers ideals of service (e.g., a refuge for the oppressed); from the European age of conquest, however, it has valued “unbridled liberty” and has been focused on “the pursuit of affluence, security and status” (36).

Now for the second point: by virtue of God’s creation of humanity in his own image and his empowering them to exercise dominion on earth which is accountable to Him, nations with power must exercise it with restraint and for the purpose of serving the weaker ones, and not oppressing them. So with regard to his native land, New Zealand, Dawson was part of a movement of “whites” who publicly repented and asked forgiveness of their fellow citizens from a Maori (indigenous people) background. He relates how one such large gathering went on for two days with much weeping, prayer, embracing, and healing. This is what he calls “identificational repentance”. Members of the offending group identify with the past sins of their people, publicly repent and ask forgiveness of members from the aggrieved group. In his words,

 

“Unless somebody identifies themselves with corporate entities, such as the nation of our citizenship, or the subculture of our ancestors, the act of honest confession will never take place. This leaves us in a world of injury and offense in which no corporate sin is ever acknowledged, reconciliation never begins and old hatreds deepen” (30).

 

Jim Wallis’s America’s Original Sin

At the heart of this book is the plea to Euro-Americans (“white,” he demonstrates, was a sociopolitical construct designed to justify the enslavement of Africans) to listen to the stories of their African-American fellow citizens. Really listen. They have to let the reality of “the talk” that each of them has to give to their children sink in. That is when black parents sit their kids down and tell them how they must behave with the police:

 

“‘Keep your hands open and out in front of you, don’t make any sudden movements, shut your mouth, be respectful, say ‘sir,’” as my friend and regular cab driver, Chester Spencer, said he told his son. ‘The talk,’ is about what to do and say (and what not to do and say) when you find yourself in the presence of a police officer with a gun.

White parents don’t have to have this talk with their kids. That’s a radical difference between the experience of black and white parents in America. Why do we continue to accept that?”

 

When these kinds of issues are brought up, most of us white folk will react defensively, saying something like, “I’m not a racist!” And we mean it. But there are two problems with this answer. The first is that racism (among white Americans, but in general as well) is part of the culture we grow up with. It is taught and even if we resist it overtly, we still carry it implicitly. Jim Wallis remembers as a child loving the musical South Pacific based on the book by James Michener. But this was also his first exposure to the idea of racism, as the story about mixed-race love affairs unfolds. This is laid out most graphically in the song, “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught.” Here are some of the lyrics:

 

“You’ve got to be taught to be afraid / of people whose eyes are oddly made,

and people whose skin is a different shade, / you’ve got to be taught …

You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late, / before you are six or seven or eight,

to hate all the people your relatives hate, / you’ve got to be carefully taught!” (82-83)

 

Much research has now been done on implicit bias. You can even take a short test online called the Implicit Association Test, developed by several American universities (here is one example). Cheryl Staats of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University explains,

 

“Implicit bias refers to the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner. These biases, which encompass both favorable and unfavorable assessments, are activated involuntarily and without an individual’s awareness or intentional control. . . . Residing deep in the subconscious, these biases are different from known biases that individuals may choose to conceal for the purpose of social and/or political correctness. Rather, implicit biases are not accessible through introspection” (84).

 

This is a frightening fact. As Staats explains, “implicit biases are robust and pervasive. . . . Everyone is susceptible to them, even people who believe themselves to be impartial or objective, such as judges” (85). The other scary consequence is that “most Americans, regardless of race, display a pro-White/anti-Black bias on the Implicit Association Test.”

This is especially alarming, because implicit bias can “explode into explicit behavior.” Staats reports the findings of a study using a video game that simulates situations faced by police officers. Participants were told to shoot armed individuals who appeared on the screen but not those holding innocuous objects like wallets or cameras. The game was set up in such a way that these decisions had to be made in a split second. As a result, researchers found that “participants tended to ‘shoot’ armed targets more quickly when they were African American as opposed to White, and when participants refrained from ‘shooting’ an armed target, these characters in the simulation tended to be White rather than African American.” Staats concludes, “Research such as this highlights how implicit biases can influence decisions that have life and death consequences” (86).

There is good news, however: these biases need not be permanent. They can be unlearned over time. At both institutions where I teach – St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia and Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, CA – there have been ugly racial incidents this past year that have forced them to take some drastic measures. Part of those has to do with specialized training in diversity awareness.

The second reason for dismissing a defensive statement by a white person who says, “I’m not racist” is that this is not just an individual matter. As Wallis puts it, “These issues are historical and structural and have to do with how our racial groupings as human beings have been deliberately manipulated for social and economic purposes” (82). Particularly as Christians, we need to “die to our whiteness.” Part of that is recognizing the reality of white privilege. As a white American, I have benefited from several centuries of “affirmative action” that has oppressed Black Americans and granted untold advantages to Whites.

My own father served in WWII and like 7.8 million other veterans until 1956, the GI Bill paid for his college education. Though my parents moved to France in 1953 that same GI Bill would have given them a generous interest-free loan to buy a house. By contrast, African Americans benefited very little from these statutes. Historical research demonstrates that congressional leaders in the North and South ensured that these programs were carried out by local officials and not the federal government. “As a result, thousands of black veterans in the South – and the North as well – were denied housing and business loans, as well as admission to whites-only colleges and universities” (89).

Add this and many other policies over time and you realize that it is not by chance that “there are more African-American adults under correctional control today – in prison or jail, on probation or parole – than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began” (156). The well-known civil rights lawyer Michelle Alexander, in an article published in Sojourners in 2014 (“How to Dismantle the ‘New Jim Crow”), writes how the war on drugs was used like a club to beat down communities of color who were already mired in poverty: “where the War on Poverty has been abandoned and factory jobs have disappeared, … the drug war has been waged with ferocity.” She goes on to explain:

 

“SWAT teams are deployed here; buy-bust operations are concentrated here; drug raids of schools and housing projects occur here; stop-and-frisk operations are conducted on these streets. If such tactics were employed in middle-class white neighborhoods or on college campuses, there would be public outrage; the war would end overnight. But here in the ghetto, the stops, searches, sweeps, and mass arrests are treated as an accepted fact of life, like the separate water fountains of an earlier era” (160; for more on the poverty gap between African Americans and the rest, see my post on economic justice).

 

There is so much more in this book, especially a host of practical ideas for changing public policy and for Christians to work together across racial barriers to “build a bridge to a new America.” You will have to read it for yourself. Yet I do want to end this post with a brief story of what happened to me a few weeks ago as I was grappling with this material.

 

The interchurch MLK prayer service

Our church was one of a dozen or more in our area that came together a couple of years ago and after several discussions the consensus was that racial reconciliation was the most urgent task we could work on together. Sometimes these local committees of activists are slow to translate ideas into action and this prayer service scheduled for the Saturday before the Martin Luther King Monday holiday was too last-minute to bring much of a crowd.

But I was able to bring a close family friend from the Central African Republic. After five years of legal limbo he and his wife finally obtained political asylum refugee status. Since this special service was being held at an African Methodist Episcopal church (AME), I thought this would be a good experience for him.

Though the program was nicely divided between leaders of various churches, the African-American clergy appropriately was more involved, partly because the pastor of that AME church (a woman) truly played the role of host, and partly because the music was all done by another African-American pastor at the piano and his wife on electric guitar.

I noticed in the printed program this rubric, “Time of Testimony: open for all to participate.” I thought, “I need to stand up and say something.” Four of us shared in the end, all white. I was the second.

Though I spoke for less than five minutes, I managed to list a number of recent signs of overt discrimination against African Americans, including the numerous killings of unarmed black youth by police, the dreadful white nationalist 2017 march in Charlottesville, and the rise in hate crimes done against Jews and Muslims as well. I quickly mentioned that one of the night aides for my aging mother-in-law was an African American lady from Chester, PA (a majority black population, notorious for its poverty and violence). She and another aide have truly become part of our family, and we deeply felt her pain when her 20-year-old son was shot and killed in the street late one night. As for so many others, the police never found out who murdered him. I added that his was just a symptom of the shameful and tangled history of oppression of the slaves’ descendants and other people of color in this country.

I ended with something to this effect: “I am a white guy and I’m particularly aware of having benefited from the ideology and institution of white privilege in America. I want to state this clearly. Inasmuch as I am a white American, I want to ask my black bothers and sisters here to forgive me and to forgive us as a people. We need healing as a nation.” By then the words were coming out with difficulty, as tears were coming down my cheeks. But I felt strongly that the Spirit was telling me what to say, however difficult it was.

The host pastor came and gave me a hug, as did the couple playing the music. One of the church’s leaders, also an African American woman stood then and spoke to me, “No one should have to apologize for who they are,” and a few more sentences along those lines. Later in the basement meeting hall where we shared a lunch, I was able to talk with this lady and explain the idea of identificational repentance. This time we connected, and she seemed grateful, and hopeful as well.

Someone mentioned on the podium earlier that my own church’s representative had seen a vision (perhaps a prophetic word) of the stadium in Chester, home of the Philadelphia Union, full with Christians from diverse backgrounds gathering to celebrate the beginning of a divine work of racial reconciliation. May it be so!

This is not just an academic topic– how Muslims and Christians think about caring for aged parents. For me it’s deeply – achingly, in this case – personal. We moved down to Philadelphia from Connecticut in 2006 to be close to my wife’s mother whose health was declining. Less than five years later we actually moved in to her home (bigger than ours) for the same reason. Just before this New Year 2019 she passed away at 92.

I am not writing this to congratulate my wife Charlotte and I for taking such good care of her mother. In fact we did, but I clearly see God’s hand in the whole process. For one thing, her only other sibling is disabled, so the choice was clear. For another, my mother-in-law had been very careful in managing her own father’s estate and there were sufficient funds to pay the caregivers who came to help her for many hours each week. Finally, as you will see below, we all had to change and grow through this experience over time.

So first this disclaimer: I am NOT saying that children caring for their disabled, aging parents in their own home is ALWAYS the right thing to do. Each situation and each family is different. In many cases an acute medical condition requires a nursing home. Many other factors come into play as well, like each parent’s wishes, the dynamics of family relationships, and finally having the necessary room and sufficient finances to juggle work commitments with care for the ailing parent.

In my case, my parents decided to move into a full-service Christian retirement community in California where they already had many friends. One of my brothers was able to be with my father when he passed away and my mother was there over ten years in an Alzheimer’s unit. But my youngest brother lived in the area and saw her weekly. I was only able to visit about once a year.

 

The duty to care for our elders

On this topic the ethics are straightforward, and even inescapable. Siblings have the duty to surround their parents with loving care when old age and disease renders them vulnerable and helpless. After all, they gave birth to them, nurtured them and raised them to be the well functioning adults that they are today.

Then too, the three monotheistic faith traditions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, all stress the duty to care for one’s elderly parents. The fifth commandment reads, “Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you” (Exodus 20:12 NIV). Paul underscores the fact that this is the only commandment with a promise (Ephesians 6:2). In a later letter, he gives instructions to Timothy concerning the care of widows, which then leads into this topic:

 

Give proper recognition to those widows who are really in need. But if a widow has children or grandchildren, these should learn first of all to put their religion into practice by caring for their own family and so repaying their parents and grandparents, for this is pleasing to God (I Timothy 5:3-4 NIV).

 

Notice that caring for one’s family is “to put one’s religion into practice.” This is similar to the saying of James in his letter, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (James 1:27 NIV).

 Jesus in one instance lambasts the religious leaders for finding loopholes in the law as an excuse to neglect their elderly parents:

 

Jesus replied, “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother’ and ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’ But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is ‘devoted to God,’ they are not to ‘honor their father or mother’ with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition. You hypocrites!” (Matthew 15:3-7)

 

The Hebrew Bible (Old Testament for Christians) makes this clear too, even aside from the fifth commandment. The teaching comes in the form of warnings sometimes; at other times in the form of exhortation; and finally in a prophetic word by Malachi that is picked up by the angel announcing to Zechariah the birth of his son John the Baptist (Luke 1:17):

 

“Whoever curses his father or his mother shall be put to death” (Exodus 21:17 ESV).

“The eye that mocks a father and scorns to obey a mother will be picked out by the ravens of the valley and eaten by the vultures (Proverbs 30: 17 ESV).

“Listen to your father who gave you life, and do not despise your mother when she is old” (Proverbs 23:22 ESV).

“And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction” (Malachi 4:6 NIV).

 

Malachi’s message from God is especially meaningful. It implies that as a result of sin’s entrance into the world because of the fall, fathers and children struggle with a degree of estrangement. So this future healing, presumably in the messianic age, comes as a work of God in the hearts of family members. This is definitely the kind of healing we experienced in our family with regard to Charlotte’s mother. I cannot go into those details, but I offer at least a small window on that below.

For Muslims, elder care is also a central duty of the believer. A Google search on this topic offers many places to explore this topic. A popular Western Muslim website, offers fatwas (legal opinions by scholars) on various issues. Here a Saudi scholar, M. S. al-Manajjid, gives a response to the question of what Islam teaches about “care for the elderly.”

The scholar presents five initial points, including the dignity of the human person in general (“And indeed We have honored the Children of Adam …”, Q. 17:70) and “Muslim society is a society of cooperation and mutual support” (a hadith, part of which says, “Anyone who goes with his Muslim brother to meet his need, will be made by Allah to stand firm on the Day when all feet will slip”).

 Then more specifically on this topic: doing good to one’s parents (“Worship Allah and join none with Him (in worship); and do good to parents,” Q. 4:36; see also Q. 17:23). He then cites a hadith in which Muhammad, in response to the question of what good deed God loves the most, answers: 1) praying on time; 2) honoring one’s parents; 3) jihad for the sake of Allah.

 He adds one more point: honoring one’s parents friends, even after the parents have passed away. Quoting a hadith to this effect, the scholar avers that this is one good way to help the elderly in their isolation, “which in turn reduces the impact of the social and psychological changes that the elderly go through.” He then ends with a carefully worded comparison with what happens in non-Muslim societies, where the elderly tend to suffer more from isolation. I personally heard this expressed in much stronger terms over the years living in the Arab world (“You people in the West neglect your parents by getting rid of them in nursing homes”).

Interestingly, on an evangelical website you can read a kind of “fatwa” parallel to the one just mentioned. The tone here is more of an exhortation than an apology for Christianity. But I am sure most Muslims living in the West could identify with this exhortation:

 

“The elderly can be seen as burdens rather than blessings. Sometimes we are quick to forget the sacrifices our parents made for us when they are in need of care themselves. Instead of taking them into our homes—whenever that is safe and feasible—we put them in retirement communities or nursing homes, sometimes against their will. We may not value the wisdom they have acquired through living long lives, and we can discredit their advice as ‘outdated.’”

 

My remarks at Judy's memorial service

So I end with the text I prepared for Judy’s memorial service, which, fittingly, was held in a Quaker meeting house (she was a Quaker) led by her nephew, a longstanding member there. A good eighty people attended and she would have been very honored with the way it turned out. Even three of her favorite caregivers (one African American, and two women immigrants from Liberia, a Christian and a Muslim) attended. In six years, we had become family.

One last remark. This is from my perspective. My wife did a whole lot for her mother too. Even though she has a full-time job, she also spent lots of time with her mother, often caring for her with her professional nursing skills, sometimes just sitting with her in the evenings and keeping her company before the night aide came in. Almost till the end, as a family we were able to take her places (besides doctors' appointments!) over the weekend. She enjoyed watching the countryside, like when we would take our daughter to her horseback riding lessons. We would eat out occasionally too.

 

When Judy and Herb came to our wedding in Algiers, Algeria, 32 years ago, they hardly knew me. It helped that we had a whole week together there with my parents before the wedding, but thereafter we would only see them sporadically, every two or three years for a short time at the most.

So fast forward to 2006, in fact three years after Herb had died, while we were living in Connecticut we finally decided it was time to come back to this area to be closer to Judy.

For the first time ever, we bought a house – a little one in Wallingford near Chester Park. We definitely enjoyed seeing more of her. But in 2011, Judy invited us to come live with her so she could stay in her house.

As you can imagine, that took some work and flexibility from both sides of the equation. But it worked, though she and I would butt heads now and then! We were definitely NOT living in our own house anymore. I remember several times having to come back to her later in the day to apologize for my words or tone of voice. I’m sure it wasn’t easy for her either.

But then in January of 2013 Judy had some kind of stroke with several weeks in the hospital. It was touch and go, and we thought more than once that we were losing her. So we prayed with her everyday before leaving her in her hospital room. She really counted on that.

Her recovery at home was slow and for a long time she never wanted to be left alone. But her health improved miraculously. No more insulin; no more oxygen; very few meds. But she never drove again. Within three or four months, though, she began to come to church with us and she was making lots of new friends. We had a weekly small group meeting in our home and though she would not normally join in, she did when we had potluck dinners and the like.

Near the beginning of her convalescence at home, she said something that deeply touched me. “It’s nice you can care for me. In a way it’s caring for your mother who you could not care for.” She was right.

One of my routines with her in the morning is that we ate breakfast together starting at seven when the night aide left, and we read the paper (keep in mind, my wife was the spouse with the full-time job). Saturdays when there was no paper I would show her my phone and we would look at National Geographic pictures or short films. She enjoyed that. On weekdays an aide came in at 9. But before turning the TV on in her room, I would read her some scripture, usually a psalm or a passage in the gospels. She always enjoyed that, including the prayer I would pray holding her hand. Those were especially sweet memories.

So Charlotte and I like to say that, as far as we can see, God opened this 6-year window for us to enjoy Judy and marvel at how God touched our lives together. It was truly amazing! We all were changed. And now we take great comfort in the fact that she’s with the Jesus she came to know and love.

This is most of the first chapter of Earth, Empire and Sacred Text. What is missing here is in the first part of the document also posted in "Resources" entitled “Excerpts on the Fourth World from Earth, Empire, and Sacred Text.”

This is my 2018 review of Ayman S. Ibrahim's The Stated Motivations for the Early Islamic Expansion (622-641): A Critical Revision of Muslims' Traditional Portrayal of the Arab Raids and Conquests (New York: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc., 2018).

As my writings attest, I believe strongly in countering today’s rampant Islamophobia (and not just in the “West”). At the same time, I believe that interfaith dialog entails a mutual commitment to finding truth. This includes, at the right time and place, discussions about difficult and tense topics.

No topic is more fraught with fear and rancor than that of Islam and terrorism. I dealt with that last year, showing that the issue was vastly overblown and callously exploited for political purposes (see part 1 and Part 2). But part of the reason it raises such potent emotions is that it is tied to a centuries-old Christian and Jewish complaint, namely the early military expansion of the Prophet Muhammad’s rule in Medina.

This issue of the early Muslim conquests is a particularly vexed one. On the one hand, a good eighty percent of evangelicals (the Christian tribe with which I mostly identify) subscribe to the right-wing mantra that Islam is a religion of hatred and war. Franklin Graham may bear the most responsibility for that, since he declared shortly after 9/11 that “Islam is a very wicked and evil religion.” Sadly, his father, Billy Graham, who was likely the most influential evangelical in the twentieth century, would never have said or believed such a thing (read here religion scholar Stephen Prothero’s piece about how he believes Franklin is dismantling his father’s legacy).

On the other hand, I have to disagree with the standard Muslim apologetic which claims that the early Muslim conquests were a) defensive military operations; and b) all about spreading the blessings of the new faith these leaders had received. That said, I do agree with them that the oft repeated statement, “Islam was spread by the sword,” is also very misleading. But before explaining what I mean, let me first start with some remarks about biographies of the Prophet Muhammad.

 

Kecia Ali’s The Lives of Muhammad

Boston University’s Kecia Ali is best known for her work on Islamic feminism and the Islamic legal literature on women (see for instance Sexual Ethics and Islam, exp. & rev. ed., 2016). Yet in 2014 she had a book published on modern bibliographies of Muhammad (The Lives of the Prophet, Harvard U. Press). Her main thesis is that the Muslim and non-Muslim biographies, in spite of and perhaps because of their disagreements, have been mutually interdependent. My concern here is to look at the issue of war, but first, a quick summary of her main points.

Ali is building on another recent work that spans the last twelve centuries of biographical writing (Tarif Khalidi, Images of Muhammad, Doubleday, 2009). Keep in mind that Muhammad, “alternatively revered and reviled, has been the subject of hundreds if not thousands of biographies since his death in the seventh century” (Ali, 2). Khalidi sees three distinct stages:

1. From the late 8th through the early 10th centuries, we have the “Sira [biography] of primitive devotion,” which as we will see in the next section contains even “stories or anecdotes that may offend the sensibilities of Muslims” (19).

2. From the 10th to the mid 19th century Muslims composed various forms of literature, most of it devotional, which pruned the early material for theological consistency with an emphasis on “Muhammad’s superhuman qualities – his pre-eternity, miraculous powers, and sinlessness … [and] an object of love and devotion” (20).

3. The final stage began at the end of the nineteenth century: “the polemical Sira, written largely to defend Muhammad’s reputation against the attacks of the European Orientalists” (20). This is the stage on which Kecia Ali focuses her Lives of Muhammad.

 

Medieval Christian writings about Muhammad in one way or another magnified his perceived lust for power and women, and his excessive recourse to violence and war. In a paper I presented to a 2015 conference on Islamophobia at Temple University, you can read about the long history of anti-Muslim polemics in the United States since the seventeenth century.

What is interesting here is that according to Khalidi “two British Lives of the nineteenth century ‘haunt’ modern Muslim biographers” (46). The first is Thomas Carlyle’s 1840 lecture, “The Hero as Prophet.” With clear romantic overtones, Carlyle argues that Muhammad (he used the French “Mahomet”) is “a true prophet” when British imperialism was fast approaching its zenith. Following the German writer Goethe, he spoke of Muhammad’s natural genius and the sincerity of his thinking and actions, which demonstrated his perfect integration into the world of his time. Yet the lecture was less about Muhammad and more about good and true men in general. To Ralph Waldo Emerson he explained that his lecture proved that “man was still alive, Nature not dead or like to die; that all true men continue true to this hour” (49). Not surprisingly, Muslims have quoted from this lecture again and again, to this day.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, William Muir’s The Life of Mohamet from Original Sources was written as an aid to the Christian missionary enterprise, representing in Khalidi’s words, the “Missionary-Orientalist complex.” A British civil servant who rose through the colonial administration during his four decades in India, Muir was an evangelical who earnestly wanted to see Hindus and Muslims come to faith in Jesus. He was also a very capable Arabist and scholar, and so he embarked on this ambitious biography of the Muslim Prophet. Fifty years later (1905), his obituary proclaimed it as “the standard presentment, in English, of the Prophet of Islam.” As Khalidi sees it, Muir’s use of the original sources was imbued with “deadly accuracy” and that’s why his biography “was found so distasteful by Muslim readership” (51). Interestingly, Ali wants to tweak that statement: “though he was faithful to his sources, he presented information gleaned from them in unflattering ways.”

That is the crux of the matter. In the next and last section, I will try to show that the earliest sources as a whole constitute an “unflattering” portrayal of Muhammad’s raids and expeditions.

 

Ayman S. Ibrahim’s The Stated Motivations for the Early Islamic Expansion (622-641)

This is how I began my review of this book for a Southern Baptist journal (its full title includes: A Critical Revision of Muslims’ Traditional Portrayal of the Arab Raids and Conquests; Peter Lang, 2018). I still haven’t heard from the editor and this part might be cut out, but it’s certainly relevant here:

 

“I cannot claim total impartiality in reviewing this important book. When it was still in dissertation form, I was Ibrahim’s outside reader. I was impressed with his stellar historical skills, encouraged him to keep working on it for publication, and we have become good friends in the process. In fact, it was he who, countless times, helped me with Arabic passages I struggled with in a long translation project for Yale University Press.”

 

Ibrahim, born into an Egyptian evangelical family, is now Associate Professor of Islamic Studies at Southern Seminary (Louisville, KY) and Director of the Jenkins Center for the Understanding of Islam. Ayman would be the first to agree with me that our friendship has included some strong disagreements at times, particularly about specific pieces he has published in The Washington Post, Religion News Services, and elsewhere. It is fair to say that we have learned from each other. But I have no reservations about this book, as my second paragraph indicates:

 

“Even aside the significant research he is now doing for his second PhD (on conversion in early Islam) at the University of Haifa, Ayman Ibrahim is fast becoming a noted historian in early Islam. This book, The Stated Motivations, demonstrates his wide and strong grasp of the sources and critical issues relative to early Islamic history and historiography. Part of the great input of his mentor J. Dudley Woodberry in his PhD program was to put him in contact with three exceptional historians of Islam, Chase Robinson, Gabriel Said Reynolds and David Cook. No doubt they in turn generously invested in Ibrahim because they saw his obvious gifting and hard work.”

 

Rice University historian of Islam David Cook writes in his recommendation of this work: “No recent scholar comes close to matching his total command of Arabic sources, both past and present. The issues he raises concern not only distant history, but contemporary Arab interaction with that history. Ibrahim proves conclusively that – contrary to contemporary apologetic-historical analysis – the initial conquests were not religious in nature, nor were they for the sake of self-defense.” Needless to say, I believe this is a very significant contribution to Muslim-Christian conversations today. It is a delicate one, and perhaps too sensitive at the moment, but a very necessary one in the long run.

[I will post my review in Resources when it is actually published later in September and since I have no room here to review the book properly here, you can check back later if you are interested in more details (the book costs $100).]

Ibrahim deals with the current state of historical research on early Islam, and particularly on the issue of the reliability of the written texts, the earliest of which date to almost two hundred years after Muhammad’s death. Just from that standpoint his book is a great primer on mainly four types of literature Muslims produced that touch on some aspect of the early expansion of Islam: a) the abundant maghazi literature (military campaigns); b) the sira literature (most famous of which is Ibn Hisham’s, d. 838), though the two genres overlap a great deal; c) the futuh literature (conquests made by Muhammad’s successors); d) early Muslim histories (tarikh), which begin in the late ninth century, the most famous being the work of al-Tabari (d. 923). His sources beyond that cover the whole medieval period up to today.

In concluding his Chapter 3 on Muhammad’s maghazi, Ibrahim writes, “a careful study of our Arabic sources allows that political domination and economic gain were chief motivations for the early expeditions” (99). There are no indications that these campaigns were defensive or for spreading Islam through conversions. Indirectly, of course, strategic planning to defeat Mecca by force of arms, diplomacy, and gaining dominion over most of the Peninsula allows the Prophet to set up a rule in which Muslims are in control. But even that kind of motivation is not spelled out in the texts. We also know that by the end of the Umayyad period (the dynasty ruling in Damascus, so in the 740s) only about ten percent of that vast population from Spain through North Africa, and all the way to the Indus River on the edge of India were actually Muslims. So no, in that sense Islam was not “spread by the sword.” Part of the reason was the initial prejudice against non-Arabs. Another part was that converts no longer paid the poll tax, thus creating a loss of revenue. Then too, Islam as a "religion" was not yet developed in the first generations after Muhammad. The full ethical implications of the new faith had not yet been drawn out.

I’ll take just one example – the Battle of Badr (624), the first great Muslim victory over Mecca. There is no indication in the sources that the Meccans had attacked the Muslims first or that the Muslims had intended to preach their message in order to convert them. Rather, in a speech to his soldiers Muhammad “spoke of the abundance of possessions and properties, which awaited the Muslims upon victory” (74), and that many of the elite leadership were present in that caravan. Ibrahim makes five other points from his reading of the sources:

1. The Meccans, though vastly outnumbering the Medinans, tried very hard to avoid a confrontation, likely because they wanted “to secure their trade and social status.” The Meccan leader Abu Sufyan changed his route to avoid the Muslims and sent for reinforcement. Meanwhile, one of their wealthy notables, Ataba ibn Rabi’a was negotiating with his colleagues for a Meccan peace treaty with Muhammad, which would include also some financial compensation. The news of the Meccans’ unwillingness to fight reached Muhammad and the Believers, but it only added to their determination to attack and defeat the Meccans. As it turned out, Ataba was killed even before the battle started.

2. The later Muslim historians used “supernatural elements and deliberate exaggerations to add a spiritual nature to its course of events.” The aim was to show that this victory was due to God’s supernatural intervention. Though details vary widely among writers, Ibn Hisham describes for example “heavenly angels riding in the midst of sky clouds, wearing colorful ama’im (turbans) and beheading the non-Muslim Meccans” (76).

4. The vast discrepancies in the retelling of the battle might indicate that the writers were more interested on communicating their own particular slant on the events than in “documenting what actually happened.” For example, some texts report that Muhammad was leading the battle in front; others that he was protected by an elite guard; others that he was fighting for himself in the middle. One report even says that he was afraid the Medinan “helpers” (ansar) were going to abandon him.

5. The sources seem to point to revenge as the main Muslim motivation. They had been driven out of Mecca and their properties confiscated. Now they were going to get even with them. One report states that the blood of the Meccans reached the armpit of Ali. Others point to a strategy of killing the most influential leaders. Even the Prophet “instructed the killing of two major leaders of the Quraysh after they had surrendered and being held as prisoners of war” (78, emphasis his). Also, some Meccans were spared because of their clan affiliations. It’s hard not to conclude that this was mostly a tribal war.

6. Finally, the disputes over the spoils after the battle were ferocious, so much so that Muhammad had all the spoils brought to him and he distributed them once they had returned to Medina.

 

There is so much left unsaid here, but allow me to end with some remarks I made at the end of my last chapter in Earth, Empire and Sacred Text. I had referenced Indian Muslim journalist M. J. Akbar’s 2002 book, In the Shade of Swords: Jihad and the Conflict between Islam and Christianity (Routledge). In this book Akbar argues that Muslims are called to defend the faith, by the sword if necessary. He makes a direct connection between this early expansion of Islam, the promise to the martyrs in battle that they will be rewarded in the next life, and the current spate of jihadi fervor in Muslim lands.

Akbar’s book was not a scholarly work, though as a journalist he did some serious research. My point in mentioning his book was to shine a light on this early military expansion of Islam. I’m an outsider, I reminded the reader, and as such I could only venture two suggestions to my Muslim friends. First, take seriously the modern and postmodern hermeneutical turn when reading the Qur’an. Somehow those passages calling to fight had not only a particular historical context (which most Muslim scholars today recognize) but also perhaps stand in need of reinterpretation in an interdependent, globalized world. Then I wrote the following:

 

“Second, in the spirit of Islamic theology, I am pleading with my Muslim brothers and sisters to reconsider the ethical implications of the early Muslim conquests. Just as I have forthrightly condemned the Crusades and Western colonialism as contrary to the spirit and letter of the gospel, I would urge some soul-searching on the Muslim side” (517).

 

Enough said here. I hope the conversation will continue, God willing. And I know that that is His desire. In the meantime, we will continue to work together for greater peace and prosperity for all in our troubled world.

I was asked in 2011 to contribute an article to a special issue of the journal Religions published by the Doha International Center for Interfaith Dialogue (Qatar). The Editor-in-Chief is Patrick Laude, a faculty member of the Georgetown University extension in Doha and this was a special issue on "Ecological Responsibility." The Keynote article was written by Prince Charles of Wales and my article was the first one after his. Twelve more followed mine, including one by Omid Safi, "Qur'an and Nature: Cosmos as Divine Manifestation in Qur'an and Islamic Spirituality." Two other articles were written by Christians, both Orthodox. There were two Jews, three Muslims (including Safi), one Buddhist, one Hindu, one Chinese author emphasizing the diversity of views of China's "Three Teachings" (Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism). There was also one article on indigenous African religions and environmentalism and another by Yale scholar Mary Evelyn Tucker on "World Religions, Earth Charter and Ethics for a Sustainable Future."

My article, “Muslim-Christian Trusteeship of the Earth: What Jesus Can Contribute,” is a combination of things I have written before, except for my extensive use of Glen Stassen and David Gushee's Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003). I was also arguing that being trustees of the Earth included peacebuilding among humans.  Truly, a holistic approach to caring for the enviroment also entails we take care of one another as fellow human beings. Peacebuilding encompasses all the above concerns, as Glen Stassen's ten steps for Just Peacemaking demonstrate. Wars have become more and more destructive on people and nature.

Take notice of their interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount, especially. I believe you will find the idea of "transformative initiative" very helpful, whatever your spiritual orientation.

 

Books

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

    This book is now published and available as an ebook. Unfortunately, with the current COVID-19 pandemic, the publisher cannot send out the actual physical books. Read a summary for each of the 6 chapters and buy it on the publisher's page. Here's the abstract, or précis:

     

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

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

    Read more...