Tag Archives: Islam

Seeking the Spiritual: Perception From Belief

A member of the English Defence League, a group whose harmful beliefs have definitely given rise to dangerous perceptions, in their case, of Islam. (Photo credit: Gavin Lynn. Source: Creative Commons)

One of my favorite overused cliches is “seeing the world through tinted lenses.” While this line is used far too often, it’s still a good one.

We all see the world in different ways, and I’ve come to realize more and more that these different views and visions about the world drastically alter the way we see our environments and everything (and every person) around us. In other words, our perceptions of things stem directly from our beliefs about those things.

While this is a very natural thing, it can also be a very harmful one. If we have harmful beliefs, we’ll begin to develop harmful perceptions to match those beliefs! For example, if I hold the false belief that all fruit is poisonous, I won’t eat any fruit, and that will take a toll on my health. I see this kind of progression from dangerous belief to dangerous perception (and ultimately to dangerous action) all the time, in the news and in the world around me.

A great example of this is the story of Terry Jones and his church in Florida. Last summer, Jones’ tiny, 60-member church made clear its intention to publicly burn a copy of the Qur’an. There was a huge uproar over this (and rightly so) from nearly all sectors, including the American military (who feared this had the potential to cause a spike in terrorist attacks), and eventually Jones gave up the notion. But this last March, Jones decided to go through with his initial book-burning plans, staging a mock trial of the Qur’an on his website on March 20th, on what he called “International Judge the Koran Day.” The “trial” ended with a burning of the holy book.

Naturally, this outraged Muslims, particularly in the Middle East, and violent protests have taken place in Afghanistan and elsewhere, leaving at least a dozen dead. This is a perfect example of a dangerous belief turning into a dangerous perception and then into a dangerous action. And, as we saw here, it was only one more step toward yet more dangerous and violent actions, all of this due to a crazy belief.

But it’s not as if we can (or should) carefully regulate all of the thoughts and beliefs of all people in a country, much less in the entire world. So what can we hope to do? We can watch our own beliefs, and be carefully aware of what kind of perceptions stem from those beliefs. I’m of course not saying that my readers are likely to start burning holy books of any religion! What I am saying is that it’s much easier to let our beliefs become our perceptions than most people want to acknowledge. And if we allow our negative thoughts and beliefs about other people affect us too deeply, then our negative perceptions of those people will grow stronger.

It can be very difficult to keep our beliefs from affecting our perceptions, because it’s only natural to do so! But what’s so important for us to remember is to keep our negative beliefs from giving us negative thoughts and attitudes toward others, especially when those attitudes become negative actions. We can only start getting rid of harmful beliefs when we don’t let them become harmful perceptions.

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Islamophobia and Ignorance

Peter King, the man behind the recent "Muslim hearings." (Source: peteking.house.gov)

Earlier this month, Representative Peter King of New York held a hearing that was called to “investigate the radicalization of Muslims in the United States.” This sparked an uproar among religious and secular groups across the US, who were infuriated by what seems to be obvious bigotry.

King, who is pictured here, of course denies any such allegations. The man is adamant that this is not discrimination, and many people agree with him.

I have to admit that it’s an unavoidable (and unfortunate) fact that there tend to be more Islamist extremists than there are extremists in other major religions. (I pray that no one takes this in an offensive way!) But King’s approach to this problem of possibly-encroaching extremism is not just appallingly bigoted, but the wrong way to solve the issue.

First, the bigoted part. While it’s statistically true that there tend to be more Muslim extremists (at least here in the US) than those of other religions, it’s patently false that violent extremism is exclusive to any one religion. (Just take a look at Timothy McVeigh or Shoko Asahara, founder of the Aum Shinrikyo doomsday cult.) By claiming that Islamist extremism is the only real threat to America from religious groups (which he hasn’t necessarily explicitly said, but seems to be pretty heavily implied in his singular focus on Muslims), King is isolating and discriminating against a typically peaceful and law-abiding group of people simply based on their religion.

Now, to me it seems obvious that this is religious discrimination. King is essentially leveling his gavel against an entire group of people based on the actions of a very few individuals. This is a vast and offensive generalization of Islam and of Muslims. It’s understandable that Peter King would want to hold a hearing on religious violence in general. But by focusing exclusively on Muslims, King is not only ignoring the possibility of religious violence from other sectors, but unfairly focusing on a religion whose adherents are almost totally peaceful.

The implications here are more than simple issues of religious fairness though. Radical Islamist groups’ resentment toward the United States is often based largely on the perceived bigotry of Americans toward Muslims, and sadly there’s often a lot of truth to accusations of religious animosity against Muslims among Americans. Besides this, many non-extremist Muslims in the US feel victimized by some Americans’ anti-Islamic sentiments. Peter King’s recent actions do nothing but add fuel to the fires of disenfranchisement among American Muslims, and make Islam seem like a religion that has no place in America. Other countries, including the United Kingdom and France, are also making moves that alienate their Muslim inhabitants.

This alienation is not just wrong, but a violation of basic American and human rights. If the US claims to be a country based on “liberty and justice for all,” then its public servants, especially its federal level ones, cannot single out groups of people, whether or not those groups have a greater tendency toward extremism. Peter King, and any other politician who wants to look into the radicalization of any religious group, must do it in a way that is not exclusively focused on one group. The longer our country, and really any country (or person), continues to foster this kind of prejudice and religious ignorance, the greater our problems with extremism will become.

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She Must Be Stopped

Who's the greater threat to America, Muslims or religious bigotry like this?

“In the Muslim world, extreme is mainstream… there is a cancer infecting the world. The cancer is called Islamofacism. This ideology is coming out of one source: The Koran.” With these words, Brigitte Gabriel (also known as Nour Saman) opens her book “Because They Hate: A Survivor of Islamic Terror Warns America.”

If these few sentences weren’t enough to alarm you, consider me alarmed!

Brigitte Gabriel (a pseudonym she uses, as she claims to have received death threats) is a conservative author and activist who’s made repeated appearances at conservative events across the country, including a Tea Party convention last fall. Gabriel is originally from Lebanon, and frequently recounts stories of the horrors of growing up in war-torn Lebanon in the 70s. But rather than give a fair account of what happened during that time, Gabriel portrays the conflict as one of righteous, completely nonviolent Christians being massacred by warmongering Muslims. While it’s true that Christians were the group that suffered the greatest losses during this time, the Christians in fact formed their own militia and struck back against Muslim groups, which could hardly be called turning the other cheek.

This victimized mindset shows through very clearly in her talks and thoughts, in which she portrays all Muslims as extremist terrorists bent on the destruction of America and Christianity. Gabriel sees Islam as a religion bent on total world domination and subjugation, which is an idea as surprising to most Muslims as it is to her listeners and readers. She has a particularly strong following among evangelical and fundamentalist Christians and factions of the Republican party, especially those on the far right side.

To get the rest of the story, you should really read this New York Times article, which does a much better job than me of describing her antics.

Okay, welcome back! I hope you enjoyed and were as stressed out by it as I was. The most offensive part of Gabriel’s aggressively anti-Islam stance is how hypocritical it is for a fundamentalist Christian to be saying such things. When Gabriel makes the claim that Islam seeks to control the whole world, she obviously isn’t looking very closely at her own religion, one which is notorious for its colonizing influence and insistence on total religious conformity. Christianity, especially that of the evangelical sort, is a religion focused on conversion and, ideally, the entire world would be converted to this religion eventually. At least, I’m guessing that’s what Brigitte Gabriel would say.

So it seems to me that saying Islam is particularly “conquest-happy” is a horrible misrepresentation of this unique religion, and I’m sure most Muslims would agree. Radicals exist in all religions, not just Islam, and Gabriel’s singling-out of Muslims as particularly “anti-American” or as universally extreme is infuriating. There’s already enough anti-Muslim sentiment in the Christian community, and the last thing the world needs is more tension between these two major religions.

And it doesn’t end there. Brigitte Gabriel isn’t just offensive with this kind of rhetoric, she’s dangerous. Besides inciting dangerous hatred toward Muslims, which is of course bad enough in its own right, Gabriel is likely to stir up exactly the kind of extremism that she’s warning against. While the vast majority of Muslims are the polar opposites of terrorists, there are violent cells within the religion, and this kind of hateful, aggressive speech will only stir up more hatred and aggression in turn.

So I would say that it’s time for Americans to start standing up for religious freedom for all, and a freedom from discrimination is a large part of that. Just as most would consider it wrong to assume that someone is guilty of a crime based solely on their race, it is wrong to assume that a person is harboring terroristic motives and intentions based solely on their religion. What Brigitte Gabriel and others who would stereotype and demonize Muslims must realize is that this country’s laws were not made to protect their religious freedom, but the religious freedom of all people.

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The Unparalleled Power of Patriotism (Part 1)

How far can patriotism go before it becomes dangerous nationalism?

Ever since the idea of a nation emerged not more than a few hundred years ago, nationality has become an integral part of who we as humans consider ourselves to be. When we come across someone with an unfamiliar accent or language, our first question for them is often “Where are you from?” The first words we typically use to associate someone with a group of people are those that tell which country they come from, rather than those that reinforce their humanity. Our nationality has become one of the most prominent features of our identity.

The point I’m trying to make is that nationality has become a very important part of who people consider themselves to be. The word usually used to describe pride in one’s country, culture, or national heritage is patriotism.

Patriotism has always been popular in America, especially as the country was still nascent during the rise of nineteenth-century nationalism. Back at its founding, America was, as many like to say, a “melting pot” of a broad spectrum of people with varying beliefs and ideals. Unlike other, older nations, America was a nation that was deliberately created by its inhabitants, rather than slowly coalescing into gradually more central power, as most European nations did.

But what America, and indeed all nations, can suffer from is over-patriotism, sometimes called nationalism. When someone says “nationalist,” the image that tends to spring to most peoples’ minds is an extreme one of Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia, where nationalist rhetoric was used to justify horrific violence, racism, and purges. But there’s also a particular brand of home-grown nationalism, a slowly swelling sense of patriotism that subtly (or sometimes bluntly) asserts that “we’re just better than them.”

Though I was only 9 years old when they actually occurred, I’ve seen how the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 have had a profound impact on the way many Americans view the United States and other countries. After the horror of that day, a stunned silence fell over the United States, and a sense of unity and solidarity prevailed in the country. The thought at the time was, “You’ve tried to destroy us and failed, and instead of falling apart, America has only become stronger and more unified by the evil you brought on us.”

It was out of this sense of unity that an almost fanatical nationalism began to rise. After enduring and recovering from such a heinous attack, Americans’ sense of patriotism rose sharply, as songs like “God Bless the USA” came strongly back into vogue and politicians at all levels began employing forceful rhetoric about national unity and strength as a nation. Now, please don’t get me wrong with this; I think that the unity and solidarity that Americans felt in the aftermath of 9/11 was incredible, and helped bring hope and restoration to the loved ones of those who died. But it also conjured up a dangerous “us versus them” mindset that allowed President Bush to declare a more-or-less unilateral “War on Terror,” a war that has not only cost thousands of lives and billions of dollars, but has also tragically heightened anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States.

Of course, nationalism can be seen in myriad other places and situations as well. In talking to some American friends and acquaintances, I’ve seen a tragic sense of national superiority in what they say. For example, American citizens are quick to mourn the more than 4,000 deaths incurred by US Armed Forces in Iraq. I won’t deny the tragedy of this bloodshed, but far fewer Americans show such outrage at the more than 100,000 civilian deaths that have so far come about in the conflict. Many Americans I know seem to feel that they’re simply worth more than others.

I’m going to break this article up into two parts, as I’ve realized it’s getting much longer than I had originally thought! Expect the next post soon!

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Seeking the Spiritual: The Intimate Bond of Culture and Religion

Grow up in a different culture, and chances are you'll follow a different faith.

One of the very important things that I’ve been realizing about the world and the people in it over the last few months is the level to which religion is a cultural tradition and inheritance. This may seem like an extremely obvious conclusion for anyone to come to, but for me, this has been a difficult thing. As I’ve mentioned in a number of previous posts, I was brought up in a strongly Christian environment. For most of my life, when I was an adherent of evangelical Christianity, I rarely, if ever, questioned why I believed what I did. If I were to seriously ask myself this question a few years ago, my answer would’ve been, “Because you know that it’s true!”

But recently, I’ve allowed my old conceptions of religion and people be challenged and remodeled. This has been partially due to my travels over the last summer to France, Holland, Greece, and most importantly, Turkey. I’ve had the privilege of seeing how other people live their faith, particularly in the case of Islam, as I experienced life in a country where the (very) dominant religion is one very different from what I had experienced for the greater part of my life. I also have a great many friends from China (due to the large international student program at my school), and getting to know them and their fascinating culture has helped my understanding of Eastern thought to broaden.

Here’s where I’m going with this. Over recent months, I’ve discovered more and more that the reason I believed what I did for most of my life has been because I grew up with it, in a mini-culture that told me that the right thing to believe was Christianity. And more importantly, I’ve realized that others (again, this sounds like an obvious point), particularly those in vastly different parts of the world like Turkey, have grown up being taught that the right thing to believe was Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, or even atheism. I can see now that so much of what I “believed” was simply what had been passed down to.

Now, this is only natural. Parents teach their children what they think is right, and in fact many holy books instruct parents to do this (Proverbs 22:6 of the Bible, for example). But when someone becomes a brash conversionist (I know, I made it up) with their religion, they seem to leave sanity behind in their mad rush to change others to their way of thinking. What I mean by “leaving their sanity behind,” is that these religious practitioners have so thoroughly convinced themselves of their own rightness and the wrongness of others, that they forget that they probably only believe what they do because they were raised that way!

More frightening than that though, they forget that the beliefs that others hold dear are ones that they were always raised on as well. The reason for their belief in whatever religion it may be is their upbringing, not some deep-seated and witless desire to be a heretic. So when you get down to the heart of the issue, an evangelical Christian (this is only an example) and the young Indian Hindu he is trying to convert both believe in their respective religions for the same reason: They were always taught to.

I strongly believe that if more people, from all places, traditions, and religions could accept this, there would be far fewer people condemning each other for what seem to me to be obviously cultural influences. No person can decide the circumstances of their birth, and it’s a terrible thing that religious people of all kinds issue bold proclamations that anyone who doesn’t accept their truth, including young children who have heard nothing about it, is doomed. Truth be told, this is a pretty typical trait of the evangelical Christian in particular. I was talking with an evangelical acquaintance of mine about this very issue, not too long ago. I asked her, “What about an orphaned child in India? Chances are they’re going to grow up learning Hinduism as their religion. What happens if that child dies, and they’ve never heard anything about the Christian god?” She answered (paraphrase), “God’s justice is different from our justice. It’s sad that it has to happen, but the Bible says that anyone who doesn’t accept Jesus Christ is going to hell, no matter what. And that’s just the way it is!”

There is something desperately wrong with that picture.

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