October 18th, 2012 | Posted by: Walker Bristol
It may literally embody a non-issue: even though debate moderators have tried to inject religion into the discussion, candidates have recently been laying low on spirituality. Sure, Mitt Romney offered his typical, odd “all children of the same God” consolation, but just as the conservative public seems to have settled on his Mormonism, the greater public seems to have settled that this isn’t a religio-centric election, and the candidates are taking that to mean they should avoid the topic at all costs.
Which is nice, but also not at all nice, for there are issues of religion that warrant national discussion and aren’t really getting it.
In (seemingly) extraelectorate activity, there’s admittedly been some endorsement of pluralism from the White House as of late. The controversy surrounding “Innocence of Muslims” led to emphasis on the Obama administration’s dedication to “religious freedom”, wherein the president asserted that “the United States has a profound respect for people of all faiths.” An important message amid a cloud of Islamaphobia–one that would’ve been nice to see rehashed on the debate floor.
On questions of religion that involve the tangible government endorsement of religion–most prominently the Parsonage exemption for religiously-affiliated institutions–the bipartisan candidates have both been largely silent. To really no surprise at all, the Green Party’s Jill Stein (of being-a-presidential-candidate-handcuffed-to-a-chair-in-a-warehouse-for-hours-for-peacefully-demanding-access-to-the-presidential-debates fame) is the only candidate who has even mustered a response to the policy: “I would agree with the principle here of separation of church and state, which would seem to say that we should not give special favors to employees of religious institutions.” A head-noddingly reasonable one, at that.
Not necessarily to endorse Dr. Stein, but to emphasize the game of the election: people don’t want to hear about religion right now, so frontrunners shut up about it, even if it’s relevant. And most importantly, how that game muffles issues of threatened pluralism and misguided state funding. We ought to remind our leaders that using your spirituality as a tool to garner votes, and challenging imminent threats to a diverse society, are very different indeed.
Walker Bristol woke up this morning and realized, to his dismay, that he is the President of the Tufts Freethought Society and the Director of Communications for Foundation Beyond Belief. This is especially peculiar considering he grew up as a high school wrestler-pianist in North Carolina and intended to become Luke Skywalker for an undisclosed period of his life, eventually settling for a Star Wars tattoo. The Tufts Political Science and Religion departments suffer his enrollment. He writes about social activism and art in the Tufts Daily, and about religion in the 2012 election for The Unelectables. His diet consists of hummus. He tweets nonsense on all these fronts @GodlessWalker.
Please check out my new post over at Tikkun Daily on the new initiative I’m heading up for the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue (JIRD), in partnership with the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions. The project, called State of Formation, will be a forum for emerging religious and ethical leaders to engage the pressing issues of our time. The deadline for nominations is October 15th, so if you are or know an emerging ethical or religious leader, please don’t hesitate to fill out the nomination form here.
“What qualifies you to do this?” I asked myself as I rode the train home one day to write my first contribution to the Washington Post’s On Faith last year. I listened to the wheels rumble beneath me, looked at those sitting around me, and knew I was headed in a new direction.
I was 22-years-old, an atheist, and a seminary student. Though I don’t believe in God, I decided to go to seminary because I wanted to find a way to bridge the divide between religious and secular communities. The summer after my first year at seminary I began interning at the Interfaith Youth Core, an organization that aims to mobilize a movement of young people positively engaging religious pluralism. The organization’s founder, Eboo Patel, maintained a blog for On Faith and invited me to submit a guest post for it.
At the time, I was beginning to recognize that the organized atheist movement often talked about religion in ways that created more division instead of less. As an atheist, I was frustrated by what I saw as a total lack of interest from my fellow atheists in respectfully engaging religious identities. So I sat down and wrote about it.
As I was working on my essay, I began to browse the rest of the site. On Faith features a panel of contributors that are among the most respected and knowledgeable experts in the fields of religion and ethics. But I didn’t see many blogs on their site by people who weren’t already established as authorities. I wondered if I was actually qualified to write for the website.
After my submission was posted, I started getting some unexpected feedback. “This is exactly what I think, but I didn’t know anyone else agreed with me,” wrote one reader. “Thank you for saying something our community really needs to hear,” wrote another. These readers happened to be young people.
I hadn’t thought that there were others who felt the same way I did, let alone other young people. I talked to a friend who maintained a blog of his own, and he suggested I create a blog to continue sorting through this issue.
I started NonProphet Status, and suddenly became a part of a larger conversation on the issue of religion and atheism. The blog quickly began to get traction in interfaith and atheist circles, and soon I was being asked to speak at conferences, received invitations to write in other venues, and watched my blog views grow from week to week. I, a young seminary student with a small but growing vision for respectful engagement across lines of secular and religious identity, suddenly had a platform.
Emerging leaders in formation, especially young ones, deserve to have a voice. In a time defined by deep political and religious divisions, we need to hear from those who will shape our ethical future. The current American discourse on religion and ethics is primarily defined by established leaders – ministers, rabbis, academics and journalists. While their perspectives are invaluable, this leaves an entire population of important stakeholders without a platform: the up-and-comers. Continue reading at Tikkun Daily.
Today’s guest blog is an anonymous submission, and it wrestles with the ongoing issue of how America’s diverse Muslim community is perceived and how Atheists, Christians and others might better support it. This is a truly excellent and especially important piece and I hope that all of NonProphet Status’ readers will heed the below advice and encourage others to do the same. Without further ado:
An American Muslim man is being interviewed about a mosque expansion, necessary for the growing local population, that was temporarily blocked by the city council. The interviewer asks him whether Muslims should participate in U.S. politics.
He responds that when politics can reduce public harm, Muslims are obligated to participate. “Theoretically, it is very easy to say [avoid political involvement], but practically, we consider Islam as a dynamic faith… Because really, we are part of this society, we are citizens. What will harm them, will harm us, and sometimes what will harm them harms us first. So how can I isolate myself from the entire society?”
Political engagement is becoming more common in American Muslim communities today. David Schanzer, Charles Kurzman and Ebrahim Moosa sent their overworked graduate students around the U.S. to learn how typical Muslim communities prevent radicalization of troubled individuals. The most significant of their findings may incite the xenophobic among us, but will be no surprise to many people; increasing political mobilization among American Muslims is a positive change which should be encouraged.
Through Muslims’ political activity, “grievances are brought into the public sphere and clearly articulated so they do not fester and deepen,” and “disputes are resolved through debate, compromise, and routine political procedures.” Well, of course that sounds obvious to you. Keep in mind this report was written in part for politicians, who need to be constantly reminded why we employ them.
Regardless of the side benefits to wider society, citizens and guests should be able to feel welcome in the United States. Yet Muslims here are still experiencing a surge in hate crimes, which peaked in late 2001. Citing FBI hate crime statistics, the authors report “current levels remain about five times higher than prior to 9/11.” These are only the most threatening incidents in an ongoing pattern of collective punishment.
So, what can the rest of us do to ease hostilities against American Muslims?
We should widely publicize anti-Muslim activity. Many people habitually want to imagine that biases against minorities are always a thing of the past. The media’s current attention on anti-Muslim bias will fade soon, as all news cycles do. But the collective punishment will continue in relative silence. We can at least talk to our acquaintances about these issues, and bother our local news companies regularly.
The Southern Poverty Law Center has decent coverage of anti-Muslim activity. There is also Islamophobia Watch, which focuses more on the U.K. but includes some coverage of the U.S. We don’t need to agree with all the policies these organizations advocate; merely as news sources they are indispensable. I hope readers can suggest others in the comments.
We should amplify the voices of Muslims who denounce violence. Contrary to popular narrative, a major finding of this report was that “Muslim-Americans have [denounced violence] in public and in private, drawing on both religious and secular arguments. Much of this has gone unnoticed in the mainstream press, and many Americans wonder — erroneously — why Muslims have been silent on the subject.”
Reporters don’t like going to their jobs any more than the rest of us. If consumer pressure doesn’t tell them that when reporting on violence by Muslims, at minimum they must include Muslims condemning violence, they won’t bother. Bloggers and people active on social media can try to fill the gaps.
We should highlight the diversity of views within Muslim communities. Humans often assume that unfamiliar groups are monolithic, even while recognizing that more familiar groups are made up of individuals with their own personal views. A non-Muslim may read the Quran and think “now I know what Islam is all about.“ Though religion is not primarily about texts anyway, it’s worth pointing out that anyone who simply read the Bible and assumed they now understand Christianity would be overlooking thousands of common interpretations, and billions of individual Christian views.
If reading a text was sufficient to understand a religion, there would be no market for theology. The reason there are so many schools of Islamic theology, so many arguments about hadith, and thousands of scholars cited in arguments, is that Muslims do not agree on what Islam should mean to the individual in her or his time and place. The reality of Muslim diversity is far more complex than blanket terms of Sunni, Shia and Ibadi may suggest.
This kind of cognitive bias about unfamiliar groups was part of the reason many Americans once imagined that Catholic immigrants were a unified invading horde, not thinking for themselves but all taking orders from the Pope. This happened even though any careful observer could see multiple competing sects within the Catholic Church. Today’s fear of Muslims will one day be as embarrassing as yesterday’s anti-Catholic paranoia is now, but that day can’t come soon enough, and we should do whatever we can to speed the process along.
We should welcome American Muslim identity politics. There is a tendency among dominant groups to demand that others drop some aspect of their identity. We’ve heard this most often directed at African-Americans. But the demand comes without evidence of its practicality. Am I an atheist first, or an American first? Such questions suppose a consistency which no human actually practices. When I’m talking religion, I’m more obviously an atheist. Talking politics, I’m more obviously an American. People are not so distinct as labels may imply, and we are all capable of valuing many things at once.
This suggestion is likely to meet resistance, so I’ll quote the authors’ explanation: “Today, many Islamic groups, including terrorist groups, claim to speak on behalf of the entire umma, the global community of Muslims. However, the pan-ethnic identity of Muslim-Americans serves to undermine terrorism by emphasizing the compatibility of Muslim-ness and American-ness. These are not two civilizations on a crash course, but instead two civilizations overlapping and melding. A recent book offers an outspoken vision of this double identity:
‘This anthology is about women who don’t remember a time when they weren’t both American and Muslim… We wore Underoos and watched MTV. We know juz ‘amma (the final thirtieth [chapter] of the Qur’an) and Michael Jackson’s Thriller by heart. We played Atari and Game Boy and competed in Qur’anic recitation competitions. As we enter our twenties, thirties, and forties we have settled into the American Muslim identity that we’ve pioneered.’”
We should learn to address the systemic problems that affect American Muslim communities. This can be difficult without listening; systemic problems involving housing, policing, education and employment may not be immediately obvious to those who aren’t experiencing them. Established communities of African-American Muslims face the same kinds of discrimination as other African-Americans do, and recent immigrant communities face challenges of their own.
We should support American Muslim community-building efforts. Involved communities, religious and secular, can provide bulwarks against crushing boredom and lonely isolation, reach out to troubled youths, direct financial and other assistance to those who are struggling in poverty, and generally make life more livable.
We’re not just talking about overtly religious efforts here. There are “charity events, dances, mixers, basketball tournaments, soccer leagues, lobbying, media-relations, voter-registration, electoral campaigns, fashion shows, religious festivals, ethnic festivals, national-heritage holidays such as Pakistan Independence Day and Iranian New Year.”
Some community-building can work to counteract the effects of systemic discrimination. These should be of special interest to government officials and politicians: “Many Muslim-American communities have the resources to build community institutions without assistance; others do not. We recommend that all levels of government make additional efforts to offer disadvantaged Muslim-American communities such community-building resources as funding for recreation centers, day care centers, public health clinics, and courses in English as a Second Language. There is a special need for these resources in isolated immigrant communities.”
That brings me to mosques. We should help build mosques, the most visible symbol of American Muslims’ presence. They generally provide both the benefits of community-building, and the serious religious training that can immunize troubled individuals against extremist propaganda on the internet.
Right now, mosques are being opposed simply because they remind nativists that Muslims exist. We need to do something to counteract these hostilities.
It’s not enough to be indifferent. It’s not enough just to speak up for First Amendment rights, though that bare minimum is important.
Government funding can’t be used, but non-Muslims should make public our efforts to support the construction and expansion of mosques, as an example of American values. Some Americans really need to be reminded right now what those values are.
By support, I mean financial or volunteering, whatever you can do. If there are any mosques planned or under construction in your area, it would help to call local politicians and tell them you support the Muslim community’s construction efforts and will only support politicians who uphold the First Amendment. Churches and atheist organizations should get in touch with local Muslim groups, and ask what they need. If our neighbors can see us taking an active role in these efforts, they may be reminded of their own better nature.
Last night on The Daily Show, Jon Stewart took on the islamophobic critics of Park51, aka the “Ground Zero” “Mosque.” Everyone needs to watch the video — you can see it here. Best line? ”Why does everyone think America is divided? It appears distrust of Muslims is the only thing that goes from ‘sea to shining sea.’”
I remember the first time I was invited to attend an Islamic prayer meeting with a friend. As I sat and observed, I closed my eyes and listened to “as-salamu ‘alaykum“ sound against the walls of the mosque. Though it was my first time at an Islamic prayer meeting, the words rang familiar. I was transported back to my years of Christian worship attendance before I stopped believing in God, to services that concluded with an equivalent wish: “Peace be with you.”
As most folks now know thanks to Sarah Palin’s liberal use of the english language (never thought I’d put “Sarah Palin” and “liberal” together), there is a controversy brewing in lower Manhattan. Park51, a proposed Muslim community center, is coming under significant fire for its proximity to Ground Zero. The very conservative right, once again conflating the individual actions of an extremist fringe with the larger religion of Islam, has taken to calling this Muslim community center a mosque and is demanding that the city forbid its construction.
Yesterday my friend Joshua Stanton, in collaboration with a diverse group of young leaders, launched Religious Freedom USA, a counter-movement in support of Park51. In a write-up for the Huffington Post, Josh and Frank Fredericks offered a poetic explanation of why they are establishing this initiative:
Some may wonder why a Born Again Christian and a future rabbi, both under the age of 25, are working to build support for a Muslim community center. To us it seems natural: this is not simply a Muslim issue, a Jewish issue, or a Christian issue. This is an American issue, and members of all religious communities are affected by a threat to religious freedom.
We Atheists, Agnostics, Secular Humanists, Freethinkers, Skeptics and the like should be leading the charge in support of Park51 alongside Josh and Frank. We value freedom of choice when it comes to religion — because of it, we are able to choose “none.” Which means we should rally behind the right others have to practice their religion of choice, and stand in solidarity when their right to do so is threatened.
As we well know, surveys show that the non-religious are among the most marginalized groups in this country. We understand what it is like to have our non-religious beliefs and identities diminished or dismissed. So too is Islamophobia rampant in our culture; yesterday the Lieutenant Governor of Tennessee was quoted as saying that he is “not sure” if the Constitution guarantees freedom of religion to Muslims, calling Islam a “cult.” Such inflammatory rhetoric should sound very familiar to our community, which is often accused of being a cultish and immoral outlier in a religious nation.
Park51 is under attack because of how demonized Muslims are in America, plain and simple. Many Americans see nothing but godless, immoral, savage heathens when they think of Muslims. As a community comparably cast, we should empathize and come to their defense. Defending their freedom is defending our own. Josh and Frank get it just right when they write that “more extreme voices want this right to apply only to their own religious communities, and not to others. But when one group’s freedoms are threatened, the religious freedom of all Americans is at stake… This is about protecting the civil rights assured to all Americans in the Constitution.”
If we want to ensure that our non-religious freedoms are protected, we must stand up for our Muslim neighbors. This is not merely a civil imperative: it is a moral one. Our Humanistic values call us to act on behalf of the oppressed. The first Humanist Manifesto states that Humanists should “endeavor to establish the conditions of a satisfactory life for all, not merely for the few. By this positive morale and intention humanism will be guided, and from this perspective and alignment the techniques and efforts of humanism will flow.”
Another central value of Secular Humanism is reason; the propaganda being put forth by those who oppose Park51 is entirely irrational and unethical. We can and should call them out. Let’s join the Religious Freedom USA campaign and stand up for Park51. I can see the headline now: “Atheists and Muslims Band Together!” The political right would have a field day. It may sound farfetched but it’s happened before. It can and should happen again now.
You don’t need to be a Muslim or a Christian to wish peace, or salam, for us all. Now, let us have freedom too.