Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Call for Reformation of Islam and Secularism

I originally wrote the article below about a year ago, but believe it is still applicable to Europe's and our own situation today. I was struck by a recent column by Phyllis Chessler, in which she noted until women's sstatus int he Muslim world changed, things will remain untenable. She added Islam itself is in desperate need of reform. As you will see below, I agree.

On the Assimilation of Muslims within France: A Call for the Reform of Secularism and Islam --France and Europe are faced with more than a political problem. They are faced with a theological and philosophical divide which calls for a fresh approach.

Though the mills of God grind slowly, yet they grind exceeding small; Though with patience He stands waiting, with exactness grinds He all. –Friedrich Freiherr von Logau

Every July 14th, the French celebrate Bastille Day, the Fete Nationale. The heritage of violence celebrated by the storming of the Bastille seems a matter of history as entirely peaceful celebrations such as fireworks, picnics and speeches mark the occasion. The radical philosophical impeti characterized by the wild speeches of Robespierre, Marat and Danton, whose barn burning ideas fed the fires of the Revolution of 1789 and beyond, have softened over the past two centuries since they lived and died. What is left of the Great Revolution after 220 years of adamant and nearly unwavering adherence to the Enlightenment and the ideals of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity is an inert bureaucracy and entrenched secularization.

The progression of the Revolution from fire, blood and chaos to the ennui, enervation and fatigue characterized by bureaucratization now seems to irrevocably separate present day France from the results of the cataclysm of 1789. But that is because many, if not most of the revolutionists’ goals, such as the virtual decapitation of Christianity, have largely been achieved. Now there isn’t much faith left to exterminate, for institutionalized secularism acts as a dead hand on any expression of faith. The secular State reigns supreme.

But in a supreme irony, France, indeed all of Europe, now faces another great revolution. However, this time the revolution– mirabile dictu – has deep religious roots. The new revolution; namely, that of radical Islamist fundamentalism, is guillotine-edged in its severity. Like the heroes of the French Revolution, its radical leaders also are prepared to shed blood and to cut European civilization down in order to build a supposedly purer society in its place.

The tamed heirs of the French Revolution, many of whom are as oblivious to and passive toward the turmoil in their midst as the aristocracy of the eighteenth century, look on with incomprehension at what is the Janus face of their own inheritance. Some don’t recognize the repetition of their own past in the shouts of radical Islamists for heads to roll, institutions to be destroyed and all of European society to be made over from the foundations up. After all, who in present day secularist France other than cafĂ© philosophers would advocate a repetition of the extreme violence characteristic of the founders of the French Revolution? Only armchair philosophers peacefully and securely ensconced in academia dare to openly advocate violence as a solution to the societal ills of any given nation. For devotees of radical chic, violence has been a philosophical parlor game, the consequences of which they view from a distance. They are not used to the in-your-face violence of present day Islamists in their midst.

After the passing of centuries, it is relatively easy to gloss over the results of the rhetoric of Robespierre, the Incorruptible. The words of “Saint” Marat, made a holy martyr of the Revolution by David, the first purveyor of propagandistic art, no doubt seem antique relics of the past to be re-hashed and re-worded into obfuscatory, dense prose only understood by fellow intellectuals and earnest student of history. But anyone even cursorily familiar with the radical advocates of the Revolution of 1789 will not only recall the violent speeches and writing of Marat, Robespierre and Danton, but will also recognize their eery similarity to present day Islamist rhetoric.

Jean Paul Marat’s proclamations, only slightly revised, could well be said today by any given Islamist imam: “Five or six hundred heads cut off would have assured your repose, freedom and happiness...A false humanity has held your arms and suspended your blows; because of this, millions of your brothers will lose their lives...To ensure public tranquility, two hundred and seventy thousand heads more should fall...Man has the right to deal with his oppressors by devouring their palpitating hearts.”

Likewise the statements of Robespierre, only slightly changed, could be preached from any mosque run by Islamist radicals: “Pity is treason...Terror is only justice: prompt, severe and inflexible; it is then an emanation of virtue...The king must die so that the country can live..To punish the oppressors of humanity is clemency; to forgive them is cruelty.”

Examples of rhetoric similar to Islamists abound, as do calls to actions not dissimilar from those of the advocates of the Revolution. Those who call for the beheading of infidels don’t sound very much different from those who struck down the guards of the Bastille. A Paris newspaper article related the gory triumphs of Bastille Day: “On arriving at the square, the people, anxious to avenge themselves, allowed neither De Launey nor the other officers to reach the place of trial; they seized them from the hands of their conquerors, and trampled them underfoot one after the other. De Launey was struck by a thousand blows, his head was cut off and hoisted on the end of a pike with blood streaming down all sides. . . . This glorious day must amaze our enemies, and finally usher in for us the triumph of justice and liberty. In the evening, there were celebrations.”

So what are the heirs of 1789 to say to jihadist Islamists who have belief in the efficacy of violence so similar to the anti-religious heroes of 1789? How are they to handle religious revolutionaries in their midst? Having torn down France’s Christian heritage with their own hands, are they now in any position to look askance at extremist Muslim fundamentalists who are determined to demolish the remains of French civilization in the name of Allah? What can those who celebrate each year the storming of the Bastille say to present day radicals who advocate the sort of behavior characteristic of that day?

Well, that was then and this is now, some may say.

Not quite. While most do not openly advocate the violence of the Revolution, one cannot forget the violent ideals of the French Revolution were and still are exported around the globe. It is well known that the Bolshevik revolution, including its class warfare terminology, was an almost exact duplication of the French Revolution. As recently as the Cambodian Revolution, the mass murderer Pol Pot put into practice the ideas bruited about in the salon of Jean Paul Sartre, who himself was an apologist for mass murder and enslavement--all for the ultimate good of society.

The truth is that the philosophical underpinnings of the French Revolution and of the heirs of that cataclysm offer nothing in the way of philosophical/theological confrontation of present day Islamists, as their rhetoric and goals were and are similar. In fact, some radical secularists find themselves sympathetic to Islamists and even are in the weird position of not so secretly covering for radical Islamists’ violence. Thus we see, for instance, rioting young Islamists re-labeled “youths,” the implication being that there are all sorts of French young men creating havoc, not just fundamentalist Islamists.

Indeed, the fascination with and covert approval of violence often leaves radical secularists crippled. Many employ an accommodative attitude toward Islamists who are seeking to destroy them. One is irresistibly reminded of the infamous fund raiser for the Black Panthers sponsored by the late Leonard Bernstein, who brought together the elite of New York culture to help the radical Black Panthers achieve their goals of destroying Bernstein’s cultural and societal milieu.

Tom Wolfe, an observer of the contradictory scene commented:

"I just thought it was a scream, because it was so illogical by all ordinary thinking. To think that somebody living in an absolutely stunning duplex on Park Avenue could be having in all these guys who were saying, 'We will take everything away from you if we get the chance,' which is what their program spelled out, was the funniest thing I had ever witnessed. "

The Vacuum of Faith and the Present Day Conundrum

But if present day heirs of the political faith of the Revolution of 1789 don’t have much to say against violence as a means to achieve societal change, they have even less to say to even the moderate and devout Muslims in their midst. That is because of yet another deleterious heritage of the French Revolution referred to briefly above; namely, the adamant resistance to all peoples of faith and the jettisoning of theological discourse.

One only needs to recall the efforts of the revolutionists of 1789 to supplant Christian practice with anti-theistic, government centered rituals and their drive to replace faith in and fealty to the church with loyalty to France and its institutions in order to see those goals are now largely achieved within the French secularist establishment.

A brief look back at the excessive violence done to Christians during the Revolution will reveal such horrors as the disemboweling of priests, the rape of nuns, the desecration and confiscation of church property and the dismantling of Catholic institutions. While such excesses do not any longer occur within France, secularists’ steady state of antipathy toward not only Christians, but all religions, is a given. In brief, while radical secularists’ attitude toward violence resembles the Islamists’ stance concerning the use of force to effect change, the anti-theistic attitudes which accompanied the Enlightenment and the Revolution also remain to complicate and frustrate attempts to assimilate Muslims into French society. In particular, secularist anti-theistic sentiments mitigate against the encouragement and growth of a desperately needed class of moderate Muslims.

Due to the reasons outlined above, French secularists now find themselves in a conundrum concerning the Muslims in their midst. On the one hand, there is the acceptance of violence as a means of changing society; or at the very least, a modified belief in constant change as automatically improving society. An ever evolving society without reference to the past is seen as a positive good. The fact that foundations are always shifting is also seen as a good thing. There is little concern about where society is going as long as it seems to be changing–change alone, even if it creates violence, is viewed as progress. On the other hand, secularists persist in an adamant anti-theistic streak which rejects religion as mythology and a superstitious remnant of the traditional past that must be shed in order that the ever evolving Brave New World come into existence. The result is that there is at present virtually no theological or philosophical commonality between secularists and Muslims that would create rapprochement. Power based solutions or submission to Islamist demands seem to be the only viable solutions to the French and European (and, increasingly, the American) dilemma.

While some may see submission to Islamists as a solution, many others do not wish to accede to self-immolation and therefore conclude that Islamist threats create exigencies which do not permit paralysis of action. Thus we see various power plays suggested, all of which have serious problems; but some of which must be pragmatically utilized if the transformation of France and Europe into an Islamist entity is not to proceed. But questions remain as to what specific options may be utilized to deal with Islamist radicals within France and other European nations. Another question involves how a secularized France (and Europe) deal with Islamists while promoting the assimilation and integration of moderate Muslims into European society. Third, and probably most importantly, there must be a call for a Muslim Reformation within the worldwide Muslim community contingent with a revival of the Christian heritage of France and Europe. I speak, of course, not only of the great contribution Christianity has made to France, but also of the common ground peoples of faith might share with moderate Muslims. Dialogue with moderate Muslims who share values with “People of the Book” is more possible than dialogue with radical secularists, as at least there are some mutual points of agreement.

Considerations on the Use of Force

The first urgent matter concerns the considered and careful use of force as a defensive posture geared toward the survival of France and any given European nation within which reside large Muslim minorities, many of whom are Islamist radicals. The use of the force of the state against those radical Islamists determined to destroy it is legitimate. Very few other than the radicals themselves and a handful of anarchist secularists who believe violence is first and foremost answer to curing societal ills would advocate a pacifist position in the face of the threats and actions of Islamists determined to create a Muslim state out of the wreckage of European civilization. The French people deserve and expect protection against seditious enemies who would destroy them in the name of Allah.

For example, to deport fire breathing Imams, some of whom are not even citizens, is a sensible thing to do. Seditious “preaching” and calls for the destruction of the host nation cannot be tolerated. Further, if France or any other European nation wishes to survive, it also is only sensible to seek out and to destroy Islamist terrorist networks. After all, the primary duty of any given nation is to protect its citizens from violence, Islamist or otherwise.

Force may be necessary in order to preserve the national entity, but the call for the deportation of the entire Muslim populace, some seven million strong within France, is arrant nonsense. First, not all Muslims are guilty of sedition. Further, what European government would even consider evoking the memories, much less the actual imitation of similar actions taken against the Jews? We can rest assured that Jews have not forgotten the repeated expulsions from France during the 14th century and thereafter. The Alhambra Decree of 1492, pronounced during the reign of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, ordered the expulsion of the entire Jewish population. It also is still not forgotten. This is to say nothing of the deportation (and subsequent annihilation) of Jewish populations within recent memory. Holocaust survivors still exist and have ineradicable memories of ghettos, deportations and death camps. Who wishes to evoke comparisons? Further, imagine the conflagration which would ensue were French troops to round up and forcibly deport Muslims. At the very least, civil war would be assured. It would not be hard to imagine the fires spreading to all of Europe as incensed Islamists rioted on behalf of fellow believers. Who wants to see a situation not unlike that of the Thirty Years’ War, albeit a war considerably worsened by the use of modern armaments, including, perhaps, nuclear weapons?

Next, though there are also calls for autonomous Muslim city states within a state, Muslim only districts also are not an option. Does anyone seriously think the cordoning off of a large segment of the population of France is a viable option? Have all forgotten the example of the Huguenots, who, considering their sorry history of treatment by reigning French powers , could with some justification be called the Protestant “Jews” of France? This is to say nothing of the history of Jewish ghettos. The reality is that the separation of a people into a zone defined by race and/or religion winds up being a ghetto within which options are severely limited for those within and those outside the walls. That is because within a ghetto, cross-pollenation from the surrounding culture virtually ceases. Those within the ghetto are subject to ever more radical cult-like leaders who promote and increase parochialism and extremism, all the while increasing control of those within the walls. As the entity continues to be severed from the surrounding culture, two results are almost certainly assured. One is that those within become increasingly crushed, and thus subject to exploitation and even violence from the dominant culture. Historically, the latter was the case with the Jews confined within ghettos.

The other consequence is that those separated from the surrounding culture become more and more inclined to separation from and then violence toward and hatred against the surrounding culture. As matters presently stand, Muslims within sealed off entities–self-imposed or otherwise-- are constantly goaded to violent hatred and behavior by Islamist imams who detest Western civilization, who are adamantly resistant to assimilation into any aspects of a secularized culture they deplore, and who are longing for the restoration of past glories via theocratic power. When hatred and violence are seen as attractive options, such moderate Muslims as remain simply have no voice in such an atmosphere, as they also become the target of threats.

Further, history once again provides yet another instructive example of the deleterious effect of ghettos and so-called autonomous zones in the sorry history of the Jews. The so-called “autonomous” states or ghettos inevitably invited persecution from the surrounding culture. Whenever such a solution has been tried, though it may create a temporary hiatus in violence, the “solution” eventually proves to be a disaster. Europe simply cannot go that way again.

Secular Reforms

There may be some ways to bridge the gulf between moderate Muslims and secularists. There even may be ways to create and increase the moderate Muslim population. However, such goals require considerable sacrifices and difficult compromises from secularists and Muslims alike.

First, it is high time secularists recognize some of their own blind spots. There is a crying need for self-examination and reform. Secularists now dominate nearly all of European culture, presenting a monolith of belief that until recently has not been challenged by a deeply religious people. Secure in the righteousness of a secularism adamantly opposed to people of faith, many secularists are as completely ignorant of the truth claims and practices of peoples of faith and many are completely unconcerned about sensitivities of the people of faith, Muslim, Christian or otherwise, despite lip service to tolerance and diversity.

Radical secularists in particular call to mind one Antiochus Epiphanes, a Syrian king who came to power around 175 BC. Epiphanes, whose name is roughly translated “God made known in a man,” sought to force Greek culture on the Jews. His actions included the demand to worship him on the Jewish Sabbath day and the introduction of Hellenist cults, which he insisted must replace the Jewish faith. In brief, he tried to force a type of “Westernization” on the Jews. He added insult to injury by entering the Holy of Holies, offering a pig on the altar of burnt offerings, and dedicating the Temple to Jupiter Olympus, a statue of whom he erected smack in the middle of the Temple. His actions resulted in a full scale revolt and are remembered by the Jews to this very day.

The actions of Epiphanes hold some lessons for adamant secularists of Europe/France in several respects. While the sedition and violence characterized by radical Islamists must be dealt with by all legitimate means, even if those means include surveillance of radical mosques, useless but pointed harassment of Muslims, Christians and Jews must cease. For example, forbidding Muslim women to wear modest head scarves, refusing to allow Christians to wear cross necklaces and reprimanding Jewish boys for wearing yarmulkes serves no purpose. If Muslims are revolted by the consumption of pork, it is not a good idea to serve pork soup in bread lines for the indigent. Secularists such as Geert Wilders of the Netherlands should recognize that calls to ban the Koran from circulation will inevitably encourage Islamists and do nothing to prevent the practice of their faith by moderate Muslims. While his rights to free speech deserve to be guaranteed, he surely must realize that his talk is like shouting fire in a crowded theater.

While Christians, who are accustomed by now to outrageous verbal assaults and repeated desecrations of their religion may react mildly and with reasoned discourse to outrages such as “Piss Christ” and the accusations of The DaVinci Code, Muslims in general will not, and Islamists almost certainly will react with violence. Such actions serve no purpose other than to poke those of faith in the eye.

More importantly, secularists must recognize that most people of faith will not willingly become Westernized within the context of the radical secularism which is a heritage of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. For example, while Ayaan Hirsi Ali is without a doubt an amazing, courageous and inspiring woman, no one should seriously expect that most Muslim women will follow her example. They simply will not give up their faith to convert to a secularism which repudiates the core tenets of the Muslim faith; namely, belief in one God, the divine authority of core sacred documents and the prophetic witness of Mohammed. This is to say nothing of Muslim repugnance for secularists’ sexual mores such as affirmation of homosexual practices, including gay marriage, the legalization and acceptance of prostitution and pornography and the liberal attitude toward abortion.

There must be alternative ways for people of faith, including Muslims, to integrate into French society other than conversion to a radical secularism which considers faith to be a superstitious relic of the past, the worship of God as an exhibition of intellectual and emotional retardation and the practice of spiritual disciplines as an utter waste of time. There must be a change in the attitude of secularist elites who consider deeply religious people second class citizens who need to be enlightened by and converted to secularist beliefs–beliefs which in themselves can be as radically adamant and intransigent as the values of any given religious subculture.

The issue of secularists’ settled hostility to peoples of faith desperately needs to be addressed. As hard as it may be for France and Europe to swallow, they must recognize Europe has a deep theological problem which radical secularism is totally unable and unwilling to address, as it relegate Christians and moderate Muslims alike to second class citizenship and fosters the nearly complete lack of societal and political involvement for those who are believers in God, be they Christian, Jewish, Muslim or peoples of other faith traditions. No one who has common sense expects secularists to fall supine before every demand of the deeply religious, especially those demands of the radical Islamists. But French and European secularists will have to re-examine some of their policies in order to avoid another revolution or civil war.

Reform of the Muslim Faith

But as draconian as reform needs to be among secularists in France and elsewhere in Europe and the USA, unless reforms of the Muslim faith are vigorously pursued by moderate Muslims, there simply is no place for Islam within a largely secularized Western society without constant tension. All or nothing demands of fundamentalist Islamists have reached the point at which conflagration of some sort is virtually guaranteed unless there is a reformation of the Muslim faith from within. Certainly a start would include at the absolute minimum a cessation of attempts to silence all criticisms of the Muslim religion. Such suffocation of questioning voices is not an auspicious starting point for dialogue. Other faiths have been willing to acknowledge and to voice certain shared commonalities of beliefs while recognizing the inevitable areas of conflict. Christian theologians, for example, have been and are constantly answering the challenges to their faith in a continuing exegesis formed by their times and cultures. There is an expectation, indeed, a pent up demand that Muslims theologians will do likewise.

Muslim theologians are also called on to recognize not only the commonalities of “the Peoples of the Book,” but also to give reasoned explanations for divergences.. To that end, Muslim theologians need to address questions from secularists, Christians and Jews alike about the prophet Mohammad, and the dogma and practices of the Muslim faith. They must do so relying on careful exegesis and persuasion rather than on calls to violence or suppression of free speech. France nor all of Europe should be expected to fall supine beneath to demands that absolutely no criticism be leveled against the Muslim faith lest violence be the consequence. People of the West are asking Muslims to exercise means of persuasion rather than violence; exegesis rather than fiat; conversion by an act of will rather than by a sword to the throat.

If peoples of the West are to be convinced of the validity of the Muslim faith and of its oft expressed claims to be a religion of peace, a religion whose adherents reflect the Koran’s description of Allah as merciful and compassionate, they have a right to ask questions about the disparities they perceive between Muslim faith and practice. In fact, if the Muslim faith is the voice of Truth, it certainly need not fear opposition, as Truth can stand firm in the face of assaults.

Perhaps no religious organization has articulated so precisely and succinctly the Muslim/Christian/secularist dilemma as the Roman Catholic church. The second Vatican Council has issued an exquisitely diplomatic statement expressing its concerns for Muslim immigrants while articulating the need for Catholics to distinguish between what “can and cannot be shared in the doctrines and practices and in the moral laws of Islam.” The Council expresses the need for cultivation of common values and wishes to “clarify and respect diversity, but without renouncing Christian principles. "

The document continues: “Belief in God the Creator and the Merciful, daily prayer, fasting, alms-giving, pilgrimage, asceticism to dominate the passions, and the fight against injustice and oppression are common values to be found in Christianity, too...Beside these points of agreement there are, however, also divergences, some of which have to do with legitimate acquisitions of modern life and thought. Thinking in particular of human rights, we hope that there will be, on the part of our Muslim brothers and sisters, a growing awareness that fundamental liberties, the inviolable rights of the person, the equal dignity of man and woman, the democratic principle of government and the healthy lay character of the State are principles that cannot be surrendered. It will likewise be necessary to reach harmony between the vision of faith and the just autonomy of creation.”

The thoughts of the Vatican can be expressed even more forthrightly, especially as much of what the Vatican says are the concerns of secularists and people of faith alike. The list of divergences between Muslims, other peoples of faith and secularists is long and requires careful, comprehensive thinking which answers concerns such as the following:

First and foremost, does the Muslim faith naturally tend toward fundamentalism? Is no interpretation of the Koran possible other than literal? Is the Koran capable of being subject to subtle exegesis as well as the theological rule that the larger principles of faith supercede custom and culture? For an oft cited example, if Muslims are appalled at the sexual mores of the West, Westerners also are appalled at some actions of those who adhere to the Muslim faith. They also have questions concerning the example of the prophet Mohammed, who took a wife of nine years of age. Such behavior would be called pederasty by Western secularists, Christians and Jews alike. Mohammed’s example of and instructions allowing polygamy also do not sit well with a still largely monogamous West.

The questions concerning the prophet are legitimate and need reasoned explication, not death threats for voicing them. If, as Muslims state, the prophet was not God himself but a fallible human being, what is the explanation of his behavior and precepts concerning the female gender? Why is it that his example seems to inspire imams defending the marriages of one year old girls and the justification of wife beating? Why aren’t such outrages vociferously repudiated by moderate Muslim theologians? Indeed, why the ghastly silence from moderate Muslim theologians in general? While Muslim theologians insist the Koran supports the equality of women before a just God, Westerners cannot help but note that in every country controlled by the principles of Islam, women are regarded and treated as second class citizens.

Western Women are horrified to see the treatment of their gender in such countries such as Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan, just to name two examples of monolithically Muslim entities. References to the persistence of tribal and/or cultural customs in order to slough off criticism of such horrors as female circumcision, honor killings, stoning for adulterous behavior (or even the whiff of impropriety) as well as reluctance to educate girls do not allay fears that such treatment of women stems directly from adherence to the Muslim faith.

It is also very troubling that immigrant Muslims often refuse to acknowledge the legitimacy of the governments of the countries within which they reside. Many continue to insist on duplicating the model of governance of the countries from whence they came; namely, a type theocracy dominated by sharia law. Why is there a steadfast antipathy to democracy and the rule of law within some countries in which Muslims reside? Again, where are the voices of moderates?

Very importantly, if the Muslim religion welcomes and honors people of the book as brothers and co-religionists, why are the loudest voices in Islam those of unmitigated hatred of the Jews? If the Jews are children of Abraham through Isaac and Muslims the descendants of Ishmael, Abraham’s other son, why are calls for the extermination of Israel and the Jews the most dominant voices? (This is to say nothing of the treatment of Christians, Buddhists and others in regions in which Muslims are the majority.) It is well known that Jews have been expelled from virtually every corner occupied by Muslims and that Christians are not allowed to have Bibles or practice their faith openly in such Muslim dominated countries as Saudi Arabia. In fact, death sentences against Christians in Saudi Arabia and against any Muslim who converts to another faith are a fact of life. If such persecution is not a characteristic or a tenet of the Muslim faith, why do such outrages persist? Is it unreasonable to expect a theological explanation without having a fatwa issued against anyone who dares ask questions about the Muslim faith?

If Muslims within France, Europe and the US share the sentiments of their Islamist co-religionists in the countries mentioned above, or if moderates remain silent while allowing the more rigid and vocal of their faith to run free, then no one should not be surprised if exceptionally strong responses from secularists and peoples of faith ensue. The burden is on moderate Muslims to come forth, to speak up and to encourage the Martin Luther(s) within the faith to post the ninety-five theses of reform on mosques across France, Europe and the US.

A Way toward Reform of Islam and Secularism

Within the Muslim traditions lie many strains other than Islamist extremism. One such way is that of the Sufi mystics, who generally encourage the development of a faith that goes beyond the authority of religious legalism and the pronouncements of imams to internalized spirituality and union with God. While Sufism itself is complex, resisting simple categorization, its mysticism may offer relief from the current domination of Islamist fundamentalists.

Rumi, one of the Sufis’ greatest and most famous poets, reminds one of the great Christian mystic, St John of the Cross, in his passionate desire for the love of God which transcends all laws; indeed, all earthly authorities:

The Agony and Ecstasy of Divine Discontent

In the orchard and rose garden I long to see your face. In the taste of Sweetness I long to kiss your lips.

In the shadows of passion I long for your love. Oh! Supreme Lover! Let me leave aside my worries.

The flowers are blooming with the exultation of your Spirit.

By Allah! I long to escape the prison of my ego and lose myself in the mountains and the desert. These sad and lonely people tire me.

I long to revel in the drunken frenzy of your love and feel the strength of Rustam in my hands. I am sick of mortal kings.

I long to see your light.

With lamps in hand the sheiks and mullahs roam the dark alleys of these towns not finding what they seek.

You are the Essence of the Essence, The intoxication of Love.

I long to sing your praises but stand mute with the agony of wishing in my heart

Perhaps if secularists, Christians, Buddhists and other peoples of faith heard more of the love of Allah from such Muslim poets and teachers, rapprochement might be possible. Yet how often does the West hear about such divine love from Muslims today?

The Sufi branch of the Muslim faith has played its part throughout history and continues to have a voice today. That voice should be amplified and promoted as a legitimate strain of the inheritance of the faith of Islam.

Writer Stephen Schwartz spent the weekend of January 10-12 in Detroit observing the celebration of Ashura, a day of repentance, by Bektashi Sufis. Schwartz summarized his experiences in an article entitled “Ashura in America.” He found himself impressed with the peaceableness of and love within the assembly. He reports there were none of the characteristics usually associated with the celebration of Ashura – no self-mutilations, no disconsolate fits of weeping, no ear-piercing screams. The women in attendance didn’t wear heavy veils or burgas. A Catholic priest was present and gave a speech. It was all very democratic and, some would say, thoroughly American.

Schwartz concluded, “The Balkan Shias who gathered in snow-covered Michigan to observe Ashura demonstrated that an American Islam–as American as it is Muslim–exists. It is a bulwark of civilization against extremism, standing for peace and mutual respect between faiths, and appreciative of the opportunity to mourn a Muslim hero in safety and freedom.”

If his conclusions are correct, then Americanization of Muslim enclaves just might be possible. But it remains to be seen if the Michigan model Schwartz describes will be the template for Muslim communities in France and elsewhere.

One thing is certain: Schwartz’ model of a religious community within a democratic tradition just might be exportable to Europe, particularly France, the European nation with the largest Muslim minority. Certainly it is worth a try, considering the dire state of matters across the pond.

As for the much needed reform of secularism within France and Europe, the great French philosopher Simone Weill, a brilliant Jewess who became a Christian, had some trenchant observations about French culture and the place of peoples of faith, most particularly Christianity (but most certainly applicable to Islam), with that culture. Her book, entitled The Need for Roots: Prelude to a Declaration of Duties towards Mankind, was written in 1943 shortly before her death but not published until 1949. Within her treatise are guidelines for restoring vitality to a spiritually bankrupt and exhausted France. Her comments continue to be germane to today’s circumstances.

Weill writes that the proper place of religion within France the nation is “to suffuse with its light all secular life, public or private, without in any way dominating it.” {Italics mine.] She suggests there are ways to acknowledge the contributions of religion without fearing that such acknowledgment would automatically lead to the establishment of a theocratic state.

She writes that it is a most peculiar and prejudicial way of thinking to eliminate the discussion of religion and its contributions from French schools. Such an attitude is not neutral, but is in and of itself a type of proselytization: “It is certain that neutrality is a lie. The laic (ant-clerical) system is not neutral. It inculcates in children a philosophy...Many schoolteachers evince a zeal in their attachment to this philosophy comparable to religious fervor.”

Weill adds: “...Professional teachers and schoolmasters should simply be told that religion has at all times and in all countries, save quite recently in certain parts of Europe, played a dominant role in the development of human culture, thought and civilization [s]. An educational course in which no reference is made to religion is an absurdity...One would talk about dogma as something which has played a role of the highest importance in our countries, and in which men of the very highest eminence have believed wholeheartedly; without hiding the fact wither that it has been the pretext for inflicting any number of cruelties.

But above all, one would try to make the children feel all the beauty contained therein...”If they ask: ‘Is it true?’, we should answer: ‘It is so beautiful that it must certainly contain a lot of truth. As for knowing whether it is, or is not, absolutely true, try to become capable of deciding that for yourselves when you grow up.” Weill’s wise words which are applicable to France’s (and Europe’s) dilemma: Let the tenets of the major religions be examined, passages from the holy books read and the contributions of faiths to civilizations, including the indisputable contributions of Christianity to France and Europe, once more be a given within French and European culture.

In sum, secularists of France (and elsewhere) should cease denigration and attempted eradication of theism. The Enlightenment and the Revolution are not the only strains which inform and shape French and European culture. There is a religious heritage which still comes to bear on today’s milieu. It should be revived and enlarged.

As for the Muslim in France and Europe, they do not have to repudiate the core tenets of Islam in order to be accepted into European society and culture. But they do need to lift up the moderates and the best in their faith tradition and repudiate the worst among them, all the while peacefully accepting their place among the peoples of the lands in which they reside.

--Fay Voshell © February 1, 2009

Ms. Voshell is a free lance writer residing in Wilmington, DE. She holds a Master of Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary, where she was awarded the seminary’s Charles Hodge Prize for excellence in systematic theology.

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