Monday, January 3, 2011

Ending the Cult of Condemnation

One of the most profound human interactions is the offering and accepting of apologies. Apologies have the power to heal humiliations and grudges, remove the desire for vengeance, and generate forgiveness on the part of the offended parties. For the offender, they can diminish the fear of retaliation and relieve the guilt and shame that can grip the mind with a persistence and tenacity that are hard to ignore. The result of the apology process, ideally, is the reconciliation and restoration of broken relationships.
- Aaron Lazarre On Apology, p.1

I like apologies and the expressing of condolence. There is something beautiful and peace-making about expressing pain when others are harmed and taking responsibility when I am guilty. I can apologize not just for myself. As a Jew, I believe that all Jews are mystically intertwined and I can’t and shouldn’t distance myself from responsibility for the action of fellow Jews. I can apologize for them too.

For the modern Believer it is not the condolence or the apology which is called for but the “condemnation.” One is called on on again and again to condemn the beliefs and behavior of co-religionists. In the aftermath of the tragic attack on a Coptic Church in Egypt, Muslim leaders have rushed to condemn the action. I imagine that for public-minded leaders in the Muslim community this has become a major part of their job.
On a decidedly smaller scale and in relation to different issues, Jews and Christians face the same need to condemn the behavior of others.

Here are two examples so we don’t feel left out.

I find the condemnations sterile and formulaic. Even worse, I find them totally ineffective. With all the condemnations by all the religious leaders, things are a still a mess. Condemnations do not change behavior.

When dealing with the largely legal traditions of Islam and Judaism, it seems to me that the reason for that failure is clear.

My thinking on this has been shaped by an interview I heard with Tariq Ramadan a well- known Swiss intellectual, philosopher and Professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies in the Faculty of Orienal Studies at Oxford University.

French Prime Minister Sarkozy accused Ramadan of defending the stoning of adulterers. When asked about the practice Ramadan said that he favored “a moratorium” on such practices but he refused to condemn the law outright. Many were outraged. Here is how Ramadan explains his position.

“Personally,” he said, “I’m against capital punishment, not only in Muslim countries, but also in the U.S. But when you want to be heard in Muslim countries, when you are addressing religious issues, you can’t just say it has to stop. I think it has to stop. But you have to discuss it within the religious context. There are texts involved. I am not just talking to Muslims in Europe, but addressing the implementation of huddud [this punishment] everywhere, in Indonesia, Pakistan and the Middle East. And I’m speaking from the inside to Muslims. Speaking as an outsider would be counterproductive..”

His point, I believe is a powerful one. No believing Muslim or Halachic Jew cares what I think. My personal condemnation based on my personal views and scruples is simply not of interest. In the post-enlightenment West where individualism rules supreme perhaps the condemnation of an individual has some teeth, but for religious folks ruled by text and interpretation of text, they mean little. The words of someone outside the tradition are simply in the wrong language. For those of us outside, before entering the discussion we need to learn the language.
Even from inside the tradition, the critique needs to come from an accurate and educated exposition of text. The morality of an act is not determined by personal opinion but by a normative tradition of textual interpretation. Both for religious Jews and for religious Muslims, morality is determined by law. Of course, there are larger broad values, protection of human life, kindness, peace, fairness, concern for property, but those are acted upon through law. Legal decision can work where condemnation fails.
It is through appeals to a real grounded morality with centuries of tradition behind it that real change be made.
Clearly however the traditional formats of communicating these decisions may not work. The legal pronunciation (fatwa for Muslims, psak or teshuvah for Jews) in its traditional form was made for a different kind of world. It was made for small, localized communities of believers. To use the American idiom it was all about “preaching to the choir.” The powers of persuasion were left to sermonizers whose job was to stir the heart and not necessarily the mind. In these tight insular communities this works pretty well. Scholars make decisions, post them on walls and the masses comply. Competing opinions are posted on other walls, there is a scuffle here and there, pamphlets are published and codified into books and somehow it all works out in the end. In the Global Village, this is not going to work. Scholars need to use new media and new forms of mass communication that convey the beauty of their message while speaking to people in the information saturated grit in which they may they now live. Sermonizing without education almost invariably leads to bad behavior. Morally, religiously uneducated masses are dangerous. Morally educated masses could be world transforming.
There are those who have begun to do this. They are creating the alternative to the condemnation.

The following is a piece by Imam Zaid Shakir, co founder of Zaytuna College in Northern California. I present it as a model of how to address a pressing topic without simply issuing a “condemnation.” I applaud Iman Zaid for his creativity, his pragmatic earthiness and his commitment to the sound principles of his religion.

I sincerely hope his estimation of the IDF is wrong.

[a whispered note to my fellow non-Muslims…
It may seem to you that all of a sudden there are these “moderate” good Muslims out there and I am performing some slight-of-hand by quoting them while ignoring “radical” opinions. I do not believe there is anything “moderate” about the message beyond the moderation that may be part of Islam itself. That moderation is in my estimation completely authentic and grounded in a normative textual tradition. The existence of less grounded understandings with loud and violent adherents doesn’t change that. What you hear in scholars like Imam Zaid is a fresh and authentic voice from which we can learn.]

Letter to a Would-be Mujahid
14 December 2010

Recent developments have forced me to put some things on hold to write you this letter. You might ask how I know you. I have met you at student events, in mosques, and at conferences. I have listened to your arguments and I have made my counter arguments. Oftentimes, my arguments have been somewhat formal. I figured I would write you a letter, since that is a lot more personal and less formal. Perhaps this way you will be more inclined to listen.

To begin with, whenever you are criticized for your bloody, anarchistic ideology, you point to the bloody abuses of the American war machine or their Zionist accomplices. This diversionary tactic on your part does not impress serious and thoughtful people. It is simply an abdication of your moral responsibility. It is as if you are saying you reserve the right to violate established Islamic principles, such as those guaranteeing the protection of innocent life, because the American military or the IDF do no respect innocent Muslim life. That would be a credible argument if the American military or the IDF claimed to be operating on the basis of Islamic principles. They don’t, but you do. I hope, without further elaboration, you can immediately sense the moral dilemma you are creating for yourself.

Along those lines, please allow me to remind you of something else. Your misguided attempts to kill and maim innocent Americans only make it easier for the American military to kill more Muslims with greater impunity. Your actions help to create a political climate that removes any moral restraint from the actions of the American military, the IDF and soon the forces of India’s increasingly Hindu nationalist armed forces. You see, fear is a very potent emotion and when it is carefully manipulated it can lead to very irrational politics. That most extreme form of those politics is called genocide.

Fear can be especially dangerous when it is combined with another emotion, insecurity. You are so divorced from reality that you probably haven’t noticed that a lot of Americans are extremely insecure right now. Especially, the white middle class or what is left of it. They don’t know if they will soon lose their homes, if they will have a job tomorrow, if their money will be in the bank next week, if they will be able to send their children to college or if their retirement funds will be stolen or totally devalued. Those insecurities combined with the spectre of the “Muslim terrorist next door” are a lethal combination that a group of people called demagogues is exploiting to justify an all out war on Muslims.

Those demagogues use the fear of you to prevent people from building the kind of grassroots, popular, movements that are necessary to challenge the corporate rape of our society and from challenging the destructive logic of permanent war. For example, remember the growing movement to challenge the new invasive TSA screening procedures at airports? Did you notice how it disappeared after the would-be mujahid in Portland allowed himself to be trapped into the scheme to blow up the Christmas tree ceremony? Do you think the timing was accidental? It is a shame that you and your ilk are so mindlessly complicit in such schemes.

Now you think the mujahideen can win an all out war against the Americans. Look at what the mujahideen are doing to them in Afghanistan. Sorry, but Afghanistan is not what all out war looks like. I’ll give you a clue what all out war looks like. Remember a couple years ago when the Israelis were bombarding the Gaza Strip and the Palestinian Muslims, for all of their courage, couldn’t do anything except appeal to outside powers to stop the carnage? Or a few years before that when Jenin was flattened? Think of the scale of that devastation expanded to encompass all of the major cities of the Muslim world. Imagine America unleashing a new generation of “tactical” nuclear weapons being designed to be used specifically against Muslims targets raining down on Muslim capitals and there is no Muslim strategic deterrent available to stop it. AK-47s and RPGs will be of no avail. Imagine the calls to human rights organizations to stop the slaughter finding no ears to hear them because the neo-fascist forces your stupidity has helped to unleash have swept those organizations away in its maddening torrent.

I have heard you counter that such an argument is a manifestation of a lack of faith. God has promised the believers victory. Indeed, He has. However, it is very pretentious of you to assume that someone who murders women, children and innocents with blazon impunity in the Name of God are the believers that victory has been promised to. He has promised the believers victory, but that promise is not unconditional. God is not going to give victory to people who murder in His Holy Name.

I applaud your courage, but how it manifests itself puzzles me. You have the courage to fly halfway around to world to engage in an armed struggle, but you do not have the courage to knock on your neighbor’s door to explain Islam to him or to give him your take on world affairs. I am also baffled at how you can smile in his face, but are ready to blow him up if he happens to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. What calculus do you use to assume he would not be amenable to your message? What has he done to you to be the target of your bloodlust?

You claim a refined understanding of Islam, so refined that you can make grave decisions concerning life and death, decisions with huge strategic implications –yet you seem to perceive nothing of the divine wisdom of your being in this country. You have an opportunity to be an educator at a time people are looking for a new way. You have an opportunity to be a guide at a time people are looking for a new direction. You have an opportunity to provide a source of spiritual solace at a time people are confused, angry and afraid. You have an opportunity to be a fierce advocate for truth at a time when lies are transforming the image of your religion and the direction of your country. You have the skills, the command of the language, the knowledge of the people to do all of that and more, but you choose to run away from this battle to join one you do not even know who the commander is.

Did I say that? “To join a battle you do not even know who the commander is.” No! I didn’t say that. Do you think that if the FBI can send fake mujahids into mosques all around America to find confused, vulnerable Muslims, develop fake bomb plots, with fake bombs, for very real political objectives, the CIA couldn’t do the same thing abroad? No, wait a minute. Didn’t the CIA build the Afghan mujahideen network? Didn’t what’s his name, Zbigniew Brzezinski, describe the Afghan operation as the CIA’s finest hour?

They would never use fake mujahids, operating through fake websites, to recruit confused and desperate Muslim youth to engage in operations that keep the climate of fear alive, would they? They wouldn’t do that to keep support for bloodsucking, treasury-draining wars alive at a time when there is no money for the poor, the elderly, health-care, education, infrastructure or investment in the green economy. No! It’s preposterous. Those would be psychological operations (psych ops) and that would be cheating. America never cheats, we’re the good guys!

I apologize, I’m tripping. On a serious note, I hope you don’t one day end up feeling as stupid and abused as young Antonio Martinez or Mahomed Osman Mohamud, the Somali kid in Oregon, are probably feeling right now. They have been tricked, deceived, used, and abused by fake mujahids and then thrown in a dungeon to rot for the rest of their lives. Do you think your fate will be any different? Don’t be a fool.


Imam Zaid Shakir

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