Saturday, September 27, 2014

The Tragedy of Mohammed

Having grown up in the Midwest and the South, I was raised with almost no exposure to or knowledge of Islam. In 2000, my husband and I moved to an apartment complex and were neighbors with a Muslim family. They had a son who was about 12, and he was a nice kid. At any rate, it occurred to us that we knew almost nothing about the religion, and one of the things he and I have in common is an unwillingness to suffer ignorance. So we bought a Koran and read it.

Personally, I believe that no one should be allowed to have an opinion about any religion without reading that religion's holy books. After September 11th, 2001, I heard so many descriptions of Islam and the Koran that were so out of line with anything I had remembered reading, that I went back and read the Koran a second time.

It's an easy read. Like the New Testament, it relies heavily on a basic understanding of the Torah.

I came to the conclusion that there was nothing inherently wrong with Islam, but like any religion, the powers-that-be manipulated the faith for the purpose of manipulating the faithful. For my Midwestern and Southern friends and family, I likened it to what the KKK does with Christianity.

As for the longstanding strife between Islam and Christianity/Judaism, I firmly believe that this is the exact opposite of what Mohammed himself had intended.

For anyone who is not aware of the fundamental conflict between Israel and Islam, it mostly boils down to the fact that the Muslims have built a holy shrine, The Dome of the Rock, on top the Temple Mount (the site of the 2nd Jewish Temple which had been destroyed by Rome). Of course, there is a lot of strife over the surrounding real estate, the Temple Mount is the symbolic incarnation of everything that Christians, Muslims, and Jews have been fighting over in that region.

I had always believed that the historical claim of the Muslims to the Temple Mount was bogus, but that is an opinion that discounts the very real credibility of the metaphorical. Basically, in the Koran and the Hadith, Mohammed visits the "Far Away Holy Masque," in a dream. Based on this, Muslims today claim that this was a miraculous metaphysical journey, and that Mohammed actually visited the site; hence it is now a Muslim holy site.

It should also be noted that the Christians have a basilica in the same area based on the belief that Jesus's tomb is there.

Quick recap before we move on: the First Jewish Temple was built about a thousand years before Jesus ascended into heaven in the same vicinity, and it was about 600 years after Jesus's birth that, in a dream called The Night Journey, Mohammed visits a mosque on the same site and ascends into heaven himself.

But why does all of this happen in the same place over a span of thousands of years?

Jesus was at the Temple because he was a Jew, but why was Mohammed there in The Night Journey?

Through the lens of modern cultural conflicts, it would seem that the Muslims and the Jews have always been enemies, but the original coalition that Mohammed built in Medina included Jewish tribes and pagan Arab tribes. It was this tribalism that Mohammed sought to change. His monotheism was new to the Arab culture, but it was firmly rooted in Judaism and Christianity. So he sought to validate his beliefs by appealing to his monotheistic predecessors and preaching affirmations of Jewish prophets, naming Jesus among them.

The Night Journey tells the tale of Mohammed being transported to Jerusalem, to the Far Away Holy Mosque where he meets the prophets of the past, leads them in prayer, and ascends into Heaven and meets God. I believe it is clear that Mohammed's Night Journey was intended to validate his monotheistic religion, and his ultimate goal was to unite all of the Earth's people in the worship of the one true God.

So let's explore this point-by-point.

First, that it was a mosque which Mohammed visited in Jerusalem. Although it is difficult to accept when looking at examples in modern-day Islam, the mosque was originally intended to be a center for learning that was open to all people of all faiths, not a place a rigid theological indoctrination that excluded people of other faiths from entering. So, Mohammed's vision of a mosque at this site was not a metaphor for supplanting Judaism, but for communing with it.

Second, the fact that he leads the other prophets in prayer. While that image may seem repugnant, that Mohammed is seen as somehow above the other prophets, I think that the scene can also be interpreted in the context of Mohammed unifying his theology with the theologies that came before.

Lastly, that Mohammed meets God. Again, I don't think that this was meant to impart the idea that Mohammed is above the other prophets, but that he is their successor. After all, the other prophets had already spoken to God. This is simply validation that Islam is cut from the same cloth.

This is a difficult point to argue today because the animosity between Judaism and Islam is so entrenched, that it seems as old as the religions themselves.

Actually, nothing could be further from the truth. Muslims and Jews coexisted pretty well, with their common enemy throughout the Middle Ages being the Christians. Furthermore, as Roman-dominated Christianity descended into the Dark Ages after the fall of the Roman Empire, the Islamic Ottoman Empire allowed science, medicine, literacy and even Judaism to flourish while those very things withered and all but died in Western Europe. And it wasn't until later military conquests against the Ottomans that Europe "rediscovered" all of that long-lost luminescent knowledge that would lead their civilization to carry the torch of math and science into a very bright future.

The tragedy of Mohammed is that the very fractured tribalism he wanted to eradicate persists to this day, often in the name of the prophet himself.

Still, I think that the oneness of the global marketplace is something that the prophet himself would likely marvel to see, knowing that it was Islam that kept the light of knowledge alive as the rest of the world dimmed for a moment.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Dear Gerald Lavey,

I haven't written many posts here since you died. Partly because I know that I can no longer look forward to your input, your inspiration, your kind words, and your thoughtful insights.

But mostly it's because when I read through my old posts and see your comments, I'm just sad that you're gone, and I don't feel like writing a new post.

I'm still working on that article that you so kindly helped me with. I want to get it published, in part because your name is in it, and I want to honor you for the wonderful person you are.

At first it seems odd that I never actually met you in "real life," but I think that fact is testament to modern communication technology. I know that there have been many correspondents over the centuries who have exchanged intellectual ideas and grown close by the written word alone, but today, almost everyone has the opportunity to get to know so many people all over the world who we would never meet in the "real" world. And more importantly, people as wonderful as you have the opportunity to personally touch the lives of people who would otherwise never have the blessing of a person like you in their lives.

I wish I could have known you longer, but I know I have to just be thankful that I knew you for the short time I did. I've made a lot of dramatic changes in my life recently, and I'm ready to take all of your precious advice to heart and be the writer I know I can be.

I have always said that I never met a Jesuit I didn't like, and you of course were no exception. Jerry, I am so happy that you got to see a Jesuit Pope, and the real hope for the world that Pope Francis embodies.

I am hoping with this letter I can get back to that part of myself that you breathed new life into before you departed. I want to believe in myself as much as you believed in me.

Thank you for everything Jerry. I love you and I miss you.

Love Always,


Monday, July 21, 2014

On Israel and Palestine

The survival of the Jewish State is vital to the survival of the Jewish people.

The state of Israel may not survive unless there is a permanent solution to the problem of Gaza and the Palestinians.

It is fair to say, "what would you expect us to do when they are raining rockets down on our cities and hiding in mosques and hospitals?"

But the overwhelming disparies between military might and the number of casualties on both sides speak volumes to the rest of the world.

It's like when neighbors see that your child has been beaten black and blue, and you say, "what would you expect me to do when he's running around my house breaking things because he's angry?"

The question that Israelis really need to be asking is, "what would WE do if 1.8 million Jews were walled off on a 130 square mile strip of land for decades?"

What would any group of people do with the building supplies that were so graciously allowed into the refugee camps?

The US military is funding this violence instead of funding a two-state solution (and making such a solution contingent upon future financial aid).

Why is the US doing this, when it's only hurting Israel's chances of survival in the long run? Of course, much of the support from American Christians is simply an effort to bring about the apocalypse and has NOTHING to do with any sincere love for the Jews.

Here is the one truth of which I am certain: people are people the world over, and the way people respond to their circumstances is consistent and predictable regardless of race, color or creed.

Only Israel has the power to change the circumstances that the Palestinians are reacting to, and longer Israel fails to do that, the more bitter both sides become.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Cowboys and Indians and Cops and Robbers

Our rabbi said something that struck a chord with me a little while ago, and I've been mulling it over.

He said that the problem with liberals is that they don't believe in evil.

He was speaking, if I remember correctly, in reference to the recent opening of communication between the United States and Iran, but I will focus on the general question of evil for right now.

Certainly, there are evil individuals; psychopaths and pedophiles who prey on innocent children. And I think there is certainly a difference between a legitimately insane individual and one who knows right from wrong and doesn't care.

Also, I would say that there are evil philosophies and regimes; the Nazi's being the best recent example, and I would argue that a lot of very evil individuals rose through the ranks very quickly until the whole system was top-heavy with psychopathy.

But to write off the Nazi chapter in human history as "those evil people" is a cop-out for the rest of humanity.

What about all the Nazis who were not psychopaths? The sheep, the onlookers, the bystanders, the ones who were "just following orders." These people made the psychopaths' world a reality; without the willing masses, the Third Reich could never have happened. And those people, all those people, were no different from you or me.

And the most important thing we have to remember is that, psychopaths aside, the Nazi's thought they were the good guys. In their reality, the people who opposed them were "evil" and needed to be destroyed so that they, the good guys, could survive.

Proof that the Holocaust could have happened anywhere under the right circumstances is the Milgram experiments. (Frankly, it's a shame that Milgram's experiments aren't part of standard middle school curriculum, because this bit of psychology needs to be common knowledge.)

In 1963, Stanley Milgram, a Yale University psychiatrist, designed an experiment to test how far individuals could be pushed to act against their own moral conscience under the direction of perceived authority figures. The test consisted of three participants: a scientist who was conducting the experiment (the authority figure), a volunteer who was designated the "teacher," and a "student," whom the "teacher" thought was another volunteer but was actually faking the role of "student." The volunteers thought they were participating in an experiment about memory and learning. When the student answered a question incorrectly, the teacher was instructed to push a button that would shock the student, with subsequent wrong answers requiring higher voltage shocks, the highest being 450 volts. With each successive shock, the students reacted as if they were in more and more pain, at some points pleading not to be shocked, screaming, or becoming unresponsive.

When the teacher hesitated or objected, the scientist would urge him or her to continue with four pre-scripted phrases in order:

  1. Please continue.
  2. The experiment requires that you continue.
  3. It is absolutely essential that you continue.
  4. You have no other choice, you must go on.
The experiment ended after the teacher still refused to shock the student after the fourth prompt, or pushed the maximum 450 volt button three times.

It's important to note the teachers in this experiment were so stressed by the circumstances, that many have argued that the experiment was emotionally abusive and should never have been performed. The teachers sweated, stuttered, trembled, and dug their fingernails into their own skin.

The shocking results, which have remained consistent throughout several variations of the test administered around the globe: 65% of participants continued to the bitter end, pressing the maximum voltage button three times.


Because a perceived authority figure told them to.

Because they perceived the men in white lab coats to be "the good guys."

Because they reasoned that the authority figure was the person responsible for the pushing of the button; therefore they themselves were not responsible.

What's so important about this experiment is that the volunteers acted in a way that they knew in their gut was wrong, not because they were evil, but because they were human beings.

You see, while it's true that the Nazi regime could never have existed without the compliance of the masses; neither could Judaism, or Israel, or the Renaissance, or the United States of America. 

If every individual was a visionary leader, their visions would be for naught without large groups of people doing the work to turn vision into reality.

My argument is that it is factually inaccurate to write off an entire people (country or religion) as evil; and because the people themselves are not evil, it is morally wrong to maim or kill them if a viable alternative is possible. Moreover, if we allow ourselves to be persuaded that an entire group of people is evil and must be destroyed, then we are just as guilty of being mindless sheep as they are, and can no longer refer to ourselves as "the good guys." After all, while it is in our nature to follow authority, we do have a moral compass and we are responsible for our own actions.

I don't claim to know where the lines should be drawn when dealing with countries like Iran or Syria, or the Palestinians. I'm only saying that we must recognize that the people with whom we are fighting are exactly like us, even when they do not.