On Pilgrimage

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Scene from the Edmund Pettis Bridge, March 2015

In March of 2015 I travelled to Selma, AL for the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, the day—March 7th, 1965—state and local police brutally attacked voting rights marchers as they tried to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee activists organized that first march in response to the February 17th, 1965 police shooting of civil rights worker Jimmy Lee Jackson in Marion, AL. Martin Luther King, Jr. began a second march on March 9th but halted it at the bridge. King then led a third march beginning on March 21st and completing the 54 miles to Montgomery on March 25th with 25,000 people—including my father—joining by the end.

The Voting Rights marches hold a special place in the heart of our faith because so many of our ministers heeded King’s call for clergy to join him in Selma; and because White supremacists murdered one of those ministers, the Rev. James Reeb, on March 11th, 1965, as well as UU layperson, Viola Liuzzo, on March 25th.

While walking in a mass of 100,000 people through downtown Selma, I came upon the Reeb memorial, an 8-foot thick granite monument with a bronze image of Reeb in his trademark bow tie and glasses. There it was. There he was. A Unitarian Universalist martyr. There’s no other word for it. I felt I needed to do something with my body—kneel, bow my head, pray. I stepped over to it. I read the text. I looked at Reeb’s image. I touched the granite. I bowed my head and offered a silent ‘thank you.’ Then I rejoined the march.

Being present in Selma for the 50th anniversary observation was a peak spiritual experience for me, an awe-filled moment, a moment of knowing and trusting I am on a good path in my ministry and my life. This was a pilgrimage—a journey to a sacred site—a site where something momentous happened. Stumbling across the Reeb memorial was an unanticipated pilgrimage within a pilgrimage—a visit to a sacred Unitarian Universalist site within the larger sacred history of the Civil Rights movement.

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Our March ministry theme is journeys. Two weeks ago I spoke of the vastness within each of us, and offered a set of pathways for journeying into that vastness. This morning I’m addressing the vastness beyond us. I want to share my reflections on outward journeys, specifically the practice of pilgrimage.

I remember in seminary studying journeys as a phenomenon across religions and cultures. We likely began with one of the more ancient recorded journey stories, the late third millennium Mesopotamian poem, the Epic of Gilgamesh. First, Gilgamesh, King of Uruk, and his friend Enkidu, seek fame and renown. They journey to the legendary Cedar Forest—the realm of the gods—where they slay its guardian Humbaba and then cut down a swath of the sacred trees. In retaliation, the gods kill Enkidu. Distraught, Gilgamesh undertakes a second, much longer journey in search of eternal life.

We likely discussed Gilgamesh’s journeys along with those of the Greek hero Odysseus in Homer’s Odyssey, and his Roman counterpart, Aeneas, in Virgil’s Aeneid. These stories are examples of the “hero’s journey,” in which, in the words of scholar Joseph Campbell, “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with [newfound] power.[1]

We might have compared these mythological journeys to various journeys in the Hebrew scriptures. For example, in Genesis 12, God promises land, national greatness and blessings to Abram—eventually Abraham—who departs with his family from Haran in Mesopotamia, journeying west into Canaan in search of that promised land. We might also have talked about the story of Moses as a possible example of the hero’s journey. Whether or not Moses fits the model, it is certainly true that, from the book of Exodus on, the Torah describes the Israelites’ 40-year period of wandering in the wilderness under Moses’ leadership. In this sense, the Torah is the story of the Israelite’s journey toward fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham.

In the Christian scriptures, Jesus, at the outset of his ministry, journeys into the wilderness for forty days where Satan tempts him. Then, for approximately three years he conducts a travelling ministry, moving from village to village around Galilee. He eventually journeys south to Jerusalem where authorities put him to death.

Turning eastward, before becoming the Buddha, Siddh?rtha Gautama, who lived a privileged, sheltered, royal life, desires to see the world beyond the palace and journeys out along the royal highway. The gods of the Pure Abode conspire to reveal the reality of human suffering to him. On three, successive trips he witnesses old age, illness and death, revelations which launch him on his path to enlightenment. There are easily thousands of such stories about the journeys of heroes, saviors, divine figures, and founders of religions. They are often origin stories—as in ‘this is the story of how Rome was founded,’ or ‘this is the story of how the Israelites came to the Promised Land.’

Pilgrimage is a different kind of journey—not the journey of the hero or founder, but the journey of the follower. Pilgrimage is a visit to a site after the hero or founder has made it sacred—for example, a site where Abraham is said to have once set up his tent; or where Jesus is said to have performed a miracle; or where a martyr gave their life for their principles. Some pilgrimages require the performance of certain rituals upon arrival. Journeying to consult the Oracle at Delphi in ancient Greece or to make a Passover sacrifice at the temple in ancient Jerusalem come to mind.

In Islam, there is a fairly unique occurrence in which the founder of the religion, the Prophet Muhammed, makes a pilgrimage. In this sense, the founder is also a follower. Remember that Muhammed, at the urging of the Angel Gabriel, recited the verses of the Koran over the last third of his life. A number of verses mention the prophet Abraham and his son Ishmael laying the foundations for their house. Islamic tradition identifies the house as the Kaaba in Mecca, the most sacred site in Islam. Tradition holds that Adam originally built it, but it was destroyed. Abraham and Ishmael rebuilt it. People had been making pilgrimages there for ages before the founding of Islam.

At some point, Muhammed recited the verses that call on all Muslims to make the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca. In the Koran’s third sura, known as “The Family of Imran,” an English translation says: “Indeed, the first House [of worship] established for [humanity] was that at Makkah…. In it are clear signs [such as] the standing place of Abraham. And whoever enters it shall be safe. And [due] to Allah from the people is a pilgrimage to the House—for whoever is able to find thereto a way.” [2] Knowing this verse, Muhammed knew he needed to make the Hajj. For many years Mecca’s non-Muslim leaders prevented him from entering the city; but he finally completed shortly before his death. Muslims refer to it as the “Farewell Pilgrimage,” after which he delivered the farewell sermon, which is notable for many reasons, one of them being his assertion of the equal worth of all people. One modern translation says: “an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab.”[3]

We hear echoes of this sentiment when Malcolm X describes his 1964 Hajj in his autobiography, one of the more famous pilgrimage stories in American literature. It transformed him. Among other things, it altered his view of White people. Previously he had assumed all White people are devils. What shocked him during the Hajj was his experience of White Muslims. “There were tens of thousands of pilgrims,” he said, “from all over the world. They were of all colors, from blue-eyed blonds to back-skinned Africans. But we were all participating in the same ritual, displaying a spirit of unity … that my experiences in America had led me to believe never could exist.”[4]

Later he says, speaking of how the Hajj transformed him, “I’m for truth, no matter who tells it. I’m for justice, no matter who it is for or against. I’m a human being first and foremost, and as such I’m for whoever and whatever benefits humanity as a whole.”[5] He hadn’t changed his views about the power and violence of American racism; but his pilgrimage experience expanded his understanding of humanity. It also deepened and sharpened his Muslim faith, gave him a global perspective, and led him to organize internationally.

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Unitarian Universalism has nothing like the Hajj. Given our eclectic theology, that makes sense. Yet, pilgrimage is a valuable spiritual practice. It deepens faith. It affirms, inspires, and strengthens connections to spiritual ancestors. Because it involves following—followership—it emphasizes humility. So, I wonder: what qualifies as a UU pilgrimage?

The teachers in our middle school Building Bridges class taught a session on Islam in which they discussed the Hajj. They asked the kids what a ‘UU Mecca’ experience might be. Their response? “A cruise near a rain forest with yoga and coffee,” which tells me that our children are paying attention and we have some work to do.

Our Affirmation class makes a pilgrimage to Boston. They visit historical churches, like King’s Chapel—the first American congregation to declare itself Unitarian; and Arlington Street Church, whose congregation in 1803 called the Rev. William Ellery Channing, perhaps the most important preacher of Unitarian theology in that era.

Greater Boston is filled with UU pilgrimage sites as so much of our early history happened there. The Gloucester UU Church, founded in 1779 as the Independent Christian Church, was the first Universalist Church in America. Its minister, the Rev. John Murray, had been branded a heretic in England for his Universalism. Its members refused to pay taxes to support the state church. In 1786 they won a landmark court ruling declaring they could not be taxed to support a church to which they did not belong.

Concord, MA was the center of the Transcendentalist movement, which grew out of the Unitarian churches and, in time, became highly influential on Unitarian and Universalist theology and spirituality. In Concord one can visit the home of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walden Pond, where Henry David Thoreau wrote his modern scripture, Walden; or the Orchard House where Louisa May Olcott wrote Little Women.

I’ve mentioned Selma, where James Reeb was murdered in the midst of the Voting Rights marches. Viola Liuzzo’s memorial is along U.S. Route 80 between Selma and Montgomery. Other sites that come to mind include the Lewis Howard Latimer House in Flushing, NY and the Whitney M. Young Birth Place and Museum in Simpsonville, KY. Latimer, a founder of the First Unitarian Church in Flushing, was an inventor who prepared the mechanical drawings for Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone patent application. He was also the only African American who worked in the original engineering division of the Edison Company. Young, a member of the UU congregation in White Plains led the National Urban League through the 1960s and was one of the “Big Six” organizers of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

The forest spring — a sacred site at the Unitarian Universalist Society: East

Further afield, there is a rich Unitarian history and a thriving network of churches in Transylvania, Romania. There are similar histories and networks in the Philippines and in the Khasi Hills of eastern India. These are all locations to which American UUs make regular pilgrimages.

This is only the beginning of a list that answers the question, ‘What are sacred Unitarian and Universalist sites—sites where we can follow our founders, our heroes; deepen our Unitarian Universalist identity; expand our view of being human; and find inspiration to continue in the struggles to which our faith calls us?’ What sites might you add to the list?

A concluding thought: Many of you travel to different parts of the United States and Canada—for work, for vacation, to visit family. You sometimes visit the local UU congregation. Any time you do this—even if you are visiting the nearby congregations in Hartford, West Hartford, Meriden, or Storrs, you are making a pilgrimage. You are entering a sacred site, participating in its rituals, touching its history—the history of people who cared deeply about their faith and worked to sustain it for future generations.

May we all have the opportunity, at some point in our lives, to make pilgrimages – to be faithful followers, to deepen our faith, to find inspiration, to bring it all home for the flourishing of this sacred site.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Campbell, Joseph, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1949) p.23.

[2] Sura 3: 96-97.

[3] View the full text of the final sermon at http://www.cyberistan.org/islamic/sermon.html.

[4] Malcolm X and Haley, Alex, The Autobiography of Malcolm X as Told to Alex Haley (New York: Ballantine Books, 2015 edition) pp. 346-347.

[5] Malcolm X, Autobiography, pp. 373.

Refugee Resettlement in Manchester

Volunteers and Financial Donations Needed!

RefugeesDid you know that there are currently 20 million refugees in the world and that over the next few years 85,000 will be settled in the US?  Nearly 900 will be settled in CT.  To meet this demand, the Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services (IRIS) in New Haven, has been soliciting co-sponsorship groups from all over CT to assist with resettling families. Locally, the Manchester Community Refugee Resettlement Group (MCRRG) has begun work to eventually be able to tell IRIS that we are ready to welcome a refugee family into our community. Several of us have attended an intensive training at IRIS in New Haven. Judi Durham has agreed to take over coordination of the project from Jen Tierney who has steered it this far.  Although we have a small group of volunteers who have taken responsibility for several necessary tasks, we are still in need of others as there is still much work to be done.  Below is a brief list of some of the areas in which we need assistance.

  • Interpreters: Learn where we can get help from Arabic, French and other Middle Eastern language speakers. Once we know the language of the family we will be assisting, then we will be able to find interpreters to assist as needed.
  • Housing: Prior to family’s arrival, find affordable housing and vet potential landlords; once we know our family is arriving soon, sign lease, connect utilities, and get house ready for their arrival.
  • Necessary Goods: Gather all home furnishings, clothing, toys, books, etc.
  • Hospitality: Pick up at airport in NYC. Need at least two large vehicles for family and luggage and at least five people. Provide appropriate clothing. Provide culturally appropriate meal for their first night and some other food to have on hand.
  • Health Care: Judi is point person in this area, but others are needed. Tasks include identifying primary care providers, pediatricians, mental health providers, etc., who accept Husky/Medicaid. Yale Clinic for initial health assessment for each family member within first month.
  • Transportation: Get CT transit maps for bus routes. Identify options and teach family to ride bus. Coordinate transportation to all appointments. Drive to appointments.
  • Education: Take family to IRIS for a 3-day Cultural Orientation program. Find ESOL class locations and requirements for school enrollment. Register children in school and adults in ESOL classes.
  • Acculturation/Hospitality: Teach the family the basics about living in the US:  laundry, grocery shopping, bank or money orders, public transportation, e-mail account, government issued ID.
  • Employment: Prior to arrival, investigate jobs for service or unskilled workers (kitchens, grocery stores), as well as skilled (manufacturing, etc.) where little English is required. Know where to access specific job vocabulary charts. Be present at IRIS employment assessment. Create resume(s). Help adults find jobs. Assist with application(s) and interview(s).
  • Finance/Fundraising: Raise a minimum of $6,000. Oversee resettlement fund-raising and disbursements. Manage reception money and placement money welcome grant. Coach family on household budget, managing resources, credit history. Help family access all possible sources of funding, including food stamps and Temporary Family Assistance (TFA). Apply for SS card within five days of arrival. Help family begin repayment of International Organization for Migration (IOM) loan.
  • Attend Training in New Haven: An excellent day-long (9-4) training in which all aspects are explained in greater detail—not required for all volunteers, but very useful in understanding the scope of the project.

Please consider where in this list you might be willing to contribute, either as point person or as a member of the group. Let Judi know what you would like to do and she can tell you which slots are still open (most of them!).  (judi.durham@gmail.com; 860 716 7266). 

Financial Donations Needed!

$$$$ A job of major importance is raising at least $6,000 to help the family through their first six months by which time we expect they will be self-supporting. Much of this money will be used for rent, but there will be other expenses before jobs have been found for the adults in the family. As this is a Manchester Community Project initiated by Tierney Funeral Home in which we are now participating, there are others besides UUS:E members who are contributing to this fund. We hope UUS:E members and friends will be as generous as possible. If you’d like to contribute, you can make out a check to Manchester Area Council of Churches (MACC) with Refugee Resettlement on the subject line and either mail it to MACC at 466 Main St, Manchester, CT 06040, or give it to Judi Durham or Nancy Parker.  If you’d like to use a credit card to donate online, you can go to the MACC donations page.  After selecting the credit card you will use, on the bottom of the second page where it asks for Donation Information you designate the Manchester Refugee Project as the recipient of your donation.

IRIS will not give us the green light to settle a family in Manchester until we have at least the $6,000 and all the tasks/donations described above in place. A list of specific items that we need is forthcoming. Also know that we will be welcoming people who have left pretty much everything in their lives behind. In comparison, we have so very much, and their need is very great. Please consider giving as generously as you can both of your time and of your money.

September Ministry Theme

Transitions

The concept of transition seems to be predicated on a binary condition: presence and absence.

The shift from one physical or metaphysical place to another. Indeed, we in the west have a culture of transition. We’re always moving, expected to move, from point A to point B. Perhaps we create this culture because we are moving from birth to death.

The Transitions

Dr. Sandeep Kumar Kar

The state of darkness
accelerates our delight in the sunlight.
The state of stagnation,
glorifies the state of motion.
The taste of nectar is achieved,
after the bee has thoroughly wandered.
The brightness of the sunlight
and their triumph in outshining,
The twinkling stars,
activates my taste
for the cosmic starlight.
The boredom at noon,
increases my delight,
for the games at twilight
The hurly burly of life,
increases my appetite,
towards the divine.
The state of isolation,
increases my inclination for
the poetic expressions.
All these phenomena hum a common rhyme.
The transition glorifies the succession.

Now I Become Myself

by May Sarton

Now I become myself. It’s taken
Time, many years and places;
I have been dissolved and shaken,
Worn other people’s faces,
Run madly, as if Time were there,
Terribly old, crying a warning,
“Hurry, you will be dead before–”
(What? Before you reach the morning?
Or the end of the poem is clear?
Or love safe in the walled city?)
Now to stand still, to be here,
Feel my own weight and density!
The black shadow on the paper
Is my hand; the shadow of a word
As thought shapes the shaper
Falls heavy on the page, is heard.
All fuses now, falls into place
From wish to action, word to silence,
My work, my love, my time, my face
Gathered into one intense
Gesture of growing like a plant.
As slowly as the ripening fruit
Fertile, detached, and always spent,
Falls but does not exhaust the root,
So all the poem is, can give,
Grows in me to become the song,
Made so and rooted by love.
Now there is time and Time is young.
O, in this single hour I live
All of myself and do not move.
I, the pursued, who madly ran,
Stand still, stand still, and stop the sun!

The Unified Principles of Our Faith

On Sunday morning, January 8th, UUS:E was honored to welcome Imam Kashif Abdul-Karim, resident Imam of the Muhammad Islamic Center of Greater Hartford, into its pulpit. The text to his khutbah (sermon) is below. We were also blessed to welcome Mr. Bashir Labanga, who offered a traditional Muslim call to prayer. You can listen here:

Bashir Labanga, Call to Prayer, UUS:E, 1-8-12

Video here.

Imam Kashif Abdul-Karim

The Unified Principles of Our Faith

Islam is a religion that many people believe has its origins in the city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia. But true students of Islam know that the religion of Islam has its origins in the establishment of the creation. Muslims believe there are only two things that exist: The Creator and the creation. We believe the creator is God and the creation is Muslim. God is not in any part of the creation but the supreme creator over creation. We also believe that the creation itself is Muslim. This means the stars, the moon, the trees, human beings, all that exist is Muslim. Regardless of what we may call ourselves, be it Christian, Jew, or other, we are all Muslim. We believe this to be true because Muslim means one who submits to the will of God.

The Arabic term gets in the way. If I asked you if you are one who submits to the will of God you would say yes. But if I asked the same question using an Arabic term–are you Muslim?–many of you would say no. We are told in the Quran, the holy book of the Muslim, that everything is Muslim. “Everything submits willingly or unwillingly to God.” We believe it is in our universal nature, and in our universal origin to do so. So through this basic understanding we see a shared guiding principle. We have a universal brotherhood with all of mankind, and also a universal relationship with creation and with God. In Islam this concept is called “tawheed”. It is the basic understanding of the oneness of God and the oneness of creation. This means we must also respect the inherent worth and dignity of every person. We must respect the inherent good that God has placed in the “fitrah” nature of all of creation, this nature of excellence. We do not believe that man is inherently evil, but that he is inherently good. We do not believe in original sin or in sin that is transferable from one soul to the next. We believe no soul bears the burden of another. However we do believe we are our brother’s keepers. So we believe we should protect the inherent worth that God has established in human beings.

We must stand for justice and equity and have true compassion for one another. In Islam we believe this is an inherent right that God has established for not only human beings but for all of creation. The body has rights over us, just as the soul has rights over us. The whole of creation has rights as well. We should be environmentalist. God has established rights for water, trees, and the environment at large. We are told that we should not waste, not do anything in excess, such as cutting down trees beyond our needs, or running water wastefully.  To be reminded of these concepts, God has named himself after these attributes. We call him by 99 Names from the Quran. God is named The Just, The Compassionate, The Equitable, and The Source of Peace. These attributes are attributes that we as Muslims are told to strive towards.  The goal of God as stated in your principles and ours, are for a world community of peace, liberty, and justice for all.

 

In Al-Islam we are told in our holy book that we will all be judged by our books. Unlike many of our brothers and sisters in the Abrahamic faith we believe there is a variety of doors to God. We believe in God’s openness and diversity in faith.

God says in the Quran in Sura 2:Ayat 62:

(Y. Ali) Those who believe (in the Qur’an), and those who follow the Jewish (scriptures), and the Christians and the Sabians,- any who believe in Allah and the Last Day, and work righteousness, shall have their reward with their Lord; on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve.

God goes further in Sura 5, Ayat 48 (Y. Ali) to stress the universal brotherhood of the prophets and the continuity of revelation:

5:48 To thee We sent the Scripture in truth, confirming the scripture that came before it, and guarding it in safety: so judge between them by what Allah hath revealed, and follow not their vain desires, diverging from the Truth that hath come to thee. To each among you have we prescribed a law and an open way. If Allah had so willed, He would have made you a single people, but (His plan is) to test you in what He hath given you: so strive as in a race in all virtues. The goal of you all is to Allah. it is He that will show you the truth of the matters in which ye dispute.

As we examine this brotherhood in scripture and in prophecy we should see the need to accept one another and encourage each other’s spiritual growth, for it brings us closer to finding the higher truths that God has established for mankind. It should also instill in us a respect for the interdependent web of God’s full creation.

I was born a Muslim by nature but I was raised as a Southern Baptist. My mother introduced me to Christianity in Rockingham, North Carolina. This is my answer when people tell me I should go back where I came from.

As a college student I had an innate passion for African American History and Social justice. I was president of the African American Cultural Center and president of the Black Student Association at UConn. All my research and courses I attached to “my people” and to social change. When I researched my history I found that my ancestors had come from the west coast of Africa. This is true for most African Americans. The most interesting finding in my research was that the slaves who came to America came to America as Muslims. This was a great surprise; I had to find why this was kept out of the general African American history books. What were the Secrets in The Quran and in The Religion that were hidden so well? I concluded it was the aspects of freedom, justice and equality that Islam taught. I found that Islam offered me a way to address social justice and to serve God. This is the essence of my faith and I’m sure aspects of my faith resonate with your faith as well.

The question then arises, if what I have said is true, why do we see so much oppression in the world from Muslims. Why do we see shariah laws that are oppressing people around the world and even Muslims? The simplest answer is illiteracy, cultural baggage being promoted over religion and the political agendas of countries being denied there humanity, having these agendas of the suffering forced upon religious leadership.

Illiteracy is as high as 70 percent in some Muslim countries. It is higher in parts of Africa and among Women. Many Muslims are unable to understand the Quran in their own languages. They can recite the Arabic by memory but many are unable to translate the meaning into a language they can understand. Many Muslims are therefore dependent on scholars and sheiks to tell them what the Quran means. So words like jihad that mean internal struggle between good and evil can come to mean “Holy wars against the infidels”. The word jihad is never used in the Quran for war. It is used to deal with internal spiritual conflict. It is used for holy wars by the prophet only during times of self defense, not aggression. A Muslim is told that he can only engage in war when he is being denied the freedom of his religion or in periods of oppression. The same founding principles were hailed by Patrick Henry when he said “Give me liberty or give me death.” These are the same basic elements found in the US Constitution that we as Americans value and for which we have sacrificed.

As Muslims we have a democratic process that was in place 1400 years ago. It is called Shura. It is a process that supports elections and voting, a process that gave women the right to inheritance, council, divorce and a voice in community life. This did not occur in America until the 1940s. The concept of democracy is a deeply entrenched Islamic principle but it is based on limited freedoms. We are free to engage in good and support good but immoral things we are not free to engage in or support. The majority is not always right in Islam, if the final vote is unjust. We see this evident in our congress and in our senate. Look at what the house has voted for in terms of healthcare, and the detainment of US citizens without due process. The majority wins but the outcomes are not just and not Islamic.

Muslims lean on Shariah law for direction. Shariah is what all people of faith lean on for guidance whether they are Muslim, Jewish or Christian. As the issue of shariah is being addressed in this country its implications impact Jews as well as Muslims. This is a common concern that Muslims and Jews could deal with together. Shariah literally means the path to the water hole. When we consider the importance of a well-trodden path to a source of water for man and beast in the dry desert environment, we can appreciate why this term could have become a metaphor for a whole way of life ordained by God. Shariah law, like all laws, is based on interpretation. When good men interpret the law it produces good. When evil men interpret the law it can produce evil. This is true in the American judicial system as well. Muslims need to understand that the application of Shariah law may have different applications in America than other places. Shariah is derived from two primary sources of Islamic law: the precepts set forth in the Quran, and the example set by the prophet Muhammad in the Sunnah. This is similar to the Jews obeying the Torah and the instructions of Moses. To deny Muslims the shariah is to deny the Muslims the Quran and the prophet.

Muslims have been part of the American fabric for 500 years. Muslims have been on the plantations of the south, merged into Native American culture, fought in the civil war, excelled in sports, entertainment and many fields of science. However, negative reaction to the flux of immigrants, racism, and the horrid pictures of 911 continue to distort the good picture of the American people and what we stand for. Terrorist will win if we stop being the America we are proud of. If we lose our morality, our element of freedom, and our appreciation for diversity the terrorists will win. Their goal was to make America a lie. We the faithful must keep the morality of the just in front. So it is our prayer that God strengthens us and empowers us to move towards his good. We ask all the people supporting the spirit of truth to help us in this work. Let us begin by asking the people to say:

Amin

 

 

When Worlds Collide: Countering Islamophobia

Rev. Joshua Mason Pawelek

Preface: See Rev. Josh’s May 30th blog post on the annual conference of the Islamic Circle of North America and the Muslim American Society here.

“Moderation in religion…offers no bulwark against religious extremism and religious violence.”[1] The words of Sam Harris[2]: American pubic intellectual, best-selling author, blogger, one of the so-called “New Atheists,” and co-founder and CEO of Project Reason, a nonprofit foundation devoted to spreading scientific knowledge and secular values in society.[3] “Moderation in religion…offers no bulwark against religious extremism and religious violence.”[4] I disagree. He says: “The problem that religious moderation poses for all of us is that it does not permit anything very critical to be said about religious literalism.”[5] I disagree. In fact, religious moderates, by whatever name we call them—they have many names and many denominational identities including Unitarian Universalism—when acting courageously; when speaking truthfully in response to religious extremists; when living out of and into a prophetic vision of religious pluralism and interfaith cooperation; when using the tactics of nonviolence grounded in the ethic of “love your neighbor and your enemy as yourself; and when nurturing (as we heard earlier in the Islamic Circle of North America’s Interfaith Statement[6]) a politics of justice, an economics of fairness, and a covenant of community; when doing all these things; when functioning as we ought to be functioning, when living as we ought to be living, religious moderates offer, in my view, the only serious, long-term, sustainable bulwark against religious extremism and religious violence.

I had heard of Sam Harris; I’d never felt compelled to read his work. Then Stan McMillen purchased a sermon at our 2010 goods and services auction and e asked me to preach in response to Harris’ 2004 book, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason. Stan had two intersecting ideas in mind. First, he accepts Harris’ view that religion—especially in its fundamentalist and extremist forms—can and often does wreak havoc in the world. Second, while Harris has no love for any religion, he holds unique—and what I consider to be misguided—contempt for Islam. Stan wanted me to address this aspect of Harris’ thinking out of his own deep concern about the rise of Islamophobia in the United States. Thank you, Stan, for this suggestion.

I begin with Islamophobia. Our Muslim-American friends live today with a pervasive sense of anxiety, fear and anger due to widespread and increasing anti-Islamic activities and sentiments. The most recent increase has come in the wake of House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee Chairman, Peter King’s hearings on what he calls the “radicalization” of American Muslims. Those hearings began in March.[7] King points to the increase in home-grown terrorist plots, including an incident last May when a Connecticut man drove a car bomb into Times Square. King’s opponents, among whom I place myself, contend it is not fair to single out an entire religion for such high profile interrogation. Yes, there are terrorists who are Muslims, just like there are terrorists who are Christians or Jews. But a hearing like Representative King’s turns this equation around, sending a not-so-subtle message that all Muslims are worthy of interrogation, that Muslims in general are—or, at least could be—terrorists. This blanket stereotyping of all Muslims is one face of Islamophobia.

There are many more faces. You likely remember the loud chorus of Anti-Islamic sentiment that swept through the nation last summer as debate raged over the proposed building of an Islamic cultural center and mosque near the site of the 9-11 terrorist attacks in lower Manhattan. Mark Williams, then-chairman of the Tea Party Express, called the proposed prayer space “a mosque for the worship of the terrorists’ monkey god.”[8] Again, turning the equation around.

You likely remember the Rev. Terry Jones of the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainsville, FL, threatening last fall to burn a Koran and then finally doing it this past March. You may remember last September when Imam Kashif Abdul-Karim of the Muhammad Islamic Center of Greater Hartford was invited to pray for the opening of a Hartford City Council meeting, and then uninvited due to the protests of a few local hot heads. You may remember last summer when members of Operation Save America held a protest at a mosque in Bridgeport, confronting worshippers and shouting “Islam is a lie” and “Jesus hates Muslims.” Flip Benham, the protest leader, yelled at worshippers with his bullhorn, “This is a war in America and we are taking it to the mosques around the country.”[9] This particular protest gained notoriety as one protestor yelled “Murderers!” at a group of young children who were leaving the mosque.

These are a few examples of what we encounter in the media. There are many more that are not so public. Last fall, when our “Neighboring Faiths” class visited the mosque in Berlin, CT, home to the Islamic Association of Greater Hartford, our young people were stunned to hear stories from Muslim children about regular visits to their homes from FBI agents. Imam Kashif confirmed for me that such visits to mosques and homes are a regular feature of Muslim life in Connecticut.

Then there is a 2011 report compiled by Thomas Cincotta of Political Research Associates that finds that United States “government agencies responsible for domestic security have inadequate mechanisms to ensure quality and consistency in terrorism preparedness training provided by private vendors; public servants are regularly presented with misleading, inflammatory, and dangerous information about the nature of the terror threat through highly politicized seminars, industry conferences, trade publications, and electronic media. In place of sound skills training and intelligence briefings, [an] influential sub-group of the private counterterrorism training industry markets conspiracy theories about secret jihadi campaigns to replace the U.S. Constitution with Sharia law, and effectively impugns all of Islam—a world religion with 1.3 billion adherents—as inherently violent and even terroristic.”[10] The equation gets turned around. Some terrorists are Muslims so quickly and unreasonably becomes All Muslims are terrorists. And it’s worse than that. The report describes one trainer, Walid Shoebat, saying in a speech to the International Counter-Terrorism Officers Association in Las Vegas last October, that the way to solve the threat of violent, militant Muslims is to “kill them, including the children.”[11] The report warns that such messages will result in law enforcement officers conducting biased intelligence analysis, stereotyping and profiling, unlawful searches, illegal surveillance, hate crimes and silencing free speech.[12]

There’s much more, but I’ll stop there. For me, all of this confirms that American Muslims are quite justified in feeling fear, anxiety and anger. Islamophobia is increasing in the United States and, friends, it is wrong. Its presence in our public discourse, in the halls of government, in the media, in our counter-terrorism trainings, on street corners in front of mosques; and in unnecessary FBI visits to the homes of law-abiding citizens reflects our nation at its worst—at the height of its arrogance and the depth of its ignorance. In the very least I feel called to work with my Muslim colleagues and friends to nurture a United States that is more welcoming towards Muslims, more knowledgeable about Islam, more nuanced in its appraisal of what constitutes an enemy, and far less beholden to the false assumption of its own purity and exceptionalism.

Sam Harris would say, “Hold on Rev. You need some nuancing as well. You sound like a typical religious moderate. You’re positioning yourself in solidarity with Muslims, you’re celebrating religious pluralism, you’re demanding that law enforcement officials not engage in religious and racial profiling, you’re saying all the politically correct things. But you’re ignoring the full extent of the violence in the Koran (just as so many religious moderates ignore the violence in the Bible). If you’re unwilling to challenge the call to violence in the sacred books which so many proclaim to be the unerring, unchanging word of God, then you offer no bulwark against religious extremism and religious violence. In affirming Muslims in the way that you do, you tacitly affirm the violence against unbelievers and so-called infidels to which the Koran incites them.” That’s not a direct quote, but it is essentially what Harris says in The End of Faith. The scriptures say what they say. As long as religious moderates fail to challenge the more problematic passages; as long as we fail to hold extremists accountable for their murderous behavior; and unless we are willing to say definitively and forcefully in a sustained and organized way that the passages that incite some of the faithful to violence do not meet the moral standards for a civilized society, then religious extremism will thrive. I believe this is what Harris would say.

I have a few responses. First, certainly Harris is correct—and it doesn’t take a Ph.D. in anything to understand—that there are passages in many sacred books that appear to unambiguously call on the faithful to commit acts of violence against those who believe differently. Such passages are, in the very least, the fuel religious extremists use to maintain the fire of their rage and their desire to achieve their destructive ends.

Second, while this is true, Harris goes too far when he turns the equation around and holds all Muslims responsible for acts of violence committed by a few extremists. This is egregiously unfair. This is Islamophobia. Imagine if our congregation held our friends at Center Congregational Church in Manchester responsible for Operation Save America yelling “murderers!” at Muslim children in Bridgeport, simply because they are Christians. Imagine if we held them responsible for the Oklahoma City bombing because the bomber had Christian leanings. It doesn’t make sense. And worse, it yields no effective strategy for countering religiously-motivated violence.

Third, in the encounter with people of faith who ground their lives in sacred texts that include problematic passages—passages that call for violence, for destruction of unbelievers, for oppression of women and gays and people with disabilities—and when one’s intent it to build relationship and community with them, rather than force them into a theological corner, I think it is fair to ask, “What do you make of those passages?” “How do you read those passages and interpret them so that they do not incite violence and oppression?” Engaging in such dialogue across faith lines seems essential in building communities that have the capacity to hold religious extremists in check. I asked Imam Kashif this question. I am deeply grateful for the time he took to be in dialogue with me. He said something similar to what many moderate, liberal and progressive Christians and Jews say about the problematic passages in the Bible. He said you have to read those passages in their historical context. He reminded me that the early Muslims, including the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), were themselves oppressed by the ruling Arab elites of the day. They were hunted, attacked and killed. They were forced to flee their homes. He said these passages must be understood in the context of early Muslims defending themselves from persecution in the 7th century. They speak not to the need for aggression, but to the need for self-defense. Knowing the history helps our understanding. Listening helps. Being in dialogue helps. Asking fair questions helps.

Finally, with regard to Harris’ statement, “moderation in religion offers no bulwark against religious extremism and religious violence,” I am willing to concede that both globally and locally, moderate, liberal and progressive people of faith do not today offer a powerful alternative to those individuals who might be convinced to commit acts of terror in the name of religion. (We also don’t offer a powerful alternative to young people on our city streets who might be convinced to join street gangs.) I am willing to concede that. But I am not willing to concede, as Harris seems to, that it cannot be done. It can. We—all of us—Muslims, Jews, Catholics, Protestants, Hindus, Buddhists, Unitarian Universalists—all of us who care about the quality of our communities, who care about and value religious pluralism, who take seriously the proposition that it is possible to love your neighbor and your enemy as yourself, who want to live in societies that prioritize a politics of justice, an economy of fairness and a covenant of community—we can and must come together. We can engage in dialogue. We can honor and respect each other. We can break bread and celebrate with each other. We can struggle for justice together. We can feed the hungry together. We can comfort the sick together. We can heal our broken communities together. We need to engage with each other in all these ways because that is how we offer a powerful alternative to those who might otherwise pursue violence.

And when arrogance and ignorance rise up to insult, interrogate, injure, frighten, harass and oppress as they are now doing to our Muslim friends in the United States of America, we must confront them courageously with a resounding no. No Islamophobia on our watch. No Islamophobia in this nation that claims to be a peace-loving nation. No Islamophobia in this nation that claims to be a justice-seeking nation. No Islamophobia in this nation that claims to be a democratic nation. Amen and Blessed Be.


[1] Harris, Sam, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2004) p. 20.

[2] More on Sam Harris at http://www.samharris.org/site/about/.

[3] More on Project Reason at http://www.project-reason.org/.

[4] Harris, Sam, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2004) p. 20.

[5] Harris, Sam, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2004) p. 20.

[6] See the statement at http://www.muslimcoalitionct.org/resources/interfaith-statement.

[7] More on Rep. King’s hearings at http://articles.latimes.com/2011/mar/10/nation/la-na-muslim-house-hearing-20110311.

[8] See http://articles.nydailynews.com/2010-05-19/local/27064852_1_muslims-ibrahim-hooper-ground-zero.

[9] http://www.ctpost.com/news/article/Angry-protesters-descend-on-mosque-606515.php.

[10] Cincotta, Thomas, Manufacturing the Muslim Menace: Private Firms, Public Servants, and the Threat to Rights and Security (Somerville, MA: Political Research Associates, 2011) p. 1.

[11] Ibid., i.

[12] Ibid., p. 4.