Sep 24, 2008

An encounter after Iftar (إفطار‎)

I have a friend who invited me to join him at the Annual Interfaith Dinner towards the end of September. This is a traditional evening meal, Iftar‎, which breaks the fast done every day during the Islamic month of Ramadan. Among Muslims, this is usually a communal event, and it begins immediately after sunset (in this case, Pacific time).

I meet friends at the sign in. They are all happy and cheerful, very talkative. As am I. Non-believer that I am, I tried to fast, but of course woke up after sunrise and so didn't have breakfast in the dark. By noon I had to eat something--a salad--telling myself that since I had some health problems, I might have been excused, were I a Muslim. At any rate, I was very hungry and wondered if my talkative side was spurred by my comparably insufficient but real hunger pangs. Or perhaps the low blood sugar. A friend and I stood at the assigned table and waited the 15 second countdown, staring at the bowl of dates in the center of the table. Medjools. My favorite, and I say so my friend , a Palestinian Christian. She tells me that a date is the traditional food to break the fast with.

This is an Interfaith Event, so Roman collars and yarmulkes and head coverings on some of the women. These, along with some accents, are signs only--the important thing is that everyone is personable, reasonable, talkative or not talkative. In short, just the kind of folks you would expect at a fancy community dinner at the Anaheim Sheraton right up the road from Disneyland. The dinner will be enjoyable, to be sure, and the many testimonials and messages of interfaith cooperation are to be expected. Officials from the cities of Anaheim and Los Angeles, from Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, and Muslim organizations will speak.

After the dates break the fast, comes a time of worship for the Muslim attendees who respond to the call to prayer. A few people stand nearby to watch and listen to the prayers, yarmulkes and collars among them. While worship takes place at the other side of the hall, I meet some of the non-Muslim folks who share the table with us.

One is a representative of a very conservative Republican group. Its executive director, in fact. He has been invited to the dinner by a mutual friend, S., a director of an Islamic organization. This man is personable enough, though he talks more with my Palestinian friend than with me. He asks questions about the dinner and she tells him. I found out later that he wanted to initiate a dialogue with her about Muslims. And terrorism. And Jihad. He says he wants to find out more about these things.

The conservative Republican is not impressed by the interfaith testimonials, I guess, for in a follow up communication with my friend (she and I are part of a project for educating people about the Middle East), he asks her to watch the movie

This cranky film is currently being distributed free in all the battleground states during the election in order to raise fears--not questions, mind you, just fear--about Barack Obama's middle name, "Hussein." Some right wing think tank is putting up the money from what I can gather, and the usual distorted message is in it: after a careful disclaimer that not all Muslims are terrorists, the movie then goes on to insist on a great terrorist conspiracy to take over the United States and the rest of the "free world" in order to spread an Islamic Theocratic hegemony.

The right wing in specific, but Republicans in general, will not jump off this hobby horse.

She responds to him very clearly and sincerely, but it is not enough. He has to "gently challenge" her response. Here are some of his challenges, and I must comment on his points as I present them:

First, he wants her to watch the film because she "in in that world" and he wants to understand it and bring that understanding to others in his circle who want to "better understand it."
[Note that although he knows she is a Christian, he also knows she is a Palestinian, so therefore she is automatically in the world of the Jihadi terrorists; note too that although his people want to know more information, he implies that they already understand it.]

Second, he thanks her for the time, and yet challenges her
[Remember, she is Christian, so ask yourself why he is asking her to give him understanding about the Islamic faith rather than asking her to perhaps refer him to some Muslim acquaintances.] He does this because the people who watch and appreciate the movie Obsession he tells her, have a "pretty good idea of what the religion is about. Most are religious people. Many have read some of the Koran, as well as The Looming Tower and books like the Al Queda Reader, Londonistan, Now They Call Me Infidel, and America Alone. These are all best sellers for good reason."

[I cannot help but wonder just exactly what parts of the Qur'an they have read. The more pacific and humanistic, I am sure, though a look at the movie will tell you that the references to the book are all to the more violent ones, as if the killings and the massacres in the Old Testament represented the Jewish or the Christian religion.]

Third, he says that these folks have "done their homework" and refers to a question he asked at the dinner: "where are the moderate Muslims out in the streets demonstrating against those who seem to have hijacked what is a peaceful religion?"

[Because of course, it is not enough that Muslims all over the world have condemned violence and terrorism, but that the press here in the United States has failed to publicize the condemnations, which are readily available. A lot of responses have not received any mainstream press or media attention even though they existed. A Google search would produce documents aplenty. That is, if you have the impulse to search. That is, if once you have searched, you have the intellectual curiosity to read them. That is, after you have read them, if you have the intellectual courage to temper your original assumptions. They have an essential belief, despite their howling that the media is liberal, that all the information gets out. It doesn't. No, he wants the people who are stereotyped and victimized by short-sightedness, to mobilize. Perhaps he wants Muslims to march in the streets as those millions of Christians did after the terrorist shootings and bombings of abortion clinics? There were so many of them arrested during their demonstrations. The jails could not hold all those Christians.]

Fourth, he then goes on to insist that a full 10% of the Muslim world is committed to terrorism and points to the many instances of violence worldwide. He exaggerates, of course, not having "done his homework" about the very small number of terrorists compared to the number of Muslims.

[According to the 2006 National Intelligence Estimate, there were about 50,000 Al Qaeda terrorists--up from 20,000 in 2001--among an entire worldwide Muslim population of 1.5 Billion people. This is so minuscule a percentage that your calculator will not have enough places to provide the percentage. You will get the message "CALC ERR." One thirty-thousandth or thereabouts? His exaggeration is absurd, of course,and shows the essential fearful nature of his position and those of his "well-informed friends." Where there is fear there is hyperbole. Always. He is of course, asking for public action as a way of "proving" sincerity. The written word is not enough. The testimony at the very interfaith council meeting he attends is not enough to convince him that all the Muslims he sees tonight are non-violent, condemning violence quite rationally, and exhibiting their commitment to interfaith dialogue and cooperation. This crowd of two hundred is not enough to even suggest to him that he is acting on paranoiac hyperbole.]

Almost as a gratuitous insult and sign of his ignorance, he says that his "folks" will also want to know to what "radical aspects of Christianity and Judaism" my friend had referred to in their conversation at the table. (Remember, we are working on a Middle East Peace Education project. We at least know about the condition of the Palestinians since 1947.) He suggests that when she talks about violence she is referring to the "Crusades of hundreds of years ago," or the "Bombing of abortion clinics by people who are not really Christians" without noting the irony of his statement.
[If it is enough for him to say that the Christian bombers are "not really Christians" why is it not sufficient for Muslims to say that terrorists are not true believers in peaceful Islam?]

Finally, he refers to the use of rockets by Hamas being "defended against" by Israel.
[Though he does not acknowledge the many transgressions of international law, targeted assassination, continuing settlement in the West Bank, or the collective sanctions against the residents of Gaza that have been carried out by Israel in recent months, sometimes in retaliation, but most of the time which CAUSE retaliation. Here again, the ignorance of Americans from the failure of our Media to cover the facts on both sides is to blame. Only a person who had "never even begun to think" that Palestinians have been mistreated by the Israeli Government and its supporters would immediately assume that Hamas was the only violator here. As always, the ignorance of these people is breathtaking.]

Unfortunately, he exhibits what I have come to believe is a festering brew of sincere ignorance and innocent arrogance. People who think like this do not perceive themselves as arrogant, or innocent, or ignorant.

Of the books he has said his folks had read, only one,
The Looming Tower, by Lawrence Wright has any kind of respect as being solidly researched. It was the first book to actually track down the biographical information about the hijackers of 9-11-2001. Wright is a reputable journalist, but I am afraid that his thorough research has been used by conservatives to strengthen their argument that Islam is a violent religion. Wright's book was a best seller for many months after it came out.

As for the other books, they may be bestsellers on some right wing or conservative book club, but not bestsellers on the
NY or LA Times book lists, and you can almost tell from their titles which ax they have to grind.

Here in the US we have to deal an utter ignorance of the community they are fearful of, the usual racist mindset that insists that the people who are being discriminated against must be the ones to bend over backwards to assuage the ignorant fears of the people oppressing them (compare the old argument during the height of the militant civil rights era that the mainstream black community had to go slow, not rock the boat, and condemn the militancy of the more radical members of the group.)

It's not enough to have an Iftar dinner during Ramadan and show the man how ordinary and civilized--though different--the people at the dinner might be. No, he wants demonstrations and speeches by these people against the "terrorism" about which he has already made up his mind is a "central tendency" in Islam. I'm sure he was disappointed because there were no such diatribes at the dinner, not understanding what the Interfaith Council is all about, and not understanding that the notions of understanding and cooperation and common unity coming from the notion of all the "people of the book" are what was being celebrated. No diatribes against terrorism, of course, means that they
implicitly and silently support terrorism.

He and his compatriots have already decided that Islam is an inherently violent religion. Perhaps slow and steady education might help out, but I think that the essential problem is the mental mind set of the people he represents. They have no irony, they have no inner need to question their own assumptions, since they never understand that they are assuming. They do not have, for instance, that lovely impulse to want to understand that sent Malcolm X on his Haj and moved him from a narrow definition of Islam to a wider one.

What, you may ask, was the original response of my friend to his invitation to watch Obsession? Perhaps the greatest irony of all is that my friend had written to him the following:

For a film to focus strictly on one aspect, and of all aspects the most violent, and be distributed to people who most likely have no other knowledge of the religion I find to be very disturbing since it promotes a sense of hate and fear, dehumanizing the other, and not helping the work towards peace in anyway but instead promoting more violence. People need to be shown not just one aspect of a religion but all aspects, majority of which are very loving and peaceful.I have personally witnessed the extreme elements within the three monotheistic religions and the one thing I have learned is to never dehumanize the other, to work toward resolution in a non-violent manner for if I don't then there will be no hope for a peaceful future. This is something I always practice in all work.

You would have thought that this spontaneous eloquence on her part would have given him the impulse to reflect. Or even ask her to tell him more. No such luck. This encounter makes me see that overcoming ignorance and fear is the essential task of Interfaith Dialogue. He wants our mutual friend S. to speak to them, and I can only hope that when S. does he succeeds in his peaceful and gentle manner in convincing them of the truth regarding violence on both sides in Israel and Palestine. He wants "constructive dialogue."

If any one can do it, it will be our placid and sincere friend S.

More to post if I can when I find out how his talk with this group goes. In the meantime, I have bought some medjool dates and will have them for dessert.

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