‘Why Islam Is a Threat,” February 5th, 2017, Rev. Kendyl Gibbons
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“We must respond to Trump the way victims of trauma respond to abuse. We must carry out acts of civil disobedience and steadfast defiance to re-empower others and ourselves. We must build communities where we can find understanding and solidarity. We must fend off the madness and engage in dialogues based on truth, literacy, empathy and reality. We must invest more time in activities such as finding solace in nature, or focusing on music, theater, literature, art and even worship—activities that hold the capacity for renewal and transcendence. This is the only way we will remain psychologically whole. We may not win, but if we create small, like-minded cells of defiance, we will have the capacity not to go insane.”
So says Chris Hedges, who I have always experienced as a culturally insightful guy. Does his prescription sound familiar to anyone besides me? Communities where we can find understanding and solidarity… Dialogues based on truth, literacy, empathy and reality… Activities such as solace in nature, music, theater, literature, art, and even worship… Small, like-minded cells of defiance… Hello? Is this not what we and our sibling congregations have always been about, since ever? I was planning a respite this morning, to talk about something not ripped from the headlines – specifically, the grittier heroes of our UU history. Not the dreamy, transcendentalist sages of 19th century New England, but Servetus dying in the flames, and Francis David shivering in his cell in the fortress high atop Deva mountain. Well, okay, I’m not saying it had nothing to do with the news… But once again, I have been pre-empted by clear and present dangers, both in substance and process, from the White House.
I will take up the substance, in the form of the attempted ban on Muslims entering the country, in a moment. It is worth our considered attention, because it actually reflects s level of public sentiment that extends beyond the president, and we ought to be able to respond to it. If not on its non-existent merits, at least on the basis of better knowledge. But first of all, it is needful to attend to the process, which is the more worrisome part, and harder to get one’s hands around. I find Chris Hedge’s analogy to the behavior of an abusive spouse to be helpful. I am extremely fortunate not to have been a victim of such abuse in my own life, but I have walked with both women and young people as they have made the difficult journeys toward sanity and self-assertion in such situations.
Bear with me a moment; I want to remind you of a concept that we have talked about before, in other contexts. It is the contrast between being embedded in our experience, and being able to take that experience as an object of reflection. One illustration would be between the exhausted, over-wrought toddler who screams, “I hate you!” at the parent that is trying to put her to bed, and the adult who, in the midst of a tense conversation, says, “You know, I am very tired and upset, and if I keep talking, I’m likely to say something I will regret. Let’s leave this for now.” The child, embedded in her physical distress and frustration, has no capacity to think about how she is feeling – to take her experience as an object of reflection. The adult on the other hand is aware of having a choice; she can observe her own emotions and state of being, and reflect on what is in the long term best interest of herself, her partner, and the relationship. I want to suggest that the current White House administration is luring us to become so embedded in our reactions of disgust and panic at its activities that we abandon our capacity for objective reflection on the process it is engaged in, of seeking to consolidate power and overwhelm resistance.
Like an injured, isolated, and fearful victim of abuse, we may not be in a position to initiate immediate change. And I wonder if the same principles perhaps apply to those of us who want freedom, equality, and the rule of law back in our country. This is what I know to do: find support, gather resources, and make plans. Plans include both emergency measures, to try to find protection from the worst spasms of violence, and a long-term strategy to escape dependency and end the danger permanently. I also know that appeasing or trying to reason with an abuser never achieves any enduring change; those who are embedded in their craving for power have no capacity to surrender it, either in the service of the common good, or for the sake of their own integrity. The first and most important need is, as Hedges suggests, to stay sane – or as our friends in the Black Lives Matter movement might say, stay woke. Don’t fall back into your embeddedness; keep alive the capacity to take your own behavior, as well as the abuser’s, and the dynamics of the whole relationship, as an object of reflection. That is where you need support from other people who can see what you see – and what you can’t see. This administration is making classic fascist moves toward tyranny; if we lose sight of their goal, amid the forest of lies and outrages with which they are bombarding us daily, they will win. It may take us generations of sacrificial struggle to undo this damage no matter how determined we are; if we ever forget that sanity is freedom, and wholeness, and human dignity for all people, we will only make our children’s work more daunting.
Find support, gather resources, and make plans. That is why we have churches, people; covenant communities of memory and promise – so that we remember what freedom and wholeness and dignity are; so that we promise each other and the generations to come that we will not forget. Find support everywhere and anywhere you can – the more places, the better – but don’t forget that other people here need you as much as you need them. Gather resources. That secret savings account and stash of hidden cash that an abuse victim needs? For us that’s $24 million to the ACLU last weekend, and other organizations like Planned Parenthood and GreenPeace and the Southern Poverty Law Center, as well as local groups like SURJ and AIRR and MORE2. When we pool our wealth to support this kind of work, we are collectively investing in the future of progressive values. We may not have billions in corporate resources, but then we don’t have to buy consciences, and that puts us way ahead. Privilege that goes to work to dismantle oppression has far more leverage than privilege trying to defend the crumbling walls of historical inequity. And make plans. We need to be strategizing for 2018; what congressional seats do we need to defend, which ones might be acquired? Who can we support on the local city and county level, to cultivate the leadership of the next generation? How can we organize to pressure the current crop of politicians to resist the worst of federal initiatives? Who will you visit? Who will you call? Where will you march? Creating a plan is part of maintaining sanity; it keeps panic from having the last word. And when defeats come, as they are bound to do, remembering the plan helps to remind us that we are neither powerless nor hopeless. And if we are not omnipotent, neither are the forces arrayed against us, and committed allegiance to the good has a respectable track record of success over time.
Now, about Islam in particular. It occurred to me as I was reviewing the five pillars of this tradition — the qualifications for being regarded as a practicing Muslim – that every single one of them constitutes a challenge and a rebuke to the lived values of Donald Trump and his minions. It is no wonder that they find it threatening, and would like to be rid of it. For it is absolutely true that you could not be an authentically practicing Muslim, and a devotee of Trump and his ambitions at the same time.
Take for instance the first pillar, the Shahada, or confession of faith. On its face, this is simple enough; it consists of the affirmation that there is no god but god, and Mohammed is god’s prophet. Now translation is always an issue, but the common version ‘there is no god but Allah,’ is problematic. It suggests that there is a larger category of potential gods, out of which the believer is selecting one, namely Allah. But Allah is not the proper name of a particular god, like Zeus, or Vishnu. Rather, Allah is the word ‘god’ in Arabic, and the phrase literally says, there is no god but god, using the same word twice. A more useful interpretation would be, there is nothing ultimate, or nothing worthy of worship, but god. Or, to put it the other way around, nothing finite, or human, is worthy of our unqualified loyalty or respect. To the faithful Muslim, the effort to avoid idolatry, to refrain from giving one’s unconditional commitment or adoration to anything less than what is truly infinite and ultimate, requires a lifetime of striving for wisdom, self-awareness, and insight. As a practicing Humanist, I get that. And I suspect that, to the extent he might have any understanding of it, it would scare the daylights out of Donald Trump. From everything I have ever heard him say, or seen him do, it is clear to me that the president’s ultimate loyalty is to his own ego and power. He has no sense of accountability to anything larger than himself, including the constitution or the traditions of democracy or the judgement of history, let alone some concept of a deity. To acknowledge that the people around him ought to be more loyal to something else than they are to him, would have to be excruciating.
The second pillar of Islam, the five daily prayers, would also be a problem, it seems to me. Just physically, I find it all but impossible to form a mental image of the president on his knees on the floor for any purpose besides accepting the adulation of others for himself. To conceive of his giving his own adoration to something larger truly boggles my mind. Moreover, part of the purpose of these routine interruptions into the business of the day is to keep alive in the consciousness of the believers the recognition that they are not running the universe, and that everything they do will eventually be judged according to its ethical basis, including its impact on others, especially the poor. What could be more irritating and unwelcome to those whose primary agenda is to pursue their own advantages, than this kind of incessant reminder that they are not ultimately in charge? Just the awareness that people elsewhere are engaged in such prayer is probably annoying to them.
The third pillar of Muslim practice involves a commandment of redistributive charity, intended to ensure that the wealthy take care of the needs of the poor. Unlike western culture, the Zakat, or alms requirement, distinguishes charity to the poor from patronage of the arts or even the religious community. If you want to support museums or public television or build a hospital with your name on it, or even a church, that’s fine, but it doesn’t fulfill your duty – your sacred duty – to the poor. And that responsibility is calculated not on the basis of your momentary income, but on the whole of your accumulated wealth. Mohammed’s vision was of equality in the community of believers; one of the old nomadic tribal values that he tried to preserve in an evolving urban culture, was that the economically secure should take care of the economically vulnerable. As an orphan himself, he understood the risks and challenges faced by those who were dispossessed, and he taught that anyone who enjoyed good fortune had a primary, unarguable obligation to help others; the community of believers could have no integrity otherwise. By contrast, Donald Trump announces the division of the world into winners and losers; the winners deserve to keep everything they can get, and they owe nothing to the losers, who must be either lazy or stupid or in some other way unworthy. The demand to share their resources with the less fortunate would contradict everything the president believes about his own and others’ wealth.
The month-long fast of Ramadan is the fourth pillar, and this, too, I think, stands as a rebuke to Donald Trump’s lifestyle. In a facile way, of course, it challenges the ostentatious luxury by which he displays his wealth, when part of the object of not eating or drinking during daylight hours is to share the experience of the poor, who have nothing to eat even if it were allowed. To be required to feel the deprivation that a loser feels is something I have to think that the president would strenuously resist. But at a deeper level, the Ramadan fast is about the believers helping each other, by example and encouragement, learn to control their impulses in the service of higher intentions. It is not meant to create dire suffering, and there are so many exceptions and exemptions that no one really has to do it unless they choose. But millions of people do choose to demonstrate to themselves and others that they have the ability to resist something as fundamental as appetite for a purpose they consider more important. Both during and since the campaign, Donald Trump’s addiction to emotional venting on Twitter has demonstrated that he has no capacity to discipline his impulses, or even to be guided by others who seek to prevent him from doing himself impulsive damage. His appetites for power and admiration appear to be literally insatiable, and I cannot imagine that learning to recognize and control them is an exercise that he would welcome. Nor would he be likely to embrace a month-long reminder of how many people have more self-discipline than he does.
The final pillar in the practice of Islam is the Hajj, or pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca. Everything about the way in which this journey is to be carried out stands in stark contrast to the president’s career in casinos and luxury hotels. Men on the Hajj dress in only two white sheets, which will one day serve as their burial shrouds, and sandals. No jewelry, no fancy shoes, no designer fashions. Women are allowed more structured garments according to their regional customs, but simple, and white; entirely devoid of status. Pilgrims sleep in tents, or on the bare ground. No one is special; everyone shares. They experience, for a period of days, the absolute equality in diversity that the prophet sought to place at the heart of Islam; the common humanity of all who acknowledge their finitude and mortality and accountability to a moral standard. This is travel not for status, or comfort, or stimulation of the senses, but for personal growth and spiritual deepening through community. It is an experience that transforms people, as we know for instance that it did Malcolm X. It is the antithesis of what the Trump name is meant to stand for in the hospitality industry – exclusivity, privilege, self-indulgence.
While we are at it, let’s say a word about Jihad, or struggle, even though it is not now, and never has been, one of the pillars or even central ideas of Muslim practice. Donald Trump is a great believer in what is called the lesser Jihad, the struggle to overcome one’s enemies. The greater Jihad, according to Mohammed, is the struggle to purify one’s own heart of selfishness, pride, dishonesty, and anger. Given a choice, I will take the prophet’s version, and I suspect even the most novice of believers have made greater progress in that endeavor than what I witness in our nation’s current leader.
Given these pillars, how could such a tradition not rub the forces of domination the wrong way? Of course, so would attention to the actual teachings of Jesus, or the Old Testament prophets, if one took them seriously. Or the Buddha. Or Confucius. In the end, it is not Islam per se that threatens the president and his adherents – it is any genuine life of the spirit, that invites people into a community of mutuality, compassion, equality, creative possibility, and above all humility in the face of our highest ideals. It comes back to that first assertion – there is no god but god, and you are not it, not even if your name is President Donald J. Trump. He has raged against that implacable reality his whole life, without learning the central secret of how to relax into our shared humanity. Sad, for him and for us. Very sad.
There is no god but god, begins the teaching of Islam; nothing worthy of our veneration but what is truly ultimate. And yet, that ultimate reality has many names; the merciful, the compassionate, the preserver, the giver of peace – ninety nine names in the Qur’an alone, say some believers. Many names – innumerable, say the whispered prayers of the human spirit throughout the ages. Those prayers have never been silenced, not by fences or walls, not by decrees or executive orders, not by fear or cruelty or ignorance or bigotry. Always they ascend, pleading for mercy and grace, for strength to do what is right, for justice and peace, for an earth made fair, and all its people one. The names are the poetry of human yearning in our mouths, down to the least articulate sigh. Let us now lift our voices in that chorus.
Copyright © Rev. Dr. Kendyl Gibbons 2017