As an American, it was with pride and shame that I watched the CNN interview with Imam Rauf and the subsequent discussion last week.
Pride, that Imam Rauf, along with Christian and Jewish leaders, were working to build harmony among the world religions represented in this world microcosm in which we live, the United States of America. In a world where freedom and tolerance evade so many, we Americans enjoy them, whether we notice it or not.
Shame, that the interviewer so accurately represented much of America when she ignored the Imam’s sage and reasonable responses and showed that she was more interested in advancing her own views than engaging her guest to better understand his.
Imam Rauf was asked the same question at least three times in that interview (“why can’t you move the Islamic center”)? Although he answered clearly the first time, the interviewer badgered him with the same question at least two more times. Nevertheless, Imam Rauf patiently answered her, as one answers a young child.
Rauf continually dodged the notion that he is an outsider with respect to Americans, legitimately identifying himself by his responses as an American who is also a Muslim. When asked what he would say to the Florida pastor who planned to burn korans, he answered as an American, not as a Muslim. He made no mention of the gross offense and un-Christian nature of that act, but rather pleaded for the safety of American soldiers and expatriates. His deep concern was clear, and he behaved in a way far more Christian than his nominally Christian counterpart. Even with so much contempt directed at his religion by this pastor, and at him by this country, he transcended his own personal and religious sphere and responded on the national level. This is the sign of a great thinker and a skilled negotiator.
Nothing the Imam said indicated that he identified with extremists. Everything he said indicated that he was a moderate. Patiently and frequently he tried to establish that it was incorrect to label him as an outsider; and yet, for a Muslim in America that is such a monumental effort. Why is it so hard for Americans to believe that a Muslim can be a countryman, and even a patriot? And why do we make it so difficult for them to be so? While most patriots are praised and applauded by their people, Muslim patriots are apparently greeted with scorn and suspicion. How can we expect our Muslim fellow citizens to feel American, when we continually insist on marginalizing them? Many Americans have complained that there aren’t enough moderate Muslim leaders speaking out, but how are we treating those who do?
Have we already forgotten the putrid shame of racism against African Americans that we have only recently removed from our laws, but which still lingers in many hearts (an example is Michael Richards, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Richards#Laugh_Factory_incident)? Do we not see the parallels? Will it take a few hundred years again this time? It is profoundly disappointing to hear some Americans use terms that denigrate all Arabs or all Muslims, based on hatred of the few violent ones, oblivious to the vast majority who, like the vast majority of all ethnic groups in America, just want to live a life of peace, comfort, and happiness. This bigotry defies the message of all the major religions, is contrary to basic values of human decency, and from a pragmatic point of view is counterproductive, alienating those whom we want as our allies.
We also need to recognize that a prominent Muslim who stands up for peace and brotherhood is risking his life. This is a danger that mainstream America has never experienced, and cannot easily comprehend. We should respect his courage. It does no service to peace to ask him to denounce Hamas. We can already infer from his behavior and his words what he believes about them. His role as a peacemaker is to win hearts and minds, even of members of Hamas. There may be Hamas members who would consider embracing peace if it were presented in a balanced and reasoned way, by someone who understands and acknowledges their legitimate grievances. Asking Imam Rauf to condemn Hamas is like asking a marriage counselor to say to one of the spouses “I know you’re the one who’s 100% wrong” before beginning the counseling session. The “wrong” one will close up defensively, and be even more stubborn than before. Imam Rauf tried to explain this (though in less detail), but the interviewer, as many others, was apparently not as interested in bridge building as in fanning controversy and conflict.
As Imam Rauf said, the real war is not between Christianity and Islam — it’s between extremists and moderates. How true, yet how missed, this simple fact is — to extremists, religions are to be hijacked and used as facades to mask arrogance, cruelty and barbarism, presenting instead the illusion of righteousness. Moderates, in contrast, seek to live in peace with their fellow man, regardless of belief or ethnicity. Moderate Jews are more similar to moderate Muslims and Christians than to the Baruch Goldsteins of the world (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baruch_Goldstein). Moderate Muslims are more similar to moderate Jews and Christians than to Osama bin Laden.
Extremists are really very much alike. They are arrogant criminals first, and believers second — they try to use causes as magic potions that rationalize their depravity, transforming it into honor — except that, as with all magic, it is an illusion, and at the end of the day, they are still violent psychopaths caring little for the humanity they purport to represent.
Unfortunately, religions are often responsible for this. Although they generally encourage introspection, humility, and repentance on the individual level, they usually conveniently exempt themselves as a group from the need for these noble traits. Quite to the contrary, they claim divine justification and infallibility — and who can interview God to verify or disprove those claims?
In this sense, it is the very nature of orthodox religion, as it is commonly practiced, that is a major cause of the current world conflict. Stubborn insensitivity masquerades as piety. The certainty of faith exempts the believer from the need to listen to and understand others; yet without listening and understanding it is impossible to resolve conflict. The result is that rather than seeking harmony, they resort to force, seeking to subjugate or destroy their perceived enemies. Rather than indicating strength, this reveals mental frailty; it is psychologically the easy way out. It is easier to blame than to introspect. It is easier to destroy than to build. Although there are legitimate uses of force, religious bullying is not one of them.
As Americans, we justifiably condemn those who rejoiced in the killing of the three thousand people in the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks. Yet I am ashamed to say that I have heard a handful of Americans rejoice in the killing of Arabs or Afghans, purely due to their ethnicity. Some have even suggested destroying whole populations. We are right to condemn those who say that all Americans, or all Jews, are evil and should be killed — but if we say that ourselves about others, then we are no better, and we betray the highest ideals that unite us as Americans.
I know very little about Imam Rauf. My sense is that he is a righteous and compassionate man whose international roots make him uniquely qualified to build peace and harmony under the right conditions. I could be wrong, but I doubt it. In any case, let’s base our judgments on objective evidence rather than jingoist emotion. The stakes are high. This could be a great opportunity. Let’s show the world that when we speak about America as a beacon of freedom and brotherhood, we really mean it.