Monday, November 10, 2008

Take off your shoes and follow me

I am convinced that the twenty-first century will be defined by better understanding between the Christian west and the Islamic east or by a hundred years of war… a war which no one will win?

Having said this, I have to admit that I know very little about Islam. What little I do know has come from reading books. I have no Muslim friends. At least, I had no Muslim friends until about a half a year ago when I visited a Mosque.

With trepidation, I approached the entrance surrounded by people who did not look like me. Suddenly a Middle Eastern young man approached me, stuck out his hand and said, “Welcome.”
After telling him that I was a retired Presbyterian minister, I said, “The last thing I want to do is to offend anyone, but I would like to participate in your prayer service. I am not here to join. I just want to learn”

He smiled. “You know, we sit on the floor for the entire service. But, we do have chairs in which you can sit if you would be more comfortable.”
“I think I would like to do exactly what you do, if that would be acceptable.”
“Are you serious?”
“I think so.”
“Then, take off your shoes,” he said, “and follow me.”
We entered a room the size of a basketball court filled with Middle Eastern and African American men, several hundred in number lining up for prayers. An equal number of women lined up behind us.

The Atlanta Masjid of Al-Islam serves a lower income community on the south- eastern side of Atlanta and yet here were hundreds of people who had found time on a busy Friday afternoon for worship. A procession of men, young and old, well dressed or in working clothes greeted me and actually thanked me for sharing their time of prayer. By this time, my anxiety had turned to respect.

The service began with prayers in Arabic but I followed their motions, knelt, put my forehead on the floor, felt a wave of humility, stood up and then did it all over again. Then, the Imam preached in English about the need for Muslims to respect others, especially Jews and Christians. He touched on the foolishness of gambling, alcohol and the importance of keeping one’s word. All in all, it was an eye opening experience.

Since that time, I have returned to the mosque twice and each time I have come away with the same warm feelings. I have made some Muslim friends, visited in their home and learned to respect their expression of faith.

I have also come to realize that Muslims living in American are afraid. I don’t blame them. They are looked upon with suspicion every time a terrorist attacks anywhere in the world and they feel it. Two of my friends, Ali and Aisha, are both PhD. scientists working in the field of disease research. Often, they are maligned for no other reason than that they are Muslims.

Lumping all Muslims together, certain talk show hosts, politicians and fundamentalist preachers induce fear and intolerance into the hearts of narrow minded people who believe them. When I told a Christian friend that I had visited a mosque, he asked, “Did you carry a gun?”
I understand this fear. Some Muslims are dangerous. They are called Salafist.
Yet most Americans have never heard of the Salafist. In the late 1940s a conservative Egyptian, Sayyid Qutb, who later became known as the father of Salafist totalitarianism, came to America. His experience intensified his already existing hatred for all things American. Within a few months, Qutb, burning with anti-Americanism, returned to Egypt, joined the Muslim Brotherhood and vowed to oppose modernity in all forms. He called America, “the great Shaitan,” which means the trivializer, and saw Nasser as selling the Islamic soul for American comforts. After a failed attempted to assassinate Nasser in 1954, Qutb was arrested, tortured and twelve years later, hanged. In the meantime he wrote books and pamphlets calling for a militant interpretation of jihad and for all Muslims to fight for a return to the seventh century and the Islam of Muhammad’s time.

Some have said that the Islamic nations have been moving backwards for centuries while the west has made steady progress. Thus, they claim, Muslims are envious of western progress and hate us for it. But, in fact, what the Salafist really says is: “Progress? Look at your materialism, divorce rate, sex industry, drug culture, and your poor living on the streets. Look at how you are destroying the environment! Do you call that progress?” If that is progress, the Salafist want none of it.
Qutb’s Salafism was behind the assassination of Anwar Sadat because of his close ties to America. And in 1979, it was the Salafists who captured the US embassy in Iran and held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days. Americans could not understand. After all, with assistance from America, the Shah was modernizing Iran, putting refrigerators in every home, building movie theaters, bars and casinos. Of course, the Shah was a secular ruler and ignored the poor, but who didn’t? The rich had never been so pleased.

On the other hand, Salafism honored two passions: social justice and the spiritual life, both of which were being poisoned by modernization and materialism. They had no interest in western dress, sports and entertainment. Such things trivialized life and blurred the faithful’s commitment to meditate on the will of God. Angry at the Shah’s opulent lifestyle and secular government, in 1978 students in Iran demonstrated. The Shah responded by sending out his SAVAK troops and shooting to death seventy unarmed kids. Later that same year, the SAVAK killed 700 to 900 students. Yet, within the month, President Carter flew to Tehran to pledge America’s support to keep the Shah in power.[1]

It was the Salafist who gave birth to the Taliban in Afghanistan and to the al Qaeda of Osama bin Laden. It was the Salafist who crashed planes on 9/11 into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania. High on the Salafist roster of concerns was the very secular Saddam Hussein for the Salafists hate the “unfaithful” Muslim even more than the shallow American. Salafism is a stateless philosophy. It pledges allegiance to no national regime or Islamic division: Sunni or Shiite. When the Salafist radicals attacked America and Mr. Bush retaliated by invading Iraq, the subsequent fall of Saddam Hussein was an answer to their prayers.

The Salafist are dangerous and we as a nation must guard against them. However, on September 11, 2001, less than one percent of all Muslims supported a Salafist agenda. Today, who knows how many? Recruitment to their radical view of Islam is mushrooming with no end in sight. There are more terrorists who hate us now than ever before.

However, my American Muslim friends are not among them. Not only is it unfair and cruel to label them as such, but also it is unwise. Force always fails to change religious belief. The only hope we have of making peace with the worldwide Muslim community is to reach out with all our understanding to the majority of Muslims who are moderate, peaceful citizens.
The twenty-first century has a choice: to make war or seek understanding.

So, I invite you to take off your shoes and follow me. I am glad that I reached out and met a few Muslims whom I now call friends. It seems like one small step toward a more peaceful new century and…besides all that, I really do like my Muslim friends.

Thomas Are

[1] See Karen Armstrong, The Battle for God, Chapter 9, and Peter Beinart, The Good Fight, Chapter 4.

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