Asserting citizenship as a Muslim

The founding fathers said it: "President George Washington, who, in a letter to the Jews of Newport, Rhode Island, declared that the United States, 'gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens.'" - from MoJo piece by Matteen Mokalla.

Make sure you read Matteen Mokalla’s piece from Mother Jones today about the absurdity of the “Ground Zero Mosque” debate and how it shows just how far our attitudes toward Muslims have pulled this country away from many of its ideals. You may remember Mr. Mokalla from past posts on this blog, where he answered questions about Iran’s election, articulated the ridiculousness of not translating “Allah” in news reports, and where I described riding shotty with him as we campaigned  for Obama in southern Ohio.

Which is, incidentally, where the key vignette in his post appears. Continue reading

How badly has U.S. policy failed Somalia?

“The only people who care at all about Somalis are the people who are working out of mosques. But I’m told that if they’re working out of mosques, they’re bad guys.”

That’s the conundrum that Columbia Professor Richard Bulliet says a CIA desk officer related to him at a conference in Washington a decade ago. Despite that clear revelation in the rank and file of the intelligence community, the United States has spent the 2000s doing everything possible to disable the Islamists in Somalia–even if it meant propping up brutal warlords with no real vision for a Somali state.

Bulliet recalled the incident last night during the event “The Obama Administration and the Middle East”, co-sponsored by the Arab Student Association, Columbia University Amnesty International and several other groups. Panelists–even as they expressed their happiness at Obama’s election–gave a sobering analysis of the limited prospects for fast, fundamental change in American policies in the Middle East. (Other panelists included Columbia profs Gil Anidjar and Peter Awn, CUNY professor Amir al-Islam and ACLU attorney Hina Shamsi.) Continue reading

Capoeira Jihad for the new year

OK, don’t freak out. I’m not advocating a Brazilian-martial-arts-based holy war on infidels here. Jihad simply means “struggle” in Arabic and carries no inherent connotation of religion or violence. If you don’t know what capoeira is, please read the Wikipedia entry.

Capoeira Jihad is a concept I came up with last year when I was really getting into capoeira, training four to five times a week. I also happened to be taking an extremely time-consuming Arabic class at Columbia. Continue reading

Bill Maher Is Annoying

You’ve probably seen the coverage of Bill Maher’s controversial new movie, Religulous. Looks like a pretty funny, broad-based criticism of religion along the lines of Christopher Hitchens.

From the trailer, it looks like Maher’s movie makes fun of believers of all stripes, makes them look like imbeciles, and generally interviews the least articulate of them.

But a film like this does nothing to advance the dialogue on religion. To change people’s minds and not just appear like an arrogant jerk, you need to have at least a modicum of respect for the people you talk to. Especially if they represent massively popular phenomena.

It also misses the real story. The tragedy is not religion but a certain kind of religious practice. Intellectual traditions in all religions are under attack. Perhaps there was never much room for being a doubter or a mystic in mainstream religions — and of course, in Europe in the past you could have gotten into a lot of trouble for expressing such things. But more and more, they don’t seem like an option (even though they would easily stand up to Maher-style logical debunking, because they claim very little in the way of specifics).

Religiosity, literalism and fanaticism are on the rise all over the world, and the diversity of interpretations is decreasing. I’m thinking specifically of Islam, Christianity and Judaism. You’re either with us or against us, the literalists say. Stuff like Maher’s film only amplifies the restrictions that only give us two choices.

So Mr. Maher, if spiritual life has been an aspect of all human societies since the dawn of time, then we cannot just misanthropically dismiss all the inclinations people have to “oceanic feelings”. (I’m with Jung, not Freud, on this one.) We really need a good criticism of religious fanaticism at this time — it is corrupting our most beautiful instincts — but this film looks like it’s only going to further polarize the debate.

And I wish you could have waited until after the elections to release this! Sarah Palin can have a field day.