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

David L Johnston


This past week the world remembered with sorrow and a twinge of guilt the tsunami of carnage that descended upon Rwanda twenty years ago. In just 100 days, over 800,000 mostly Tutsi men, women and children had been massacred in cold blood.

A year or so later, Archbishop Desmond Tutu addressed a mass rally brought together by Rwanda’s new leaders, challenging them “that the cycle of reprisal and counterreprisal ... had to be broken and that the only way to do this was to go beyond retributive justice to restorative justice.” Recalling this event in his book No Future Without Forgiveness, he lays out the central theme of his book:


“It is ultimately in our best interest that we become forgiving, repentant, reconciling, and reconciled people because without forgiveness, without reconciliation, we have no future” (p. 165).


I’ll come back to Desmond Tutu, but first, some words of hope about reconciliation and healing where genocide had torn society apart.


Portraits of reconciliation

I was inspired to write this blog upon reading the New York Times Magazine cover article (whence the picture above), “Portraits of Reconciliation.” Here we learn that, twenty years on, photographer Pieter Hugo spent several weeks in Rwanda in March 2014 capturing on film couples made up of perpetrator and survivor of the genocide, who had participated in counseling sessions over several months. Part of a national reconciliation campaign, these people had followed the curriculum offered by one particular NGO called AMI (French for “friend” and an acronym standing for “Association Modeste et Innocent”). They all had arrived at the point where the perpetrator asks the survivor for forgiveness and at least all seven survivors portrayed here (the rest are displayed in a wider exhibit in The Hague, Netherlands) had granted forgiveness in return.

To glimpse at these pairs is to peer into the both dark and luminous souls of fellow human beings, forcing us through their posture and words to confront our own demons of bitterness and resentment, while also catching a glimpse of hope and peace. How can we even imagine going through such a horrific experience ourselves? Yet, the collective portrait is all the more real as it is diverse. Each pair’s body language is different, and though likely a bit befuddled at the cultural cues (Americans would at least force a smile before the camera and they do not), we would notice too the spectrum along which people actually forgive. Some are obviously more at ease than others; some pairs even look like friends.

Considering that over 90 percent of Rwandans attend church regularly, I was surprised that the blurbs given by each person had precious few religious references. One person thanks God for the opportunity to be forgiven. Another, who had knelt down in prayer for her daughters whose bodies she discovered thrown into a latrine, decided to pardon the aggressor for two reasons – she could no longer recover her loved ones and she didn’t want to live a lonely life. Like most of the others, the reasoning was mostly pragmatic:


I wondered, if I was ill, who was going to stay by my bedside, and if I was in trouble and cried for help, who was going to rescue me? I preferred to grant pardon.”


But mostly, victims found that unforgiveness was an emotional ball and chain they could no longer afford. As this woman put it,


The next week, Dominique came with some survivors and former prisoners who perpetrated genocide. There were more than 50 of them, and they built my family a house. Ever since then, I have started to feel better. I was like a dry stick; now I feel peaceful in my heart, and I share this peace with my neighbors.”


There is more to this picture. Organizations like AMI have been able to thrive, thanks to a favorable political and social climate. There is no doubt that the ex-rebel Tutsi leader who came in with his troops to stop the bloodletting twenty years ago has done a remarkable job in rebuilding his country, though he’s also a strongman with a spotty human rights record. Alan Cowell writes that  “President Paul Kagame … has sought to project his land as a haven of stability and a magnet for investment in a turbulent region. He has taken credit for creating a functioning health care system, raising living standards and improving women’s rights.”

Kagame, to his credit, has facilitated the role of the UN in the work of reconciliation. The New York Times recently editorialized that “Rwanda has done an impressive job of rebuilding its institutions and economy. To bring perpetrators of the genocide to justice, the United Nations has conducted more than 70 tribunal cases, Rwanda’s courts have tried up to 20,000 individuals, and the country’s Gacaca courts have handled some 1.2 million additional cases. Incredibly, Tutsis and Hutus, survivors and former killers, now live side by side.”

But some of the credit for this work of reconciliation must surely go to the architect and engineer of South Africa’s post-Apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) – Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu.


The benevolent shadow of the TRC

Emerging from 27 years of imprisonment, Mandela’s heartfelt pardon for his captors fueled his vision and courage to rebuild a new South Africa. As he put it himself, "If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner." The hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission began in 1996, as Mandela prevailed upon his friend the Archbishop Desmond Tutu to put off his retirement in order to preside over the proceedings. Tutu wrote about these experiences in his aforementioned book, No Future Without Forgiveness.

As Tutu sees it, the TRC was a deliberate choice in contrast with two other models for dealing with egregious crimes against humanity. The first model, “Victors justice,” as exemplified at the close of World War II at the Nuremberg Trials, was a travesty of justice, mostly because both sides had committed war crimes. On the other hand, the solution chosen by Pinochet, Chile’s dictator, as he handed over the state to civilian authorities in 1990, Tutu dubbed “national amnesia” – a magisterial wave of the magic wand to make past atrocities vanish in thin air. He was granted amnesty and served as Minister of Defense until 1998. Argentina in 1983 had done no better to prosecute anyone responsible for the 3,000 or so people who disappeared under the previous regime.

Instead, the TRC’s third way offered amnesty only to those who would confess their crimes publically. Tell the truth in exchange for freedom, make some reparations and the stage is set (hopefully) for forgiveness and reconciliation. Of course, in practice, it never was that easy. The white community, both Afrikaners and English descendants, consistently ranked it more favorably in the polls than did the indigenous population. In the end, only one out of twelve of those convicted in court was released. Still, South Africa’s TRC, though not the first of its kind, became the model for other such efforts in dozens of other countries since then.

Archbishop Tutu’s 1995 speech in Kigali (Rwanda’s capital) anticipated the actual setting up of the TRC. Retributive justice (victors punishing the loosers à la Nuremberg), as opposed to restorative justice, offers little hope for justice, and hence, for crimes to be exposed, solemnly processed in justice and in people’s minds, and potentially forgiven, one person at a time. After all, states can only do so much to create a climate conducive to reconciliation. There must be a personal dimension, in which individuals buy into the difficult yet highly rewarding task of forgiveness and healing.

I want to end with another important ingredient in the task of forgiveness. We saw that, at least in the limited testimonies provided in “Portraits of Reconciliation,” the faith element in leading to forgiveness was underrepresented. Most of the decisions in evidence was based on practical reasoning. Forgiveness and reconciliation bring both inner peace and foster greater harmony in society. But don’t be too quick to rule out faith!



From Rwanda to Israel-Palestine

Contrary to what is often portrayed in the media, Palestinian civil society (and among Israelis too) is brimming with NGOs dedicated to the practice of nonviolence. I’ve mentioned Sami Awad before, founder of the Holy Land Trust in Bethlehem where I used to teach. Sami’s organizational values are rooted in the belief that peace between Israelis and Palestinians is possible. More than that, HLT members “believe that the Holy Land will one day become a global model for peace, justice, equality and reconciliation between peoples.” Sami, a Palestinian Christian, wanted to understand what Jesus meant by “love your enemy.” He felt God told him that if he was serious about this, he would have to understand from within the suffering of the Jewish people.

So he bought an airline ticket to Germany and spent twelve days visiting several Nazi concentration camps. He even spent one night in a gas chamber. It was life-changing, to say the least! One should not throw around the words “forgiveness” and “reconciliation” lightly, he cautions.

Another Palestinian you should meet is the young Muslim man, Ali Abu Awwad, whom the New York-based Synergos Institute classifies among the most influential “Arab world social innovators”. Since 2005 this young man has spoken to countless groups around the world with a 65-year-old Israeli woman, originally from South Africa, Robi Damelin.

This pairing up, unlike the Rwanda portraits, was not about perpetrator/survivor reconciliation. Rather, it was about a Palestinian and an Israeli who had both lost immediate family members in the conflict. Ali’s brother was shot and killed by an Israeli soldier and he was himself badly wounded by a settler’s bullets. Robi’s 28-year-old son David was killed by a Palestinian sniper. That’s how they met. They had joined several hundred others like themselves in the Parents Circle Families Forum. Understandably, they don’t agree much about the politics of the conflict, but they all believe that there will be no peace without reconciliation between the two peoples.

I urge you to watch their 5-minute presentation at the Summerset House in London, then to read this 2009 article based on an interview of them at the same time. During that interview in a London coffee shop, they told the journalist that the first step toward reconciliation was “to recognize the suffering of the other side.” When you do that, then you are ready to compromise and allow some dreams to die for the sake of peace. Then Robi, as someone who personally struggled against the Apartheid regime in her native South Africa, offered the hope “that the Bereaved Families Forum could inspire a future Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Israel and Palestine.”

Yet more than just fellow campaigners for peace, Robi and Ali had truly adopted each other as mother and son. I tear up (and I smile!) every time I see that clip. In Ali’s words,


“I have found in Robi what I didn't get from my own mother," said Awwad. "She knows what kind of clothes I like, the people I like, and she advises me on all these things. She even knows what food I like.”

‘Shrimps,’ said Damelin, laughing. ‘He is addicted to shrimps.’”


I promised a religious dimension to reconciliation in this section. It was evident in Sami’s case, but not in Robi and Ali’s. Yet they spoke in many mosques together, including the London Central Mosque. As I’m trying to show on this website, a peace discourse rooted in faith is more likely to touch and impel a larger audience to action. As the Qur’an puts it,


“The repayment of a bad action is one equivalent to it. But if someone pardons and puts things right, his reward is with Allah. Certainly He does not love wrongdoers” (Q. 42:40).


I write this during the Christian Holy Week. This Friday we meditate on Jesus’ willing sacrifice on the cross. He who told his followers to love their enemies and forgive those who persecute them prayed these words during his own torture, “Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34)

Peace in Syria, the Central African Republic, Israel-Palestine and elsewhere will always be possible where people on both sides are willing to embrace each other’s suffering, to speak the truth about past crimes, to forgive and make reparations. Then reconciliation and peace will have a chance to flourish. Let’s commit to this ourselves and pray for God’s power to lead us in this grueling yet glorious task.


Adis Duderija, currently a Visiting Senior Lecturer at the University Malaya, Gender Studies, is the author of Constructing a Religiously Ideal “Believer” and “Woman” in Islam: Neo-Traditional Salafi and Progressive Muslims’ Methods of Interpretation (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011 -- see my two-part review of his book on this site).

I highly recommend his blog on issues of Qur'anic hermeneutics, particularly as it pertains to gender. You will also find other excellent blogs on issues pertinent to contemporary Islam. It is entitled, "Critical-Progressive Muslims: On Islamic hermeneutics, Gender and Interreligious Dialogue."


Mofed, an Iraqi Christian now a refugee in Amman, Jordan, tells of Muslim gunmen barging into his photo shop in Baghdad and giving him an ultimatum: convert to Islam, or pay a $70,000 tax (jizya), or be killed. It was then that he and his wife packed up and fled. More than sixty percent of Iraq’s million plus Christians in 2003 have left their country.

The cover story in a December 2013 issue of the Christian Science Monitor was entitled “What the Middle East would be like without Christians.” A bit sensationalist, no doubt. Yet, as I said in my previous blog, the situation is dire for Christians in the region where the church was born. The piece’s author puts it this way:


From Iraq, which has lost at least half of its Christians over the past decade, to Egypt, which saw the worst spate of anti-Christian violence in 700 years this summer, to Syria, where jihadists are killing Christians and burying them in mass graves, the followers of Jesus face violence and vitriol as well as declining churches and ecumenical divides. Christians now make up only 5 percent of the population of the Middle East, down from 20 percent a century ago. Many Arab Christians are upset that the West hasn't done more to help.”


In this second part I only want to talk about Syria. Then I’ll come back to issues of Muslim-Christian relations I brought up in the first part.


Syria’s horrendous free fall

Reading about the suffering of Syria for the last three years is like your worst nightmare – you barely can finish the latest article, because it’s so sad and revolting, and you think it can’t possibly get worse. Yet days, weeks and months pass, and it’s an even more depressing, heart-wrenching experience. No wonder many of us have been numbed by it and have stopped reading about Syria altogether.

I admit. I had come to that point. Then I saw it was the fourth “anniversary” of Syria’s civil war. So I read the New York Times article, “Three Years of Strife and Cruelty Have Put Syria in Free Fall.” Anne Barnard begins with these words,


Day after day, the Syrian civil war has ground down a cultural and political center of the Middle East, turning it into a stage for disaster and cruelty on a nearly incomprehensible scale. Families are brutalized by their government and by jihadists claiming to be their saviors as nearly half of Syrians — many of them children — have been driven from their homes.”

Yet never before has such a human tragedy and its victims’ desperate plea of help been so graphically documented. Syrians “capture appalling suffering on video and beam the images out to the world: skeletal infants, body parts pulled from the rubble of homes, faces stretched by despair, over and over.”


So no, it’s no just about Christians – every sect (Alawites, Druze, Sunnis, Shias and Christians) and ethnic group has shared in the horror and the loss. And so have its neighbors. Take Lebanon, barely the size of the state of Connecticut: the UN says it has close to a million Syrian refugees and the country’s infrastructure is stretched to the limit.


The loss of Syrian Christianity

I just want to touch on three reasons why, for the sake of the entire Middle East, we should pay attention to the suffering of Christians caught in the civil war inferno.

The first is that their decimation by the violence of war and the deliberate targeting of al-Qaeda-related militia jeopardizes the future rebuilding of Syria on a democratic basis. Hussein Ibish, quoted in the last blog, perhaps says it best:


Pluralism will be unattainable if long-standing and traditionally well-regarded Christian communities cannot be respected. Forget about skeptics, agnostics, or atheists. Never mind smaller religious groups like Yezidis, Alawites, Baha'is, and Druze. If ancient, large Christian communities find the Arab world fundamentally inhospitable, Muslims will turn on each other just as readily.”


Daoud Kuttab, a prominent Arab journalist – who also happens to be a cousin of Bishara Awad, founder of the Bethlehem Bible College where I used to teach – offered in the Jordanian press a tribute to King Abdullah for his convening a conference on Middle East Christians:


The emphasis and focus by Jordan on Christian Arabs is of extreme importance in confronting worldwide ignorance of the presence and contributions of Christian Arabs, and the unhealthy growth of the forces of religious darkness and intolerance in this region.

To be effective, such focus must continue in an inclusive and comprehensive way that attracts all and benefits from the great wealth of experience that has made this region so important to humanity and civilisations.”


The idea of religious freedom I mentioned earlier in conjunction with Baronness Warsi and President Obama is also picked by Thomas Farr, a Catholic scholar who directs the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University. In this interview, Farr says this about Middle East Christians:


“The exodus of Christians is a serious blow to the prospects of religious freedom, not only because their existence ensures religious pluralism, but also because faithful Christians are uniquely ‘hardwired’ to defend religious freedom for all. Their tradition demands it.”


“The contributions of Christian Arabs” is the second reason why their dwindling numbers bode ill for the whole region. Joseph Amar, who directs the program in Syriac and Middle East Studies at the University of Notre Dame, published a wonderful article on Syrian Christianity in the Catholic magazine Commonweal. Dating from October 2012, Amar’s title was “The Loss of Syria: New Violence Threatens Christianity’s Ancient Roots.”

Christians in Syria, as in the rest of the Middle East, are divided in two main families. The Byzantine, or Eastern family includes the Greek Orthodox Church and the Greek Catholics or Melchites, who, like Lebanon’s Maronites, rejoined Rome just a few centuries ago. The Armenian Orthodox and the Syriac churches belong to the Oriental churches. Those two represent the oldest native churches of the region (add to that group the Coptic and Ethiopian Orthodox churches). Armenia was the first nation, which, around 300 CE, officially embraced Christianity.

Unlike Armenian, however, Syriac is a Semitic language almost indistinguishable from the Aramaic Jesus spoke. But I will come back to that issue when dealing with the third reason. Here, it’s important to note that Syriac Christians, along with Jewish colleagues, had already been translating manuscripts from the Greeks long before the rise of Islam. After about fifty years after the Abbasid caliphate had made its capital in Baghdad, the skills and ambition of these Christians caught the attention of the 8th-century caliph, Harun al-Rashid, of Thousand and One Nights fame.

That caliph made a decision that was to positively impact Islamic civilization henceforth and beyond that, Western civilization as well, since the Renaissance was sparked from the creativity and knowledge Europeans had been gleaning from Muslim Spain and further east, as a result of the Crusades. Harun al-Rashid founded the House of Wisdom in Baghdad and hired Eastern Christian, Jewish and Zoroastrian scholars to multiply the translation work, research and writing that had been pursued in various centers previously located in Byzantine territory, like Alexandria, Egypt, Nisibis and Edessa (both in today’s Turkey) and in Sassanian territory (Persian), like the Academy of Gundishapur.

Harun’s son al-Ma’mun put a Syriac-speaking Christian (also Nestorian) in charge of all the translation work, Hunayn Ibn Ishaq. Hunayn was already considered the “Sheikh of the translators” with over 116 works under his belt! Thousands of works in Greek, Chinese, Sanskrit, Persian and Syriac were translated into Arabic. Note too that Syriac is a language closely related to Arabic – likely one of the reasons for the prominence of Syriac Christians in this massive, unprecedented collaborative project. The other reason was their own longstanding scholarly tradition.

This of course was the beginning of “Islam’s Golden Age”: by the next century the House of Wisdom boasted the largest collection of books in the world and its scholars built astronomical observatories and expanded knowledge in philosophy, medicine, mathematics, alchemy and chemistry, among other disciplines.

Fast forward to the 19th century. It was “Maronite Christians of Lebanon and Syria [who] were the driving force behind what is known as al-Nahda, the modern renaissance of Arabic that brought about the intellectual modernization and reform of the language.”

The third reason why we should mourn the Christian exodus from this region is that these communities carry within their DNA some of the earliest distinctives of the Christian movement. Some of the most prominent Church Fathers came from North Africa, like Cyprian, Tertullian and Augustine. But they were culturally Roman. Others further east were culturally Hellenistic, writing and thinking in Greek. But the Oriental family of churches in and around Syria had its own separate culture and spirituality. Syriac Christians, alternatively called Assyrians or Chaldeans, look to St. Ephrem as their guiding light.

Ephrem (d. 373) decried the rationalism (especially the Greek philosophical tradition) so prevalent in the Western church of his day. Amar explains,


“For Ephrem, abstract philosophical language and cleverly constructed epistemologies had no place in theology. Divine truth, like life itself, required a subtler, more comprehensive language. Only poetry was sufficiently allusive to intimate the truths of God.”


Sadly, in the next century Syriac Christianity became hopelessly divided and demoralized. Amar quotes the Jesuit scholar Robert Murray who in strong language condemns the way the Western church intentionally repressed and beat down this early Christian tradition. These “cruel and destructive wounds” were inflicted upon Syriac Christians in total disregard for the wealth of spirituality these Christians could have passed on to the wider church. Fortunately, St. Ephrem’s works have been widely translated today and the tide may be turning.

What is also unique to these Christians is that they most likely developed out of the Jewish communities of the diaspora (they spoke Aramaic, after all) who, after the Temple’s destruction in 70 CE, gradually came to appreciate the church’s emphasis on prayer and faith. More than other Christian traditions, the Assyrians are deeply rooted in the Hebrew Bible.

I quoted Reza Aslan’s striking article, “The Christian Exodus,” in my first blog. Tellingly, he begins with the Nusra Front’s attack on Maaloula, one of three Syriac Christian villages of Syria. The jihadists, after several days of occupation, left the village decimated. They desecrated churches and statues, killed several villagers and abducted twelve nuns from a Greek Orthodox monastery.

One last thing I should mention about Syrian Christians: they are united in asking the West to reconsider its support of the opposition forces. Part of this comes from the obvious strategy followed by Bashar al-Assad and his father to favor the members of their own Shia-related sect, the Alawites, along with other minorities like the Christians and Druze. As a result, Christians in Syria and Iraq remained mostly loyal to their dictator. Though they’ve now had to distance themselves from the Assad regime, if only to survive, they are plainly caught between a rock and a hard place.

Here you can read about a high-level, representative delegation of Syrian Christians coming to Washington in order to lobby the White House and Congress to seek a diplomatic solution to the war and stop their support to the rebels.


Muslim voices condemning the attacks against Christians

I already have cited many of these, from King Abdullah, to Hussein Ibish, Reza Aslan and others. Now I briefly highlight two American imams who speak out of their religious convictions to denounce any infringement worldwide on religious freedom, and particularly the actions of their coreligionists in the Middle East.

Imam Muhammad Musri, head of the Islamic Society of Central Florida, was the man who tried to broker a deal with Qur’an-burning pastor Terry Jones. He has drawn the ire of right-wing activists and of more conservative fellow Muslims. His January 2014 piece in the Huffington Post no doubt drew more controversy in some Muslims circles: “Muslims Need to Speak Out Against Persecution.”

He starts off by telling how indignant he was in reading about a Buddhist mob in Myanmar that went around “hacking Muslim women and men with knives.” Then he read the article of a Florida rabbi in the SunSentinel who in commenting about the atrocities committed by Buddhists against the Rohingyas in that country concluded that if such “hatred could flourish in a Buddhist country, it could happen anywhere. Human frailty is universal. No religion, no nationality is exempt.” Musri agreed with that “astute and sobering” remark.

Later he had a chance to look at the Open Doors website (I referenced before) and saw a world map showing where the persecution of Christians was most severe. These were overwhelmingly Muslim-majority countries, most of them clustered in the Middle East, "which is where I was born and grew up.” He then adds,


“In fact, Syria, where I studied to be an Imam, is where the greatest number of Christian were killed last year – 1,213 of them, killed just because they were Christians.

When a people I love, from a region of the world I love, wearing the label of the religion I love, are killing Christians – whom I also love – just because they're Christians, we have a huge problem. And it should be of major concern to every Muslim.”


Imam Yahya Hendi made an even more articulate declaration on the subject. Georgetown University’s Muslim chaplain is also President of Clergy Beyond Borders. Noting how central a role Christians have played in this region for two millennia, he calls on his fellow Muslims to not only reject violence against Christians, but also actually "promote civil harmony and religious freedom in their societies."

As for the Christians in the Middle East, he urges them to “hold fast to their ancient homelands, maintain their historic presence, and not flee to the West. They must continue their witness, and permit their difficulties and suffering to be a sign of hope and peace for their fellow citizens.”

I’ll let you read his 13 principles for yourself, but I’ll quote the next paragraph, as it summarizes so well what this website is all about – reminding Muslims and Christians of their God-given mandate to manage the earth’s affairs in His name and according to His values. Indeed, our Creator has empowered us all with the solemn mission of acting as his trustees in our world. Back to Imam Hendi:


“We Muslims cannot stand silent and must present a prophetic voice of justice and unconditional love for religious minorities amongst us Christians being in the forefront. Muslims must treat others, as they like to be treated and must live the values of Islam, which calls on them to live in light of three values: politics of justice, economics of equity and covenant of community.”


Let’s pray many more come to share this sentiment; that peace and stability will come back to the region, and that Christians will keep a strong witness to God’s love for all, even in the face of brutal suffering. This is, after all, the way of the cross.


Addressing a conference on Christian Arabs he had convened in September 2013, King Abdullah of Jordan emphasized how well established Christians were in the area long before the arrival of Islam and that over thirteen centuries had now passed with almost seamless Muslim-Christian relations. Yet now Christian Arabs are in crisis.

On the same occasion, prominent Jordanian columnist, Jawad Anani, wrote that Christians were the “salt of the earth,” contributing widely to Arab society “in the field of development, nationalism, education, business, medicine, media, literature and the arts.” But sadly many were now leaving the Mideast. He lamented, “If they continue to emigrate, our losses in developing ourselves technologically, security and culture will be negatively affected.”

I hereby begin two blogs on the Christian exodus from the Mideast. In this one, I look at some of the causes and examine the issue of religious freedom. The next blog goes into more regional detail and comes back to the theme of Muslim-Christian relations.


Why the exodus?

Colin Chapman, Anglican clergyman and Islamicist who taught for many years at Beirut’s Near Eastern School of Theology gave a lecture on the past, present and future of Middle East Christians (available here). Here are some of the challenges, he said, that all Christians in the region are facing:


1. An identity crisis: “In cultures in which it is assumed that ‘Arab’ means ‘Muslim’, Christians are made to feel that they don’t belong.” Yes, they massively contributed to the 19th-century Arab literary, scholarly and cultural.

2. A ghetto mentality: Because of many legal restrictions against them and an often difficult minority status over the centuries, Christians tend to fear their Muslim neighbors and despise them.

3. A fear of Muslim radicalism: with the rise of international jihadism since the mid-1990s Christians wonder if that might not become the true face of future mideastern Islam.

4. Economic hardship: Arab Christians are generally well educated, but squeezed by a stagnant economy without job prospects for the youth.

5. American foreign policy: even with the US pulling out of Afghanistan and Iraq, Arabs in general (you can add Turks and Iranians), who have suffered from arrogant and aggressive colonialist policies in the last two centuries, still see the founding of the State of Israel, the continued Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands, and current US hegemony in the region as more of the same. Christians as a result have often been seen as secretly allied to the “Christian West” and have paid a heavy price for it. But never before has violence against Mideast Christians flared up as it has in this new century – hence, the last point I add myself, building on Chapman’s third point.

6. The new wave of violence against Middle East Christians: Imam Yahya Hendi, President of Clergy Beyond Borders, quotes Azizah al-Hibri, professor of law at the University of Richmond and founder the influential Islamic feminist website Karamah (“Muslim Women Lawyers for Human Rights”) in an article that calls on Muslim leaders to stem the tide of Christians leaving the region:


The desecration of cemeteries in Libya, the murder of clergy in Iraq and Syria, the attacks on churches in Egypt are all beyond the imaginations of civilized nations and educated spiritual region. Recently, suicide bombers targeted worshippers leaving their church in Peshawar and killed at least 60, including women and children and two Muslim policemen guarding the church. A gang of armed terrorists attacked a couple of weeks ago, the sleepy village of Ma’loulah in Syria. Several of its inhabitants were killed, its historic monasteries and churches were pillaged, and the crosses were removed.”


Plenty of other Muslim leaders and scholars are speaking out as well. I want to single out two in particular, Hussein Ibish and Reza Aslan. Ibish was born in Beirut, earned a PhD in comparative literature at the University of Massachusetts and taught Islamics at the American University of Beirut. Today he is best known in his country as a prolific writer and journalist, though he is also a Senior Fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine and based in Washington, D.C. Already in April 2013 he published an article entitled, “Fate of Christians will define Arab Future.” The incident which sparked the piece was an islamist attack on a funeral service in the Coptic Cathedral in Cairo which killed two people and injured ninety. This kind of attack, he writes, sends shivers down his spine:


As Egypt goes, so goes the Middle East. If the Coptic community of Egypt is thus abused, disparaged, and attacked, what kind of societies are emerging in the Arab world? The regional implications are chilling.

Pluralism will be unattainable if long-standing and traditionally well-regarded Christian communities cannot be respected. Forget about skeptics, agnostics, or atheists. Never mind smaller religious groups like Yezidis, Alawites, Baha'is, and Druze. If ancient, large Christian communities find the Arab world fundamentally inhospitable, Muslims will turn on each other just as readily.”


Of course, this was written before August 14th of the same year, when the Egyptian military government forcibly dispersed the two Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Cairo sit-ins and massacred close to a thousand islamists. That very day, as is documented in a Human Rights Watch video, coordinated attacks by armed men burned and looted dozens of churches, schools and monasteries, with no intervention by the police to stop them before or after. This went one for over a week – which sends a chilling signal to Christians that even the state wants them out, or so it seems.

Liam Stack reported for the New York Times that according to the Maspero Youth Union (Coptic Christian) six Christians were killed, at least 38 churches were destroyed and 23 others were attacked. He added, “An activist with the group, Beshoy Tamry, primarily blamed Islamist leaders for ‘charging their followers with hate’ and trying to destabilize the country by attacking its weakest citizens. The government, though, was hardly blameless, he said.”

So if the prime reason for the dramatic uptick in violence since the 2011 uprisings is political instability, increased state repression and the backlash of islamist violence, the consequence of large numbers of Christians leaving cannot bode well for democracy in the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region. As Ibish concludes,


The bottom line is this: if the Arab world, and the broader Middle East, cannot accommodate Christians and other minorities, it won't be worth living in for anybody. And if the region emerges from a period of ethnic and sectarian conflict – of mountanish inhumanity when minorities are hounded out of areas in which they have lived for generations and been an integral part of the culture – those societies will one day look back on it as an unprecedented calamity.”


Iranian-American scholar of religion and bestselling author Reza Aslan recently rankled American evangelicals with his book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth -- mostly because, like many scholars, he doesn’t take the New Testament gospels as historical accounts. That would have been uninteresting hadn’t he been Muslim and the fact that his portrait of Jesus’ God was Jewish (his followers later called him “God”) and, by the same token, Muslim as well. Most of you will remember that his interview on Fox News was deemed by many as “the most embarrassing interview” of the decade.

What is noteworthy too is that Aslan published in Foreign Affairs a piece in September 2013 with the title, "The Christian Exodus: The Disastrous Campaign to Rid the Middle East of Christians."

Here Aslan describes the August attacks in Egypt as “pogroms,” and the Syrian town of Maaloula, where Christians still speak Aramaic, as a “ghost town” after its being ransacked and destroyed by the jihadist group al-Nusra Front. The Arab Spring, he writes, “may have been the proximate cause of some of the worst violence, but its roots run much deeper . . . What we are witnessing is nothing less than a regional religious cleansing that will soon prove to be a historic disaster for Christians and Muslims alike.”

We’ll explore that scenario in the next blog, but let me end here with a reflection on the global rise of religious violence and the importance of religious freedom for all.


Religious persecution with Christianity at the top

The Huffington Post reports on a recent Pew Foundation study that documents a steady rise of religious violence worldwide. That violence is defined both by intra-religious as well as inter-religious violence. For instance, the intensifying sectarian recrimination between Sunnis and Shias in the ME factors into these figures. Hence we read,


Social hostility such as attacks on minority faiths or pressure to conform to certain norms was strong in one-third of the 198 countries and territories surveyed in 2012, especially in the Middle East and North Africa, it said on Tuesday.”


 Within the general rubric of religious violence, however, the percentage of attacks on religious minorities has noticeably increased – from 27% in 2007, to 38% in 2011, to 47% in 2012. This violence increased everywhere except in the Americas. It most strongly grew in the MENA region. And while Hindu, Buddhist and folk religions (among indigenous peoples) had seen no increase, all the following groups saw a rise in number of attacks against them – in order of highest incidence, Christians, Muslims, Jews, and “Other” which includes Sikhs, Bah’ais and atheists. Countries with the highest “social hostility” were, again in order, Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, Somalia and Israel.

Furthermore, the percentage of countries imposing religious restrictions on their populations had grown from 29% in 2007 to 47% in 2012. The most severely restricting are mostly very populous as well – in order: China, Indonesia, Russia, and Egypt. But that’s not the whole story, as you will see below.

Yet among the varieties of religious violence, many voices are now separating out the ominous phenomenon of Christian persecution. The megachurch pastor from Nashville, Tennessee, Robert J. Morgan, contributed an article to the Huffington Post recently entitled, “The World’s War on Christianity”. In it he quotes senior Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Report, John L. Allen, Jr., as saying in his new book, The Global War on Christians (read historian Philip Jenkins’ review) that the rising tide of anti-Christian violence world wide is “the most dramatic religion story of the early 21st century.”

Britain’s first Minister of Faith, the Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, who is also a Pakistani immigrant with both Sunnis and Shias in her family, came to Washington in November 2013 to speak about this very thing – the global persecution of Christians. Speaking at Georgetown University, the Baroness declared that the Christian population was "hemorrhaging," and this "in the very lands that birthed this faith."

Prince Charles delivered an impassioned speech at an interfaith event before Christmas in 2013, expressing how “deeply troubled” he was by the persecution of Christians in the Middle East. Prince Ghazi of Jordan, whom I have singled out before as a dedicated dialog partner, was also present.

That said, the MENA region is not the most egregious in this regard. Morgan, again quoting from Allen’s book, gives us two shocking examples:


North Korea remains the most evil nation on earth due to the oppression of its people, especially Christians. According to accounts, 80 people were machine-gunned the other day in a stadium in front of 10,000 people. The crime for some of the victims was owning a Bible. Reports from North Korea have told of Christians being pulverized by steamrollers. Hundreds of thousands of believers north of the Thirty-Eight Parallel have simply vanished. At this very moment, there are over 50,000 Christians suffering in concentration camps in Korea.

Turning elsewhere, Christians in India are trying to resist discriminatory laws promoted by Hindu extremists. In the Indian state of Orissa, as many as 500 Christians were hacked to death some time ago, with thousands more injured or left homeless. As many as 350 churches were destroyed.”


The most quoted study on the topic is that published yearly by Open Doors, a Christian organization devoted to supporting the persecuted church. Mostly because of 1,213 documented killings of Christians in Syria, the number of Christian martyrs worldwide doubled from 2012 to 2013. A Reuters article had the following comment on the Open Doors report:


Nine of the 10 countries listed as dangerous for Christians are Muslim-majority states, many of them torn by conflicts with radical Islamists. Saudi Arabia is an exception but ranked sixth because of its total ban on practicing faiths other than Islam.”

In the list of killings, Syria was followed by Nigeria with 612 cases last year after 791 in 2012. Pakistan was third with 88, up from 15 in 2012. Egypt ranked fourth with 83 deaths after 19 the previous year.”


Why Religious Freedom is good for all

In 1948 forty-eight countries signed the landmark Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 18 reads,


Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”


As we’ve seen here, a lot of social turmoil and violence worldwide would be avoided if this document were applied everywhere. Sadly, that is not the case, and in the MENA region in particular.

President Obama at this year’s presidential prayer breakfast, which gathers people from all faiths from all over for a week of discussions, networking and prayers. He opened his remarks with a word on his own personal faith journey going back to his days of community service in Chicago. His following words drew him naturally into the mainstream of American presidents who, since Jimmy Carter, saw themselves as “born again” Christians:


And I’m grateful not only because I was broke and the church fed me, but because it led to everything else.  It led me to embrace Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior.  It led me to Michelle -- the love of my life -- and it blessed us with two extraordinary daughters.  It led me to public service.  And the longer I serve, especially in moments of trial or doubt, the more thankful I am of God’s guiding hand.”


Then he put on his hat as president of perhaps the most multireligious nation on earth, in a way that would have made Thomas Jefferson proud (see my blog on that). Religious freedom strikes at the root of all religious traditions and strengthens the democratic fiber of all nations:


Our faith teaches us that in the face of suffering, we can’t stand idly by and that we must be that Good Samaritan.  In Isaiah, we’re told ‘to do right.  Seek justice.  Defend the oppressed.’ The Torah commands: ‘Know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.’ The Koran instructs:  ‘Stand out firmly for justice.’ So history shows that nations that uphold the rights of their people – including the freedom of religion – are ultimately more just and more peaceful and more successful. Nations that do not uphold these rights sow the bitter seeds of instability and violence and extremism. So freedom of religion matters to our national security.” (Applause.)


We started with King Abdullah and ended with the American president. They, along with other people of faith mentioned here, give me hope that the exodus of Christians from their place of origin will be stemmed. It’s already been a “hemorrhage,” as Baroness Warsi put it – 850,000 from Iraq alone since 2003, according to the UN High Commission for Refugees. Still, with the situation varying from country to country as I hope to show in the second half, there are encouraging signs that Muslims and Christians are working together on turning the tide.

 In the previous blog reviewing Leila Ahmed’s book The Quiet Revolution we covered the role of colonialism in the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and how these islamists succeeded in reversing a two-generations trend of women unveiling. Only this time, the veil (hijab) adopted by university students in the 1970s and 1980s (and then by women generally) was different in appearance and bearer of multiple meanings.

By the way: “islamism” is the term for political Islam, a distinctly modern phenomenon, started by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt (1928), but then merging in time with a general resurgence of religiosity beginning in the 1970s all over the world and within many religious traditions (see my blog on fundamentalism). In my publications I’ve always written it with a lower case “i,” to mark it off as a political ideology much more than a simply religious one.

After a brief examination of the sociological work done on this reveiling phenomenon, I’ll turn to the wider impact of this movement and its particular impact on Muslims in the United States after the attacks of 2001.

“Why did you take up hijab and Islamic dress?”

Egypt was the first Muslim country where this style of female attire appeared in the 1970s on university campuses, where easily half the population was female. More and more men were growing beards and wearing a variety of looser clothes, like long shirts or the tunic-like flowing djellabas. But they weren’t nearly as noticeable as their female counterparts who were donning newly styled head coverings and a variety of looser clothes that only showed a woman’s hands and face. This was the origin of today’s “Islamic dress” (zia islami), a multi-billion dollar industry flaunted in shops from Marrakesh to Kuala Lumpur and eagerly traded on the Internet.

This was also the time when feminist studies were appearing in American universities. It wasn’t long before researchers came to do their fieldwork in Egypt. Among these, Arlene E. Macleod arrived in 1983 and Sherifa Zuhur in 1988, just as Macleod was finishing her project. By then sixty-nine of her interviewees had begun to wear hijab, and all of them as adults. This change was both a recent and “dramatic” one in their lives – a conversion of sorts.

To illustrate how fast the social scene was changing in these years, Ahmed proposes to contrast the two studies focusing both on veiled and unveiled women.

Macleod first asked women why they thought some women were starting to wear hijab. These are some of the representative answers:

- There was a “general sense that people in their culture were turning back to a more authentic and culturally true way of life”

- In the past people were “thoughtless and misled” but now came to see they had been wrong

- “In the past people didn’t understand that these values are so important, but now everyone has come to see that they are good and strong. So we know we have to act like Muslim women, that is important.”

- One woman now covered said, “Before I didn’t know what I was wearing is wrong, but now I realize and know, thanks be to God.”

- Representing many other women, one put it this way, “We Muslim women dress in a modest way, not like Western women, who wear anything . . . Muslim women are careful about their reputation, Egypt is not like America! In America women are far too free in their behavior!” (119-120)

Still, many of the women were puzzled and not a little worried about these new trends. Sixty percent of the women interviewed admitted they didn’t know why things were changing. Fifty-six percent even opined that it was simply a matter of fashion. I love this answer:

“I don’t know why fashions change in this way, no-one knows why, one day everyone wears dresses and even pants. I even wore a bathing suit when I went to the beach . . . then suddenly we are all wearing this on our hair!” (120)

Over her five years of research, Macleod found no correlation between “increased religious observance” and wearing hijab. To begin with, the lower middle class community that she was studying was religiously observant. In fact, “nearly everyone prayed on Fridays” – though the women mostly prayed at home. One reason that women began to adopt the veil at this stage was because it facilitated their moving around unhindered in public.

Though Macleod admits that this reveiling trend was simultaneously occurring with a general resurgence of “fundamentalist Islam,” she insisted there was no simple correlation between the two phenomena. She also found that it was a women’s “voluntary movement,” “initiated and perpetrated by women.”

Still, there’s more to say, she concedes toward the end of her five-year project. She was noticing that with time men were increasingly putting pressure on their women (daughters and wives) to wear hijab and dress “Islamically.” Religious leaders were proclaiming it from the mosque. Women were feeling the pressure from their peers as well, but throughout this period women always believed that in the end it was their individual choice to wear hijab or not.

This is the context with which Sherifa Zuhur’s study begins. Mosques and Islamic schools had been multiplying in the 1980s and the government, not to be outdone by its islamist opposition, hired many of these recent graduates to beef up existing religious programs in its public schools. By the end of that decade as well, all the top leadership of the professional organizations were islamists, notably among the engineering, law and medical associations.

Zuhur interviewed women who were unveiled and compared their attitudes with believers in “the new Islamic woman” on the issue of women’s rights. Surprisingly perhaps, there were no differences on this matter. Even the most conservative of respondents agreed with the others, that “women should be given equal opportunities with men, and equality under the law so long as principles of the sharia were upheld” (127).

The veiled women strongly believed that unveiled women were disobeying God’s revealed will on the matter and “they saw their own adoption of the hijab to be a sign of their social and moral awakening.” Zuhur found that these women were particularly impressed by the islamist emphasis on “cultural authenticity, nationalism, and the pursuit of ‘adala, or social justice” (127).

What is clear is that a shift had taken place since Macleod’s study: now veiled women didn’t mention practical reasons for adopting the veil, but focused entirely on religious requirements and even activism in the islamist cause. While both sets of women seemed just as religiously observant, they practiced their religion in noticeably different ways. The veiled women were more focused on the “outward” and “visible” practices of their tradition, while the unveiled ones prided themselves in living out the essence (jawhar, or inner reality) of their faith. Even those who might not fast during Ramadan would answer that Islam is about good deeds and much more about how you treat other people than anything you wear or following any public ritual.

The new wave of Islamism was the key behind the changes, notes Ahmed. The Muslim Brotherhood had from the very beginning tried to educate the masses to leave aside their traditional practice of Islam and instead adopt “the engaged, activist ways of Islamism along with all its attendant requirements, rituals, and prescriptions, including veiling” (130).

These were some of the salient features of the new ways of “being Muslim” in the Egypt of the late 1980s and early 1990s that Zuhur picked up in her study. I mentioned Carrie Wickham’s research in the last blog and how it narrowed its focus to the islamists who were energetically winning converts here and everywhere. No doubt there were plenty of sociopolitical factors aiding them in this pursuit – Mubarak’s repressive regime being on top of that list.

I turn now to the United States where this movement was actually given a boost by the anti-Muslim backlash after 9/11.

The veil’s resurgence in post-9/11 United States

Right from the start, both the authorities and the American Muslim community were braced for an anti-Muslim backlash. Two men were shot and killed on September 16, 2001, because they “looked” Muslim (one in fact was a Sikh gas station owner in Mesa, Arizona). President Bush visited the mosque at the Islamic Center of Washington, D.C., remarking publicly that the “face of terror is not the true face of Islam” and that “Islam is peace” (200).

Yet in the following months and years hundreds of attacks on Muslims took place and dozens of mosques were vandalized. Several thousand Muslims were arrested under the suspicion of terrorism, with many of them kept for months without charge. A whole cottage industry of hate discourse directed against Muslims developed too – which I described in a blog as “McCarthyism returns in the 2010s.”

At the same time, thousands of Americans bought Qur’ans and poured into mosques to hear imams tell about Islam. Ahmed tells of a secular Jewish woman attending one of these open houses. Totally turned off by the very concept of monotheism, this lady nonetheless wanted to express her solidarity with a group so wrongly targeted for discrimination and hate.

“Such as scene was unimaginable in any Muslim-majority country,” exclaims Ahmed. “Nor could it have unfolded in this particular way in Europe.” Ahmed felt she was living “a new moment in history.” Many Americans and their Muslim counterparts were now entering a privileged window of time when dialogue and mutual understanding might prevail.

Meanwhile, journalists were reporting that some Muslim women had stopped wearing the veil (several Muslim jurists had given them permission to do so – this was a case of “necessity”!) and that others, not particularly observant before, had been jolted into a conversion experience of sorts and were now wearing hijab and/or Islamic dress.

Why? Reasons varied, but perhaps the common link was pride – one way despised groups often fight back. Also, recall that one of the justifications for the invasion of Afghanistan was to save Muslim women from the oppressive practices of the Taliban that were beating them down. First Lady Laura Bush stated that this was a war “for the rights and dignity of women.” Many American Muslims found that reasoning preposterous: as “collateral damage” in Afghanistan and Iraq their country was killing thousands of women and children, all in the name of name of women’s rights!

That sounded a lot like the old colonial mentality we documented in the last blog. No one wants to be told by a dominant culture that your own is inferior and that you need to adopt foreign values. So this kind of reasoning is reflected in the following responses to “why did you adopt hijab?” But it’s not just pride, as you will see. For many the veil takes on unmistakable political meanings as well:

- For one woman, “putting on the scarf coincided with her spiritual awakening as a devout Muslim, but it was also a reaction to what she perceived to be a growing fear among Muslims in this country” (207).

- For another, she “had taken up the hijab after 9/11 precisely as a way of ‘negating’ the widespread stereotypes about the hijab and Muslims.” She now felt ‘liberated,’ adds Ahmed, “presumably by wearing hijab, from having to passively acquiesce in the face of negative stereotyping” (208).

- Another woman comments, “I felt this is my culture and my heritage. This is something I have to represent. I have changed so much after 9/11, and I think a lot of Muslim women who felt we were being called terrorists really found ourselves researching our own religion and wanting to wear hijab” (208).

- One of the most common answers was “to support the Palestinian cause” – something Ahmed herself discovered in her own interviews with young women in 2002-2003.

- One of those Ahmed interviewed answered this way, “I don’t believe the Qur’an requires it. For me, wearing it is a way of affirming my community and identity, a way of saying that even as I enjoy the comforts we take for granted here and that people of Palestine totally lack, I will not forget the struggle for justice” (211).

            Then paradoxically – Ahmed admits that growing up in Egypt when she did this kind of answer was extremely puzzling for her at first – many women wore the veil as a sign of protest against gender biases in their society. Hijab, as a call to justice, included not only protesting the discrimination of minorities but also the suffering and injustice they face as women. For many who wear this post-1970s Islamic dress, walking dressed this way in public is saying to those around them, particularly men, “I chose to wear this because I believe it’s right. Respect me if you respect yourself.”

Leila Ahmed’s takeway

You can find several interesting subtexts in Ahmed’s book, but I’ll focus on her central thesis. After the “unveiling” movement in Egypt from the early 1900s to the 1960s, which was strongly influenced by Western colonial powers, the “reveiling” wave starting in the 1970s was both an anti-Western statement and a practice initiated and defined by the Muslim Brotherhood. Islamism’s ascendency at just that time provided a new way of being “Muslim,” particularly as a woman.

Yet the phenomenon of the zia islami, which has now spread to Muslim communities across the globe, is in no way controlled by islamist leaders and their organizations. Even in the US in the 1970s and 1980s it was Muslim Brotherhood members, or at least MB sympathizers, who founded the Muslim Student Association (MSA) on university campuses and eventually the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA). But since then, these and other Muslim American organizations have evolved into much more inclusive and diverse bodies. Women who choose Islamic dress, therefore, do so for a number of reasons.

The same holds true elsewhere – and nowhere more so than Egypt, where an MB president just one year into his tenure found himself barraged by millions of protesters countrywide, with nearly all the women in these protests wearing hijab. Of course, Ahmed could not have known this since her book was published in 2011. But her thesis still applies here: religion and culture, historical events and evolving sociopolitical realities prove often tough to disentangle.

What we can say is that the hijab and the zia islami from the 1970s on were a brand new phenomenon in Egypt. True, the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamic organizations from the 1930s to the 1950s had used the veil as “an emblem of resistance to colonialism and of affirmation of indigenous values.”

But with the Islamic resurgence in the 1970s “the hijab’s meanings began to break loose from their older, historically bound moorings.” In her own words,

“Today all of these meanings, old and new, are simultaneously freely in circulation in our societies, depending on which community the wearer or observer belongs to. Certainly for some it is still a powerful sign of the Otherness of Muslims . . . a sign of the oppression of women. For many of the hijab’s wearers, on the other hand – who do not live in societies where the veil is required by law – the hijab does not, as their statements typically indicate, have this meaning. For its wearers, in societies where women are free to choose whether to wear it, the hijab can have any of the variety of meanings reviewed in these pages – and indeed, many, many more” (212).

If nothing else (and besides the wonderful historical overview Ahmed provides), this book is a timely reminder that “l’habit ne fait pas le moine” – that, according to the French proverb I grew up with, “the robe doesn’t make the monk.” Or, don’t judge another person on the basis of what she’s wearing.

Like other cultural artifacts, the hijab appeared in a specific cultural and historical context and its meaning evolved as those conditions changed. Part of that context was the modern value of individual agency, and particularly for women. So let us not generalize as to why Muslim women choose to cover their bodies they way they do. A bit of humility and respect, after all, will go a long way to create more meaningful dialog between our various communities of faith.

This is the last blog (1 of 2) on one of the books discussed in our public library within the “Muslim Journeys: American Stories” series: Leila Ahmed’s A Quiet Revolution: The Veil’s Resurgence, from the Middle East to America.

First it was the Christian and Jewish women of Egypt and the Levant who cast aside their traditional head coverings in the early 1900s. A decade later, sparked by Qasim Amin’s controversial book, The Liberation of Woman (1899), Muslim women were beginning to unveil, starting with the upper classes. This was a movement that continued to gain strength, so much so that our author, growing up in Egypt in the 1940s and 1950s, rarely saw any women donning the veil in any form.

Ahmed’s “quiet revolution” is about a groundswell of religiosity accompanied by new “Islamic dress” (al-zay al-Islami) for the women, which took over Egypt in the 1980s while spreading throughout the Muslim world, including to post-9/11 America.

A winner of the 2012 Grawmeyer Award in Religion, A Quiet Revolution, is a stimulating read. Ahmed, Harvard Divinity School’s first professor in women’s studies in religion, taps into her own personal memories, into her own knowledge of the religious dynamics of her home country, into her years of diligent study of women and Islam, and finally into the wealth of sociological research about the reappearance of the veil in Muslim societies.

I first dig into the colonial background to this issue, then into Ahmed’s thesis about the connection between the veil and Islamism, then in the next blog into her observations of Muslim American flagship organizations, primarily the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA).

The Colonial Legacy

Ahmed’s point of departure is Oxford historian Albert Hourani’s 1956 article in the UNESCO Courier entitled, “The Vanishing Veil a Challenge to the Old Order.” Besides chronicling the gradual but irrepressible unveiling movement in Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, largely sparked by Qasim Amin’s book, Hourani unwittingly reveals the attitudes of the region’s intellectuals of his time. As education was offered to both men and women, the latter were less and less willing to submit to the traditional norms of veiling and seclusion. He adds, “In all except the most backward regions polygamy has practically disappeared and the veil is rapidly going” (20).

Hourani tips his hands especially in the following statement: it is “only in the Arab world’s ‘most backward regions’ [my emphasis] . . . and especially ‘in the countries of the Arabian peninsula – Saudi Arabia and Yemen,’ that the ‘old order’ – and along with it such practices as veiling and polygamy – still ‘persist unaltered.’”

Egypt and the Levant in the 1950s were a different world. “Today, in our postmodern era,” notes Ahmed, “it would be almost unthinkable that an Oxford academic would casually use such terms as ‘advanced’ or ‘backward’ to describe cultural practices.” Yet in the mid-twentieth century such sentiments were shared and taken for granted by the ruling classes both in the West and in the Middle East. Unsurprisingly, “Hourani’s narrative is grounded in a worldview that assumed that the way forward for Arab societies lay in following the path of progress forged by the West.” The colonial project, though mostly over politically in 1956, was still in full swing culturally as the modern/Western myth of progress had been internalized by the elites and many others as well.

A bit of history is useful here. Taking advantage of Egyptian king (Khedive) Ismail’s mismanagement of state funds and a popular rebellion against him, the British landed troops in 1882 and began a military occupation that would only end in 1954. They forced him to abdicate in favor of his son Tewfik and though the new Khedive remained on the throne, it was the British who made all the important decisions of state. The next year they sent Lord Cromer as consul general – a euphemism for master colonial puppeteer.

Indeed, Cromer left an indelible mark on the country during his 24 years “rule,” and shortly after his departure, wrote a best-selling book, Modern Egypt. In it he gives voice to the common beliefs of the colonial elites (the French as well): it was now a matter of fact (anthropology used skull sizes to “prove” this) that “the dark-skinned Eastern” is inferior to “the fair-skinned Western.” A biographer of Cromer remarks that his book’s popularity “reflected the spirit of the age: a pride not only in empire but also in the management of subject races” (30). This of course spilled over to his conviction that Christianity was superior to Islam.

So then, coming to our topic about women, Cromer was curiously (we might add, “outrageously”) unaware of his own contradictions. On the one hand, he deplored Islam’s “degradation” of women – veiling and seclusion were the chief manifestations of that, while Christianity “elevated” women. On the other hand, Cromer served for a time as president of the Society Opposed to Women’s Suffrage. Men and women ought to stay in the roles God gave them, he reasoned. Clearly in his mind the very notion of British Empire reflected the God-willed hierarchy of white men in charge of white women, while both oversaw lesser races subject to them.

Despite all his agitation for the advancement of women in Egyptian society during his tenure, he did little to allocate funds to one sector that could have made a difference – schools. Cromer even refused to fund a school set up in the 1830s to train women doctors, dismissing the preference of Egyptian women to be treated by a female doctor with the quip, “I conceive that in the civilized world, attendance by medical men is still the rule” (32).

Though much of Ahmed’s discussion of this era is fascinating (like Cromer’s facilitating Muhammad Abduh’s career), let me just close with this quote as a suitable summary:

“Unveiling would become ever more clearly the emblem of an era of new hopes and desires, and of aspirations for modernity: of the possibility of education and the right to work for both women and men, and of equal opportunity and advancement based on effort and merit instead of inherited privilege be it of class or race” (39).

Thankfully, as elsewhere, colonialism had the unintended effect of intensifying the “subject people’s” thirst for freedom and dignity. We now move on to the birth of the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928 – a movement that was largely a reaction to the hegemonic presence of the British, and, in particular, of western missionaries and their schools and clinics.

Islamism and the rise of the veil

Here we reach Ahmed’s central thesis. Though the unveiling movement had never signified a rejection of Islam, those calling for the reveiling of women saw it just as that. For them, unveiling was to kowtow to western secularism. Still, when the veil came on again, it looked quite different and it acquired many new meanings.

Some women of the middle and upper classes, recalls Ahmed from her youth, would wear an expensive western style scarf over their head and tie it under their chin. Though it was uncommon, it did point to more conservative individuals who thought a woman’s head should be covered in public. This was very different from the Muslim Brotherhood women whose head coverings (hijabs) stood out from both the westernized conservative women’s scarves and the traditional veils. Ahmed seems to remember that their distinctive dress was meant to send a message – at least this is how she perceived it: “they were both different and opposed to us” (49).

I have no space here to deal with the history of the Muslim Brotherhood – if anything, before and after President Morsi’s one year in office (2012-2013), much has been written about this movement in the country of its origin. But Ahmed helpfully adds one more element in her historical sweep: Saudi Arabia’s crucial role in using its petrodollars to spread its own conservative and puritanical brand of Islam. And since many Brotherhood leaders, while fleeing the great “persecution” initiated by President Nasser in 1954, ended up in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries, there was a definite convergence of interests between them and their Wahhabi hosts.

What was often dubbed the “Arab Cold War” by scholars was precisely this fierce struggle between the Saudis (who in 1961 founded a university in Medina to train missionaries and the next year the Muslim World League) Gamal Abd al-Nasser in Egypt and other Arab nationalist rulers and elites in the region. Said Ramadan, the son-in-law of the Brotherhood’s founder Hasan al-Banna, was named to the 21-member council of the Muslim World League, as was the great leader of South Asian islamism, Maulana Abu’l Ala al-Mawdudi.

Understandably, the 1967 Arab defeat at the hands of the Israelis rang out the death knell of pan-Arabism and its secular ideology. From then on, political Islam would become the ubiquitous oppositional discourse throughout the Mideast and beyond.

Intriguingly, as Ahmed points out, this defeat sparked a mood of unprecedented religiosity across confessional boundaries. As a scholar of religion, I cannot resist quoting the following paragraph, even though as I wrote in my fundamentalism blog, I have no plausible explanation to offer for this resurgence of religion. As a Christian, I would simply say that the Holy Spirit was moving with power, albeit in mysterious ways:

            “Soon after the defeat an apparition of the Virgin Mary was seen beside a small church on the outside of Cairo. Muslim as well as Christians flocked by the thousands to see it, camping out overnight to watch for her appearance. Miracles and cures were reported. Some interpreted the Virgin’s appearance as a sign intended to draw Muslims and Christians together into unified opposition against the Zionist enemy. Others saw it as a divine sign offering comfort to the Egyptians, as if to say that despite their defeat God was on their side. The mood of religiosity had palpable and tangible consequences too. Quranic reading groups now multiplied, and monasteries, which had long been closing for lack of applicants, were deluged with applications” (66).

Then came the 1973 war with Israel that gave the Sinai Peninsula back to Egypt. This seems to be the watershed event after which the new Islamic fervor, now with unmistakable islamist overtones, gradually began capturing the imagination and allegiance of the masses. That said, the emerging movement in the 1970s was only a university phenomenon, as Fadwa El Guindi’s sociological research demonstrates.

What were their characteristics? Just as the Muslim Brotherhood’s goal had been from the beginning, these young activists aimed “to bring about the ideal Islamic society based on the Quran and Sunna,” fighting the three main foes of “communism, Zionism and feminism” (79). Though the membership was informal, as a movement it included “sororal/fraternal collectivities, which offered separate and parallel opportunities for involvement and leadership among both men and women.”

One of the characters that pops up in several chapters is the “unsung mother” of the Brotherhood, Zainab al-Ghazali. Her single devotion to the cause, her vast energy and organizational skills helped keep the movement afloat, especially in times of dire persecution. When in 1964 the government ordered the dissolution of her women’s organization, it counted 3 million members. She then survived an assassination attempt but shortly after was imprisoned with the other Brotherhood leaders (including Sayyid Qutb) and condemned to 25 years of hard labor. Her memoir came out shortly after six “brutal years” of torture and deprivation. She called it Return of the Pharaoh: Memoir in Nasir’s Prison.

I mention her, because she modeled the values and ideals that the female members of the Muslim Brotherhood internalized and embodied. This was an activist’s Islam, producing a vanguard of Muslim society, which sought through its “gradualist nonviolent means of the jihad of education and da’wa [spreading the message, here to other Muslims] to bring about the transformation and re-islamization of society” (138). In these extraordinary times, she would say, no sacrifice is too great to reach our God-given mission. She herself divorced a husband who didn’t support her commitment to the cause. And she told her second husband from the start that she would leave him too, should he stand in the way. He died during her years in prison; and fortunately, she would later admit, she had never had any children.

In a rare interview she gave Kristin Helmore of the Christian Science Monitor in 1985, Ghazali, who agreed with all her male colleagues in the Brotherhood that the veil is a divine commandment for all Muslim women, explains in greater detail her viewpoint on the issue. Helmore writes that Ghazali presented the “iron determination of one who has given her every waking moment to a cause, and the inner stillness of one who is wholly convinced that she is right” (113).

When asked how a devout woman was different from one who is “more modern,” Ghazali unflinchingly replied,

“If you don’t go back to your religion and dress the way I do, you’ll go to hell. Even if you’re a good Muslim and you pray and do what is right, if you dress the way you do all your good deeds will be canceled out” (113).

One sociologist who did a great deal of research into the mainstream Islamic movement of Egypt in the 1990s is Carrie Rosefsky Wickham. Her book, Mobilizing Islam: Religion, Activism and Political Change in Egypt, captures the mood and values of this movement that has now become dominant in Egyptian society (though severely repressed once again). To start with, the militants who believe in the use of violence represent a very small fraction of its members and their ideology is repudiated by the vast majority of society.

On the positive side, what most characterized the people she interviewed was their understanding of Islam as a call to actively serve those in need and influence all others to enter into that same devoted lifestyle:

“Some of them held jobs in Islamic institutions, but the majority had their main job in unrelated areas and worked part time in service of Islamism, often for very low pay or on a volunteer basis. Lawyers, engineers, doctors, and other professionals offered their services in Islamic health clinics, day-care centers, kindergartens, and after-school programs; or they taught religious lessons or (if they were men) preached at the mosque” (148).

How did these activists succeed in persuading their fellow citizens to adopt their version of Islam, and in particular women accepting to don the zia islami (“Islamic dress”)? There were a variety of methods employed:

1. Provide help to people through islamist networks, like finding jobs, receiving funds from a mosque in time of need, obtaining visas for working abroad, and even suitable marriage partners.

2. A psychological boost and a sense of “moral authority” coming from one’s membership in a tight knit society. Paradoxically, as Wickham shows from her interviewees’ answers, and especially for lower class ones, “adopting a strict Islamic code enabled women to be freer to flout traditional limits to their autonomy.” They “gained an aura of respectability that enabled them to move more freely in public spaces without fear of social sanction” (151).

3. Sometimes “hijab and Islamic attire were also being deliberately, actively promoted by Islamists.” Through their networks of friends, particularly if they were able to persuade them to attend religious classes or come to a mosque with a charismatic preacher, these activists could get them to “convert” and start wearing hijab or even niqab (the full-face veil). Of course, it helped when an outfit was offered free of charge for them to wear.

4. Along with this, on the basis of several stories Ahmed recounts from Wickham’s book, she summarizes the tactics of da’wa to which these young activists resort: “Peer pressure and gentle albeit insidiously powerful coercion toward social conformity and the acceptance of ‘correct’ religious practice (‘Isn’t it proper, following the path of the Prophet?’) clearly were all brought into play in the process of Islamist da’wa and outreach in regard to Islamic dress” (153).

I close here the first half of this blog on Ahmed’s book. I hope you see, once again, that religious movements don’t spring out of thin air – they're born in specific historical, cultural and sociopolitical contexts. That is certainly the case with the modern birth of the Muslim Brotherhood. The limited backdrop of colonialism offered above might also give you a glimpse into why people in the region see the state of Israel as a western colonial intrusion and the 2003 US invasion of Iraq as more of the same. It also helps to explain, at least in part, the strong anti-American feeling felt on all sides before, and especially after the 2013 military coup that toppled the Muslim Brotherhood president of Egypt.

With all that in mind, we still have to look more closely at the resurgence of the veil in Egypt and then in the United States coming into the 2000s.

21 January 2014

Willow Wilson's Egypt

I have now finished leading the five (well attended) public library discussions in the series “Muslim Journeys: American Stories” sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the American Library Association. I devoted blogs to the first two books (Prince Among Slaves and Eboo Patel’s Acts of Faith)

I now turn to the last two, and here, The Butterfly Mosque, by G. Willow Wilson.

I don’t believe you are serious about interfaith dialog unless you can sincerely understand people who convert to another faith and you can see how that faith enriches their lives. If you’ve followed my blogs, you know I don’t subscribe to theological pluralism – all religious paths go up the same mountain and ultimately lead to the summit. Rather, I believe that all religions make truth claims, which often clash with truth claims made by other traditions. Islam and Christianity have much in common, but they disagree about each other’s central claims – Jesus and the cross on one side, and Muhammad and the Qur’an on the other.

But true respect of the religious "other" demands an effort to listen with great emphathy. That’s why, whatever your faith commitment, you should read conversion accounts in order to understand as much from the inside as possible how others live their faith. And if you’re a Christian, in particular, you should read The Butterfly Mosque. Well, I’ll give you three other reasons to read it:


1. It’s beautifully written, and if you like a good romance, you’ll definitely like this one! Wilson is an artist, and a very accomplished one at that despite her young age (b. in 1982), in three genres so far: 1) her graphic novel Cairo (2007) was named one of the 2009 Top Ten Great Graphic Novels for Teens by the American Library Association; 2) her comic series Air was nominated for the Eisner Award; 3) her first novel, Alif the Unseen, won the 2013 World Fantasy Award (see picture above). Then one more award: this autobiography was named Best Book of the Year by the Seattle Times (Wilson now lives with her husband and two daughters in Seattle). She’s now writing a Marvel comic series whose heroin is a Muslim teenage girl.


2. Wilson leads you deep into the cultural recesses of Egyptian society. As someone who lived there three years starting in 1989, I was completely fascinated. Within weeks she falls in love with an Egyptian fellow teacher and, with the blessing of his clan, is married to him the next year.


3. Here is a finely textured reading of Egypt’s diverse Muslim currents. During the months Willow and her roommate Jo lived in the poorer and xenophobic neighborhood of Tura, they had ample opportunity to explore their feelings toward the islamists – whether the more puritanical Salafis or the more political Muslim Brotherhood types. As a journalist, she was twice given the chance to interview Egypt’s highest cleric, the Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa; and on another occasion, deep into the desert near the Libyan border, she interviewed the female leader of a Sufi order.


Without spoiling the book for you – I do want you to read it – let me expand a bit more on what I just wrote. And because it’s such an intimate story, I’ll use her first name, Willow.


The Islam Willow embraced

Raised in a staunchly atheist home in Colorado, Willow felt deep down that there must be some kind of higher power. A prolonged illness that ate up a good part of her college career at Boston University only sharpened the gnawing questions in her soul. Just a few days into her treatment, the three people who best cared for her were Iranians:


“Semidelirious, I took this as a sign. Addressing a God I had never spoken to in my life, I promised that if I recovered in three days, I would become a Muslim. As it happened, the adrenal distress lasted a year and a half” (p. 7).


What her bodily weakness did for her, however, was to open her eyes to the infinite. “My insignificance had become unspeakably beautiful to me,” she discovered. She goes on,


“I had a faint attraction to Buddhism, but Buddhism wasn’t theistic enough; the role of God was obscure or absent. I would have liked to be a Christian. My life would have been much easier if I could stomach the Trinity and inherited sin, or the idea that God had a son. Judaism was a near perfect fit, but it was created for a single tribe of people. Most practicing Jews I knew took a dim view of conversion. To them, membership in the historical community of Jews was as important as belief.

            In Islam, which encouraged conversion, there were words for what I believed. Tawhid, the absolute unity of God. Al Haq, the truth so true it had no corresponding opposite, truth that encompassed both good and evil. There were no intermediary steps in the act of creation, God simply said, Kun, fa yakun. “Be, so it is.” I began to have a feeling of déjà vu. It was as if my promise to become a Muslim was not a coincidence but a kind of inversion; a future self speaking through a former self” (pp. 12-13).


As you read through the book, you discover a woman who has “surrendered” to God (the meaning of islam), but is wary of human authorities. She remains a practicing Sunni Muslim woman, conservative in some ways, yet always willing to probe deeper and farther afield. She even convinces her husband to let her travel alone for a 3-week reporter’s trip through Iran (two chapters in the book), providing an evocative encounter with Shia Muslims in a land of beautiful gardens over which a pall of sadness seems to hang.


Willow’s Egypt

You will love the people seen through Willow’s eyes, warts and all. You’ll envy the layers of communal protection and kindness that extended families provide – reservoirs of wisdom, and at times, of bigotry. But here I focus on Willow’s depiction of the “fundamentalists” – I think that is relevant to what I’m trying to do on this website. I want to provide as much context and inside perspective for you (especially western Christians), in order to understand how incredibly diverse the world of Muslims really is, culturally, theologically, and religiously (e.g., its mystical practices, like Sufism, and many of its local, pre-Islamic folk practices). Not all Muslims are of the same cloth, not by any stretch of the imagination.

Willow comes to the conclusion, fairly early on, that she should inform her colleagues, whether Egyptians or internationals, about her conversion to Islam. “There would be no avoiding the crisis when it came, so I decided to force it. I ran up the flag, so to speak, by putting on hijab,” she tells us.

This deliberate act of “coming out,” as she puts it, did cause quite a stir. Many Egyptian Muslims were thrilled, as you might imagine, but not all. That is because the scarf she chose to wear that day, in typical Willow fashion, was “apple red, a color that ensured my ultra-conservative colleagues [I add, those identifying with the Salafi movement] would be as shocked as my non-Muslim ones” (p. 107).

Then she chooses to contrast “moderates” and fundamentalists” (or “ultraconservatives” – but prior to 2011, the Salafis had not yet entered politics, and many continue to shun it). In her words, “My moderate Muslim colleagues and friends – moderate is a terrible word, since many of them are very passionate about their religion – accepted me without a batted eye . . . They simply began to greet me with as-salaamu alaykum instead of ‘hi’, and included me in the silent glances that would go around the room when secular or western coworkers launched into critiques of religion.”

The next paragraph is so very illuminating, as it could be easily transcribed into many other religious contexts. Converts are “sitting ducks” for well-meaning archconservatives, who relish the opportunity to reengineer the lives and identity of these hapless souls:


"Converts are a favorite prey of fundamentalists; they are often isolated, confused, and in need of reassurance, which radical Muslims are only too happy to give. In my case, they were confused. The way I wore my scarf, and the colors I chose, made it clear I was not crying out for help or seeking support … It must have been disturbing to radicals that a convert could find mere Islam more appealing than their tight-knit community. This is the death knell of radicalism: Muslims who have achieved a personal understanding of the religion can inspire doubt in extremists simply by standing in front of them. It’s a simple fact, but one with the potential to change the world” (p. 108).


Tura, the above-mentioned section of Cairo, is home to the infamous prison that houses (and routinely tortures) political prisoners in the thousands. In those days they were mostly Muslim Brothers – as they are still today, ironically. That’s also where Mubarak stayed with his two sons after the revolution toppled him. This is the setting where Willow is led to meditate further on the “fundamentalists.” For one thing, the neighborhood mosque was excruciatingly loud. Here I have to quote her witty, satirical prose:


“This mosque we quickly came to hate. Its muezzin announced the five daily prayer times in gravelly shrieks, broadcast at full volume over a set of speakers that were comically expensive and well-maintained when compared to the degree of poverty in which so many of the mosque’s attendees lived. To call this institution a fundamentalist mosque sounds almost tongue-in-cheek; it was rabidly conservative, and if it had been situated in a less neglected neighborhood, there’s a chance its leaders would now reside in the prison just half a kilometer away. As it was, Tura was a convenient location for extremism to fester, and so we awoke promptly at four a.m. every morning to the screams of the muezzin, who rattled windows and set dogs to howling for a considerable radius. Few people ever complained. Most were too afraid of the extremists to speak up; the rest were too worn down by the brutality of daily life in a poor neighborhood in a police state to be bothered. And daily life was brutal. There is no kinder word for it” (pp. 122-3).


This harsh living experience for Willow and Jo did offer some insights on “why they hate us,” as Americans were asking after 9/11. The antiwesternism that is endemic to the Middle East (as I can attest myself) goes like this: “the vast majority resent [the West] because they perceive it to be a military and economic juggernaut bombing countries into rubble, putting local industries out of business (though this title is slowly passing to China), and succeeding and succeeding where the Middle East fails. Religion never enters the discussion” (p. 135).

This is in complete contrast to the islamists (she doesn’t use that term):


“On the other hand, the fundamentalists we could see from our bathroom window hated us for very religious reasons. It became clear to me, living in the shadow of that brainless minaret, how little the anger of our local extremists had to do with military America. While the situation in Iraq gave them political legitimacy and direction, and a dangerous amount of emotional leverage with average Muslims, it was not the reason they were angry. They hated the America that exports culture. They were aghast at the suggestion that enlightenment could be bought on tape, and that right and wrong were fluid and could change from situation to situation. They hated being made to sympathize with adulterous couples in American movies. They hated the materialism that was spreading through Egypt and the Gulf like a parasite, turning whole cities – Dubai, Jeddah – into virtual shopping malls, and blamed this materialism on western influence


All of this is true, I concur. But there is more to it, at least if you want to include the jihadis – which you should. The Muslim Brotherhood renounced violence after their “great persecution” in 1954 (the fitna) and as an organization it has kept to that course. That they are losing many younger elements to a more radical ideology since last summer’s military government’s massacre of more than a thousand of them is clear as well. But my point is that Sayyid Qutb’s more radical ideology hatched in the 1950s and early 1960s in the shade of the 1954 fitna harkens back to centuries past when the world was truly divided between the Abode of Islam and the Abode of War (see my two blogs on jihad, “Holy Wars: Israelites versus bin Laden,” and “Jihad Revisited”). So there’s a way theology and law got tied up in the past to justify aggressive military campaigns and Sayyid Qutb’s revamping it in modern garb stands ready to use for the more radically inclined among islamists.

Despite that needed addition, I wholeheartedly recommend The Butterfly Mosque. It will open for you a captivating window into the lives of Egyptians, their hopes, their dreams, the kindness they dispense so naturally, and the brutal hardships that come with their territory. And, more importantly, you’ll get to know Willow herself. That, you won’t regret!


As Christmas nears, my thoughts turn to Bethlehem in the Occupied Territories, where I taught three years (1993-96) at the Bethlehem Bible College (BBC). The family of its founder, Bishara Awad, is a wonderful example of Palestinians who, having lost their father to a sniper in their West Jerusalem neighborhood in 1948, found the grace to forgive and engage in nonviolent peacebuilding.

Bishara’s son, Sami, founded the Holy Land Trust , that is making its mark in the wider Palestinian society and abroad. Dedicated to the spiritual principle of nonviolence as practiced by Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., the center . . .


“aspires to strengthen and empower the peoples of the Holy Land to engage in spiritual, pragmatic and strategic paths that will end all forms of oppression. We create the space for the healing of the historic wounds in order to transform communities and build a future that makes the Holy Land a global model for understanding, respect, justice, equality and peace.”


This is particularly appropriate, since Jesus, whose birth all Palestinians proudly celebrate this week, Christians and Muslims, was foretold as “the Prince of Peace” (as well as “Mighty God,” Isaiah 9:6).

Another personal connection is that Sami Awad launched his initiative as part of a wider project set in motion by Robin Wainwright in his millennial celebration of Jesus’ birth through the Journey of the Magi (read about the details of this “pilgrimage for peacehere). Robin was a good friend of the BBC and that is how I heard about this reenactment of the ancient journey of the wise men.

So here I was with Robin and a dozen others from various countries holed up in a Baghdad hotel for a couple of weeks after the outbreak of the second Intifada, early October 2000. Still, despite a delay of a week, we started off with our camels and pilgrims' gear (reminiscent of the white Hajj garments) from the ancient ruins of Ctesiphon. I walked with them for the next week, passing through the Sunni Triangle, first Falluja, then Ramadi.

Partly because we were protesting the sanctions imposed against the Saddam regime, we were welcomed with great enthusiasm by Muslims and Christians along the way. But more to the point was that, though this journey two millennia ago is not found in the Qur’an or Sunna, it certainly is part and parcel of the region’s collective memory. Everyone knew exactly what we were trying to relive and how our own pilgrimage was intimately connected with that message of peace.


The Bright Star

Matthew 2 speaks of Magi coming to Jerusalem (“wise men,” or “royal astrologers”) from the east saying to King Herod, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star as it rose, and we have come to worship him” (2:2). They are told that, according to the prophecy (Micah 5:2) the Messiah is to be born in Bethlehem. When they arrive by night in this little village (10 kms from Jerusalem), Matthew tells us that the star went ahead of them and . . .


. . . stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were filled with joy!They entered the house and saw the child with his mother, Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasure chests and gave him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh” (Mat. 2:9-11).


If we turn to Luke’s gospel we have some close parallels with the Qur’an, as the birth of Jesus is announced by the miraculous birth of John to an elderly couple, the priest Zechariah and his wife (Q. 3:36-40; 6:85; 21:89-90; 19:1-15). At the end of Luke’s first chapter, we read Zechariah’s song, which ends this way:


And you, my little son,
will be called the prophet of the Most High,
because you will prepare the way for the Lord.
77 You will tell his people how to find salvation
through forgiveness of their sins.
78 Because of God’s tender mercy,
the morning light from heaven is about to break upon us,
79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
and to guide us to the path of peace.”


The theme of “the morning light from heaven” echoes the earlier passage in Isaiah, which states that the coming of Messiah will shine God’s light into the darkness: “The people who walk in darkness will see a great light, for those who live in a land of deep darkness, a light will shine” (Isaiah 9: 2).

The previous verse spells out who those people are: “Galilee of the Gentiles” – all those mixed peoples (as a result of forced immigration by the Assyrian overlords just before the time of Isaiah). Certainly from the perspective of the religious elites of Jerusalem in Jesus’ day, the poor, mostly landless, Galileans who directly benefited from Jesus’ teaching and miracles, were “lost in darkness.” The irony, of course, is that many of "the lost" embraced the light of Jesus the Christ (Greek translation of the Hebrew “messiah”), while precious few among the religious leaders seriously pondered Jesus’ astounding statement:


“I am the light of the world. If you follow me, you won’t have to walk in darkness, because you will have the light that leads to life” (John 8:12).


The Light of Creation

Here we run into a vexing yet hopeful chapter of Muslim-Christian dialog. For all the reasons I mentioned in my Christmas blog two years ago, this celebration of Christ’s birth is the one feast with the most commonalities between Christians and Muslims. The Qur’an’s veneration of Jesus and Mary, particular his virgin birth, Mary’s strong piety and purity of heart, Zechariah and his son John's connection to the event – all this and more point to striking convergences.

At the same time, as we all know, this common ground veers quickly into our most striking divergence. And nowhere is this more evident than in the Muslim conviction about the “light of Muhammad” (nur muhammadi), which God created before anything else. It’s not just that Jesus in Islam is no more than a prophet, his miraculous birth notwithstanding. It’s that Muhammad, who in the Qur’an is certainly no more than a man, has acquired with time some of the attributes of Christ.

No, there is no trinity in Islam, no eternal preexistence of Muhammad at God’s side, no direct role for Muhammad in God’s creation – unlike Christ (“all things were made by him and for him,” Colossians 1:16). But according to a hadith, his soul was created 360,000 years before God began the creation of the world – a soul in the form of a primordial light:


One Day Sayedena Ali [as] Asked . O Muhammad [s], I pray you tell me what the Lord Almighty created before all other beings of creation. This was his blissful reply:

Verily, before your Lord made any other thing,

He created from His own Light

the light of your Prophet [s]


You can find this teaching in many sources, as this belief is near universal in Muslim circles of all stripes. But let me point my readers to a Sufi website belonging to one of the oldest and most widespread orders, the Naqshbandi order. Its name, appropriately, is "Nur Muhammadi." There you will find many other details, some of which no doubt will be peculiar to the Turkish source from which they are quoting.

Yet, lest you think this idea of Muhammad’s preexisting soul and light is only a Sufi one, let me quote briefly from a beloved poem written about the Prophet and read aloud by Muslims in many lands on his birthday feast (the Mawlud) for the last seven centuries. The Egyptian scholar al-Busiri (d. 1294) was said to be gravely ill with a high fever when Muhammad appeared to him, threw his cloak (burda) around him and healed him. In gratitude he wrote this famous poem, al-Burda. Here is a small excerpt, an eloquent illustration of some of the popular piety that has arisen around the person of the Prophet:


“Muhammad is the lord of the two worlds, the earth and the heavens and the animated beings, spirits and men of every sort, from the Arabs to the foreigners . . .

He is the confessor, the form and meaning which have been completed; finally the Omniscient placed him apart to be the beloved of the Generous . . . Leave off speaking, I forbid you, the word of praise of the Christians for the prophet Jesus . . .

. . .

Every miracle that came with every prophet could only come true because of the light of the prophet, that is why they too received the gift to perform miracles. He is like the sun because of his virtues, and they are like stars, this we know, in order for their light to shine, it is necessary that the sun has not yet come out, that there is darkness . . .”


Back to Christmas

I remember with fondness the time Prof. Chandra Muzaffar invited me to be one of two respondents to his keynote address at the 2008 international conference he had convened in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on the theme, “Religion in the Quest for Global Justice and Peace.” It was indeed a great privilege. One thought I included in my ten-minute response is relevant to this blog.

Speakers during that conference came from many religious traditions, and in particular, Buddhism and Hinduism. Since Muzaffar was espousing a form of theological pluralism (see the last part of my blog on Eboo Patel for a discussion of this), I had decided to push back a bit:


“Yet, as believers of all faiths will testify, some truth claims will necessarily remain incompatible, although admittedly not verifiable today. They concern the nature of the divine or the hereafter. At some point beyond history as we know it now, for instance, Jesus Christ will come back to this earth, according to both Muslim and Christian belief. Will he marry, kill the pigs and burn the crosses (according to well-attested hadiths), or will every knee bow to him and confess him as Lord (Philippians 2:10)? We shall have to wait and see. Or none of this at all will happen, as Buddhists and Hindus believe. But in the meantime we certainly can lock arms and put to work our common ethic of love, compassion, courageous denunciation of all forms of evil and injustice and risk our very lives for peace. This we can agree on and that’s why we’re here!”


The same of course can be said of Christmas in a circle of Christian and Muslim friends. Just as I wholeheartedly congratulate my Muslim friends on the occasion of Id al-Fitr (end of Ramadan), for instance, so our Muslim neighbors and friends have always congratulated us on the occasion of Christmas.

Yes we share a good deal of respect and admiration for Jesus, son of Mary. But only we Christians bow down with the Magi come from ancient Persia and Babylon to worship the newborn child.

So … a very happy and blessed Christmas to all readers to whom this applies! And much love and good wishes to everyone for the year ahead!

Regarding 2014, my own prayer in the name of the Prince of Peace – and all of our prayers – should go especially to those suffering from the cruel ravages of war in Syria and to the couple of million refugees trying to keep warm in camps in nearby countries. May God have mercy and bring peace to Syria, the Central African Republic, South Sudan, and to all those places so much in need of it!


A law journal asked me to contribute an article on Muslim and Christian understandings of human rights, so I was thinking about recent sources. Then like most of you, I heard about the Pope’s first “apostolic exhortation” last week – mostly because Francis, as the media portrayed it, was so critical of capitalism.

So, hopeful and curious about the first document authored by the new pope, I decided to read it (about 224 pages in the official pdf version).

I was not disappointed. I found several passages in the Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”) that were helpful for my paper and, more importantly, as a Protestant Christian, I was genuinely inspired by its content and strengthened in my own faith.

But before I get into the document, let me share some of my past to help you make better sense of this blog.


My Catholic experiences in Algeria

Of my sixteen years in the Arab world I spent the first nine years in Algeria (1978-87). I served as assistant pastor for the first four years in the only English-speaking Protestant church, the Anglican Holy Trinity Church, and then five years in the French-speaking Eglise Protestante d’Algérie.

For the first eight years I lived as a single person in community with other internationals related to the church. In fact, my lifestyle was very similar to that of my Catholic friends, priests and consecrated brothers and sisters of various religious orders. We all lived simply, and I would support myself financially through occasional jobs translating or interpreting from French to English or vice versa. In community it was share and share alike and I didn’t need any regular income.

Just a five minutes’ walk from the Anglican church where I first lived was the White Fathers’ Diocesan Center – arguably the best Arabic language school in North Africa at the time. I first went through their 3-year course in the Algerian Arabic dialect and then attended classes with a Lebanese priest who taught modern standard Arabic to Algerian government cadres who had found themselves severely off-balance with the ongoing “Arabization” campaign imposed by the state. Like me (I grew up in France), their education had all been in French. In that setting, Father Mousali was amazingly adept at inculcating Arabic grammar and vocabulary using the newspaper and a love for the language at the same time.

Besides the fact that I made many friends among my Catholic colleagues along the way, two events stand out. The first was my official ordination into the ministry in 1982. I was associated with a small congregational denomination, which, amazingly, approved an ecumenical setting for the ceremony in Algiers. It lasted just under two hours at the Anglican church, with a variety of other clergy participating, including the Catholic archbishop Henri Tessier, who at one point offered a spontaneous prayer of blessing in French, English and Arabic.

Four years later, he attended my wedding, along with Cardinal Duval and a good two hundred other people, Algerian and internationals. Through our common efforts in the Bible Society and in other venues, these exceptional leaders had become true friends.

I have to say, I learned a great deal about spirituality and new depths of the Christian tradition from my Catholic friends in Algeria.

And yes, I’ve been teaching as an adjunct at a Catholic university for the past seven years – another good experience!


Pope Francis and “The Joy of the Gospel”

This document is no official pronouncement on theology or church law, like an encyclical or an apostolic constitution. It’s a pastoral letter by the pope addressed to his worldwide parish, in this case specifically exhorting Catholics to live out their faith so as to draw non-Christians to the love of Jesus that is for everyone. The Church as a whole should be focused primarily on its mission:


“I dream of a ‘missionary option’, that is, a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channeled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation . . . As John Paul II once said to the Bishops of Oceania: ‘All renewal in the Church must have mission as its goal if it is not to fall prey to a kind of ecclesial introversion’” (p. 25).


The reformation the Church that he proposes is entirely aligned with this objective – making the Church, from its leaders down to each faithful, truly follow its Master, who lived only for others, and in particular, the poor and disenfranchised. Instead of turning inward, it must turn outward.

Like many previous such papal pronouncements, this one was occasioned by a Synod of Bishops in October 2012 on the theme, “The New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith.” So his “exhortation” follows up on the theme of the “new evangelization.” But clearly, Pope Francis feels this theme is providential. You feel it in the passion of his writing:


“The primary reason for evangelizing is the love of Jesus which we have received, the experience of salvation which urges us to ever greater love of him. What kind of love would not feel the need to speak of the beloved, to point him out, to make him known?"

“Sometimes we lose our enthusiasm for mission because we forget that the Gospel responds to our deepest needs, since we were created for what the Gospel offers us: friendship with Jesus and love of our brothers and sisters.”

“A committed missionary knows the joy of being a spring which spills over and refreshes others. Only the person who feels happiness in seeking the good of others, in desiring their happiness, can be a missionary” (pp. 196, 198, 203).


Plainly, Francis believes Jesus is for everybody. But nowhere does he say that embracing Jesus means people become Catholics or Christians. Though of course that remains an option for those who so desire, his concept of evangelism is much broader and more comprehensive. Two concepts help bring this idea into focus. The first is the framework Jesus used for his own teaching – the Kingdom of God:


“The Gospel is about the kingdom of God (cf. Lk 4:43); it is about loving God who reigns in our world. To the extent that he reigns within us, the life of society will be a setting for universal fraternity, justice, peace and dignity. Both Christian preaching and life, then, are meant to have an impact on society” (p. 142).


In a way reminiscent of much Islamic discourse today, Pope Francis contends that religion cannot be restricted to the private sphere or be exclusively about people’s welfare in the hereafter. Rather, “the task of evangelization implies and demands the integral promotion of each human being” (p. 144). He explains:


“Consequently, no one can demand that religion should be relegated to the inner sanctum of personal life, without influence on societal and national life, without concern for the soundness of civil institutions, without a right to offer an opinion on events affecting society … And authentic faith – which is never comfortable or completely personal – always involves a deep desire to change the world, to transmit values, to leave this earth somehow better that [sic] we found it. We love this magnificent planet on which God has put us, and we love the human family which dwells here, with all its tragedies and struggles, its hopes and aspirations, its strengths and weaknesses. The earth is our common home and all of us are brothers and sisters. If indeed ‘the just ordering of society and of the state is a central responsibility of politics’, the Church ‘cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice’” (Benedict XVI, p. 145).


The second concept that informs his view of evangelization is that of Christ’s incarnation. God who sent his Son as a human being in order to redeem the human race continues through his Holy Spirit this work of redemption both in the lives of individuals and in societies writ large. Each human being was created in God’s own image and “is the object of God’s infinite tenderness, and he himself is present in their lives” (p. 204). For this reason God cares too about the social, economic and political structures that bind people together. But it starts with treating our neighbor as if she were Christ himself:


“God’s word teaches us that our brothers and sisters are the prolongation of the incarnation for each of us: ‘As you did it to one of these, the least of my brethren, you did it to me’ (Mt. 25:40). The way we treat others has a transcendent dimension: ‘The measure you give will be the measure you get’” (Mat. 7:2).


God’s infinite care for every human being is what also animates his desire to see justice implemented on all levels of human society. Perhaps the word “solidarity” best captures this aspect of Catholic social teaching, and in particular the message that Pope Francis aims to communicate here.


Pope Francis and human solidarity

We already read this phrase above, “The earth is our common home and all of us are brothers and sisters. If indeed ‘the just ordering of society and of the state is a central responsibility of politics’, the Church ‘cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice.’” This theme must also be placed alongside another Catholic doctrine, the preferential option for the poor. Here is one helpful explanation of it:


“God’s heart has a special place for the poor, so much so that he himself “became poor” (2 Cor 8:9). The entire history of our redemption is marked by the presence of the poor. Salva­tion came to us from the ‘yes’ uttered by a lowly maiden from a small town on the fringes of a great empire. The Saviour was born in a manger, in the midst of animals, like children of poor families; he was presented at the Temple along with two turtledoves, the offering made by those who could not afford a lamb (cf. Lk 2:24; Lev 5:7); he was raised in a home of ordinary workers and worked with his own hands to earn his bread. When he began to preach the Kingdom, crowds of the dispossessed followed him, illustrating his words: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor” (Lk 4:18).


It is precisely at this juncture that you can begin to situate the pope’s thoughts on economic issues. This is where human solidarity comes into play:


“Solidarity is a spontaneous reaction by those who recognize that the social function of property and the universal destination of goods are realities which come before private property. The private ownership of goods is justified by the need to protect and increase them, so that they can better serve the common good; for this reason, solidarity must be lived as the decision to restore to the poor what belongs to them. These convictions and habits of solidarity, when they are put into practice, open the way to other structural transformations and make them possible. Changing structures without generating new convictions and attitudes will only ensure that those same structures will become, sooner or later, corrupt, oppressive and ineffectual” (pp. 149-50).


It is this divine call to solidarity that sparked this oft-quoted passage of the document:


“Just as the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say ‘thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? This is a case of exclusion. Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving? This is a case of inequality” (p. 45).


This passage too was often cited in the news – loving one’s neighbor means looking at changing unjust economic structures:


“In this context, some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting” (p. 46).


Francis is clear that he’s not interested in this or that political ideology. Unsurprisingly, an article in the Economist commented on this document under this title, "Left, Right, Left, Left." The truth is, he’s a lot harder to categorize than that.

My only concern in this blog is to point out his robust message of social justice based on the inalienable human dignity of each person by virtue of creation. At the very least, you can sense this kind of compassion fueling Nicholas Kristof’s recent column. What is more, following the example of Jesus will lead us to boldly stake our solidarity with the poorest of the poor:


“It is essential to draw near to new forms of poverty and vulnerability, in which we are called to recognize the suffering Christ, even if this appears to bring us no tangible and immediate benefits. I think of the homeless, the addicted, refugees, indigenous peoples, the elderly who are increasingly isolated and abandoned, and many others” (p. 164).


Reminiscing about my Catholic friends who truly lived in solidarity with the poor in Algeria only reinforces the challenge I feel from Pope Francis’ exhortation. How can I – how can we, no matter what our religious affiliation might be – do more “to leave this world somehow better than we found it”?

I understand your puzzlement in reading my title. Why would I link the illustrious (principal) author of the US Declaration of Independence and its third president with 38-year-old Indian Muslim immigrant Eboo Patel, founder of the Interfaith Youth Core?

The answer is that Jefferson consciously paved the way for Muslims to be citizens of the country he helped to found, just as much as Catholics and Jews – a very controversial idea at the time. And Eboo Patel, hand picked by President Barack Obama to join his inaugural Advisory Council on Faith-Based Neighborhood Partnerships, is a highly effective mobilizer of young people of all faiths for community service across the US. He may also be the most eloquent advocate for religious pluralism as a fundamental American value.

Before I turn to Jefferson, let me say that this blog grew out of the third public library discussion in the series “Muslim Journeys: American Stories” sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the American Library Association. I had posted a blog on the first book we discussed, explaining more about this series in September (“The First American Muslim Celebrity” ). This time it was Eboo Patel’s book, an autobiography and the story of the Interfaith Youth Core, Acts of Faith: The Struggle for the Soul of a Generation (Beacon Press, 2007).


About “Jefferson’s Qur’an”

It so happened that one of the books our library chose to display for this series of discussions was just published, Denise A. Spellberg’s Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an: Islam and the Founders. Spellberg, who teaches history and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, tells in an interview (in one of the largest pan-Arab newspapers, Al-Sharq al-Awsat, published in London) how she accidently ran into an advertisement for a play in Baltimore, Mohamet the Impostor in 1782. Intrigued by the fact that Islam seemed to be much more known and discussed in early America than she had previously thought, she also wondered whether there might not be other more favorable views about Muslims and Islam.

Two years later, she found evidence of that view, which, though limited, was being presented forcefully by some rather articulate and powerful people, including some politicians and lawyers in North Carolina. There were also founding fathers like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington.

A good eleven years before he wrote the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson, still in law school, purchased a 2-volume copy of the Qur’an – which resurfaced in public view, by the way, when Representative Keith Ellison swore allegiance in 2007 with his hand on this Qur’an. We know from future events that Jefferson most likely consulted this Qur’an several times in his life.

But the most likely reason for his purchase was his keen interest in the works of English philosopher of the previous century, John Locke, and a few other intellectuals of the time who believed that Muslims should, along with people of other faiths, enjoy civil rights in the Commonwealth. Here’s how Spellberg puts it in her Introduction (see this long excerpt):


Because of these European precedents, Muslims also became a part of American debates about religion and the limits of citizenship. As they set about creating a new government in the United States, the American Founders, Protestants all, frequently referred to the adherents of Islam as they contemplated the proper scope of religious freedom and individual rights among the nation’s present and potential inhabitants. The founding generation debated whether the United States should be exclusively Protestant or a religiously plural polity. And if the latter, whether political equality—the full rights of citizenship, including access to the highest office—should extend to non-Protestants. The mention, then, of Muslims as potential citizens of the United States forced the Protestant majority to imagine the parameters of their new society beyond toleration. It obliged them to interrogate the nature of religious freedom.”


Years after he drafted the Virginia Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom (1786) and later as president, after he had fought a war against the Muslim ruler of Tripoli, he stated that the bill intended to include Muslims. As ambassador in London (1786) and later as president, Jefferson negotiated with two Muslim ambassadors. On the second occasion, in Washington, DC, Jefferson delayed the state dinner from the afternoon to after sunset because of the Ramadan fast.

We know too that Jefferson made use of his knowledge of Islam in a letter he wrote to the two leaders of Tunis and Tripoli with whom he was at war at the time (for more on this, see my blog, "Barbary Pirates and a US Treaty"). In one of them he chose to close with a benediction, asking God to “preserve your life, and have you under the safeguard of his holy keeping.” This obvious reference to the God of monotheism, likely meant to tone down hostilities, is all the more interesting, given that Jefferson himself was more of a Unitarian and deist than a Christian.

The data Spellberg uncovers about Jefferson and his attitude to religious freedom and Muslims in particular – all of this sounds very familiar today. Jefferson was the first American president “to suffer the false charge of being a Muslim, an accusation considered the ultimate Protestant slur in the eighteenth century.” Barack Obama was the second.

It’s true that Muslims were brought into the debate about religious freedom almost as a theoretical foil, since Jefferson did not seem to know that thousands of American slaves were actually Muslims. It was more of a trope to offer full citizenship to Catholics and Jews. Still, unlike President John Adams, Jefferson did not see the checkered US relationship with the Barbary Muslim states as anything to do with religion. If anything, religion for him might be a tool for improving those relations.

My last point has to do with today’s conservative discourse making much about Islam being foreign to American history and values. Islam was vigorously debated during the founders’ generation. I quote again from Spellberg’s Introduction:


The cast of those who took part in the contest concerning the rights of Muslims, imagined and real, is not confined to famous political elites but includes Presbyterian and Baptist protestors against Virginia’s religious establishment; the Anglican lawyers James Iredell and Samuel Johnston in North Carolina, who argued for the rights of Muslims in their state’s constitutional ratifying convention; and John Leland, an evangelical Baptist preacher and ally of Jefferson and Madison in Virginia, who agitated in Connecticut and Massachusetts in support of Muslim equality, the Constitution, the First Amendment, and the end of established religion at the state level.”


Eboo Patel and American religious pluralism

Recall Spellberg’s quip: “The founding generation debated whether the United States should be exclusively Protestant or a religiously plural polity.” Eboo Patel exemplifies – admirably, and with great energy and charisma – this ideal of the United States as “a religiously plural society.”

His book, Acts of Faith, tells a compelling story of a young immigrant born in Mumbai, India, who grew up in the suburbs of Chicago trying hard, like every other teenager around him, to fit in. Drifting at first – he and his brother were “more focused on being goofballs than getting good grades” – his life changed when a middle school science teacher challenged him to earn his way into the Challenge science class. And he did! From then on Patel embarked on an academic path that eventually sent him to Oxford University on a Rhodes scholarship.

I’ll highlight only a few details of his life – I really do want you to read this book! – touching on two themes that impacted his life mission of stirring up interfaith youth activism.

The first is about how his successive girl friends mirrored and shaped his own religious journey. In high school it was Lisa, the bright Mormon girl with whom he would spend hours discussing highbrow literary works. Then they were off to college, Lisa to Brigham Young University and Patel to the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. Lisa, realizing that Eboo was not going to convert to Mormonism, wrote a farewell letter. Eboo, sobbing now, realizes that in fact he too had already moved on. College life was filling his lungs with fresh air, of which he wanted so much more!

That is where he meets the Jewish student Sarah. That relationship lasts much longer and generates many more shared experiences – even doing a summer road trip across the US. Sarah however, increasingly drawn to her Jewish roots, decides to do a year of study in Jerusalem, where Eboo comes for a visit. Perhaps it was inevitable, but in the end Sarah tells Eboo it’s best they part ways. Through many tears once again, Eboo tells her she’s lucky to have found a religious community to which she can wholeheartedly belong.

True, Patel’s family had raised him in the ways of Ismaili Shia Islam. Shia Muslims are only about 15% of all Muslims and maybe 10% of those (about 10 million) call themselves Ismailis, looking to the Harvard-educated and philanthropist extraordinaire Aga Khan as their spiritual leader (“Imam” in the Shia sense). As a boy Eboo’s mother taught him the special prayers that Ismailis recite once in the morning and twice in the evening. But both parents were highly successful professionals whose religion in practice was little more than being good people in society. If anything, it was his Indian grandmother who most influenced his faith, insisting from the start he marry an Ismaili (listen to his TED Talk about the female influences on his life).

Eboo Patel in college was still searching for spiritual meaning anywhere and everywhere. Even at Oxford, he fell in love with a beautiful Hindu woman. Still, he was beginning to yearn for his own path. The turning point happened when he and his Jewish friend Kevin, who until then was trying hard to be a Buddhist, meet the Dalai Lama in India, thanks to the intervention of a Chicago Catholic monk, Brother Wayne. By this time, the idea of an interfaith youth alliance for community service was beginning to take shape and the Dalai Lama embraced it immediately – especially the service aspect. But just as significantly, the Dalai Lama stressed how crucial it was, if such a project was to succeed, for them to be better grounded in their respective Jewish and Muslim identities. He urged them to hold on firmly to their own faith while saluting the best in the faith of others.

The second theme I wanted to highlight about Patel’s journey has to do with the word “service.” Perhaps even more influential than the women he loved along the way, were his own experiences in community service. His parents had involved him early on in the YMCA and Patel had immersed himself in soup kitchens and in tutoring disadvantaged children throughout high school.

Then in college he discovered the Catholic Workers houses, the movement Doris Day had launched. And even later when settling in a poor neighborhood of Chicago to teach in an alternative school for drop outs, he lived for many months at the St. Francis Catholic Worker House. A year later he was basking in the success of a weekly potluck dinner he had started and that was now drawing about a hundred young adults, all engaged in some form of community service. But most of them were very secular, and it dawned on him that the tradition of service to the less fortunate he learned from his parents as part and parcel of their Ismaili Muslim faith really did need a spiritual component.

It was thanks to a convergence of factors involving Brother Wayne and another mentor committed to interreligious dialog that Interfaith Youth Core was born. In a way, it was a happy marriage between the bohemian and generous spirit of the non-religious twenty-somethings who flocked to those potluck dinners and the growing interfaith movement that he and Kevin discovered through Brother Wayne – people sharing their religious faith with one another, but focused on common service.

Speaking of marriage, you’re probably wondering about Eboo Patel's love life. Soon after the launching of the IFYC, he finally listened to his friend Kevin’s advice and looked up this Indian-American civil rights attorney friend of his. And good thing he did. It was love at first sight! She too was from the Gujarat state of India, a Sunni Muslim who nonetheless came to appreciate (but not embrace) Eboo’s Ismaili faith. A few months before the wedding, Eboo had come full circle. His grandmother in Mumbai welcomed her grandson’s fiancée with open arms, greeting her in the Sunni way, “As-Salaamu alaykum!” Even in his own marriage, he would model pluralism.


Theological pluralism and civic religious pluralism

One of the most respected voices in promoting “a religiously plural society” in America today is Prof. Diana Eck who heads the Pluralism Project at Harvard University. Since 1991 Eck and her teams across the country have conducted research on how people of different faiths are coming together in America’s cities to make them better places. Think about it. This kind of advocacy is promoting a level of interfaith understanding of which Jefferson and his ilk could only dream. That is exciting. And many individuals and organizations are creatively and courageously moving the bar of interreligious dialog higher, despite all the hatred and bigotry that still captures much of the discourse in this country.

Eboo Patel’s intuition is unique among these voices. “Reach the youth in their teens and give them positive experiences of serving alongside teens of other faiths,” he urges. As IFYC has shown, these are life-changing experiences for them, which will only multiply as they grow older and train their own children.

There is one more aspect of Patel’s work I want to close with. In the beginning, he found it difficult trying to coax religious leaders to sent their youth to the IFYC. They were all reticent for the same reason: “our youth barely know their own faith tradition – won’t they get confused in sharing with kids of other traditions? Worse yet, won’t they be tempted to convert to other faiths?”

Patel developed the following points to explain the IFYC:


1. Young people are already immersed in their schools and neighborhoods in a religiously plural society. The challenge is: how can they maintain their own religious identity?

2. The IFYC is committed to strengthen those identities (helping them to become better Catholics, Buddhists, Muslims, etc.).

3. “The truth is, our religious traditions have competing theological truth claims, and we simply have to accept those” (p. 166). There is no use arguing, for instance, about what “salvation” is, or who is “saved.” Religions are definitely not the same.

4. The IFYC’s approach is “shared values – service learning.” Starting with the values different communities of faith hold in common, like friendship, loyalty, compassion, mercy, and hospitality, the leaders encourage kids to think about how their tradition teaches those values. And usually a story comes up.

5. To sum up, writes Patel, “the only route to collective survival really, is to identify what is common between religions but to create the space where each can articulate its distinct path to that place. I think of it as affirming particularity and achieving pluralism” (p. 167).


So in effect, there are two kinds of pluralisms. Theological pluralism is a theological view stating that differences between religions are only surface deep, but that in the end they all come out in the same place. Put differently, they are all different paths up to the same mountaintop.

Patel disagrees, as do I (and as does Stephen Prothero in the book I use in my Comparative Religion class, God is not One). Each religion answers different questions relative to the human condition. And when the questions are similar, the answers differ.

By contrast, civic religious pluralism is simply a formula that recognizes that in all the global cities of our day (and especially in the west), people of many faiths live side by side. In order to diffuse tensions and avoid potentially disastrous conflicts, these diverse communities must find ways to interact meaningfully and respectfully. They must be willing to listen and learn from one another, and commit to build on common values so as to work for the common good of all.

John Locke in 17th-century England and many of the 18th-century American founders already realized that civil rights – including freedom of conscience and religion – by definition must apply to all citizens, no matter what their religion. Class and race did not yet figure in their calculus, as their reliance on slavery sadly testified. Yet theirs was a conviction about human dignity that was to grow, widen and mature beyond the stain of colonialism and the barbarity of two World Wars. In fact, are still trying to work out the implications of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948).

Eboo Patel stands firmly in this legacy, strategically choosing to focus on the younger generation of Americans. Religious pluralism is indeed an “American” value – a profoundly civic virtue. It is also our best hope for a more peaceful and just world for all its peoples. Though we may define “God” in different ways, we are all called to be his trustees on the planet we share. May we all live up to this sacred trust, starting with the most vulnerable in our own neighborhoods.


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