Wednesday, 23 May 2012

My Neighbor's Faith: The Heroes I Was Looking For

by Eboo Patel
Named by US News And World Report as one of America’s Best Leaders
Published in Huffington Post
Posted: 05/21/2012 7:13 am
All Rights Reserved, Copyright

I spent my high school years in suburban Chicago dreaming of the future comforts of fat paychecks. When I went to college at the University of Illinois in Champaign, I saw the other America -- homeless Vietnam vets drinking mouthwash for the alcohol, minority students shunted to the back of overfull classrooms, battered women unable to find space at too-small shelters. I knew that America saw these shadows but chose not to call them. I did not want that disease.

So I flailed about wildly. I went to demonstrations and raged against the machine, but I did not see it improving anybody's life. I spent one summer living in communes and another traveling with the Grateful Dead, but decided escape wasn't my trip. I pierced my tongue and dressed in drag on campus, but realized that it wasn't a fashion revolution I was after. "Try being constructive," a professor advised me. So I started volunteering at shelters and schools, but I knew a broken world needed more than flimsy tape.

Few shared my frantic outlook. Most people were happy changing their clothes to fit the climate. Some folks left for places where the climate suited their clothes. A handful cursed the climate, shrugged, and went on their way. I wanted to change the climate. My loneliness was freezing. Somebody said to me, "Go visit St. Jude's Catholic Worker house on the other end of town."
"What's a Catholic Worker house?" I asked.
"Part shelter for poor folks, part anarchist movement for Catholic radicals, part community for anyone who enters. Really, it's about a whole new way of living. You've got to go there to know."
From the moment I entered St. Jude's, it was clear to me that this was different than any other place I'd been. I couldn't figure out whether it was a shelter or a home. There was nobody doing intake. There was no executive director's office. White, black and brown kids played together in the living room. I smelled food and heard English and Spanish voices coming from the kitchen.
The first thing somebody said to me was, "Are you staying for dinner?"
"Yes," I said.
The salad and stew were simple and filling, and the conversation came easily. After dinner, I asked someone, "Who is staff here? And who are the residents?"

"That's not the best way to think about this place," the person told me. "We're a community. The question we ask is 'What's your story?' There is a family here who immigrated from a small village in Mexico. The father found out about this place from his Catholic parish. They've been here for four months, enough time for the father to find a job and scrape together the security deposit on an apartment. There are others here with graduate degrees who believe that sharing their lives with the needy is their Christian calling. If you want to know the philosophy behind all of this, read Dorothy Day."

I did. And it made more sense to me than anything my Marxist professors lectured on, or my prelaw friends dreamed about, or my rock 'n' roll records drove at. Recalling the thoughts of her college days, Dorothy Day wrote: "I did not see anyone taking off his coat and giving it to the poor. I didn't see anyone having a banquet and calling in the lame, the halt, and the blind. And those who were doing it, like the Salvation Army, did not appeal to me. I wanted life and I wanted the abundant life. I wanted it for others too."

Dorothy Day's vision of a culture of kindness was joined by a radical social outlook: "Why was so much done in remedying social evils instead of avoiding them in the first place? ... Where were the saints to try to change the social order, not just to minister to the slaves but to do away with slavery?"
Most importantly for me at the scowly, skeptical age of 19, Dorothy Day had lived her commitments in solidarity with the poor, not just ministering to them; she had lived in resistance to the system, with the jail time to prove it.

I spent a lot of time in Catholic Worker houses during my college years and early 20s. I cut carrots for the soup kitchen at Mary House in New York City, demonstrated at the Pentagon with Catholic Workers in Washington, D.C., even lived for a few weeks at the St. Francis House on the north side of Chicago. I marveled at Dorothy Day because she reimagined the world and lived her life in a way that created it anew. She called America's shadows to her dinner table, served them with love and sat with them as a friend. It was the best antidote that I had seen for America's sickness.

And mine. Dorothy Day once said, "I'm working toward a world in which it would be easier for people to behave decently." I wanted to behave decently. The Catholic Worker was a chance to do justice for the marginalized and to achieve redemption for myself. Redemption meant being saved from the sickness of selfishness. Being cured meant joining humanity. And there was something transcendent in that.

It was at the Catholic Worker house that I discovered a desire to touch the pure love of elsewhere. This was the love that Dorothy Day wrote about, the love that sourced and sustained her commitment. My faith journey was sparked not by a desire to enter heaven or from a fear of hell. It was neither about escape nor seclusion. I had no interest in the sin-and-salvation kerosene of the religious right or the soupy spirituality of the New Age.

The faith I wanted would help me love and grieve and celebrate with all humanity. It would shape my eyes to see dignity and divinity in the dirty and ragged. I felt in my bones that humanity was meant for something more than we were achieving.

J. M. Coetzee says: "All creatures bring into this world the memory of justice." I knew that we had a purpose beyond providing for our own comfort. Abraham Joshua Heschel writes: "God is hiding in the world. Our task is to let the divine emerge from our deeds." I wanted to live the truth of June Jordan's vision: "I am a stranger/learning to worship the strangers/around me."

The religious life of the Catholic Worker inspired me. I loved the prayers for strength to do the work of justice. I found the Christian hymns and sermons elevating. I read the books of Worker heroes like Peter Maurin and Thomas Merton. But I always found myself standing at a slight angle to the central symbols of the Christian faith: the cross, the blood, the resurrection. And I never felt any desire to convert.

A short conversation with the leader of a Catholic Worker house in Atlanta was an important turning point in my faith journey. I asked if I could spend a summer working at his community.
"Are you a Christian?" he asked.
"No," I said.
"Then it will be very difficult for you to take full part in the life of this community. Find a place where you fit, body and soul."

I understood his comment as an invitation, not an insult. It was time to find a faith home. I began reading across religious traditions. I read Ram Dass on Gandhi and Thich Nhat Hanh on the life of the Buddha. I found my head nodding to nearly every article of Bahai social teaching and felt as if I had discovered a gold mine when I came across the thought of the contemporary Jewish mystic Zalman Schachter. But my attraction to these traditions was intellectual. Similar to my experience with Christianity, I felt that my soul did not fit in any of them.

The one tradition that I did not explore was Islam, the religion I had been raised in. Islam was the tradition my parents carried with them when they left India. America was the situation that provided them with possibilities both stated and shrouded, opportunities that facilitated upward mobility but scattered centering values. My father was a successful advertising executive. My mother earned her CPA and began building a career. The ritual dimensions of Islam never fit comfortably into our American-style lives. We rarely attended Friday prayer and only occasionally gathered at home as a family to bow our heads to God. Still, we were Muslims. We did not eat pork. We said Bismillah ("In the name of God.") when beginning new projects. We prayed tasbi during difficult times. And we helped people, especially Muslim immigrants, do everything from getting driver's licenses to earning advanced degrees.

Neglecting Islam was not so much a comment on the content of the religion as it was an adolescent habit of discriminating against the familiar. But, as James Baldwin writes, "Later, in the midnight hour, the missing identity aches."

I began a Buddhist (at least, what I thought was Buddhist) meditation practice when I was 22. It consisted of sitting still and thinking about nothing. But the Ismaili Muslim mantra my mother whispered in my ear when I was a child -- Ya Ali, Ya Muhammad -- kept rising into my consciousness. In an attempt to stick to the program, I tried to push it out. Finally, it occurred to me that this was the program -- I was a Muslim. My spiritual home had lived in my soul since my birth and before.
Later that year, I went to India to visit my grandmother. I woke up one morning to find, sitting on my grandmother's sofa, a person I had never met before. She was barefoot and wearing a torn white nightgown several sizes too large for her. "Who is she?" I asked my grandmother.

"Call her Anisa. I don't know her real name," she told me. "Her father and uncle beat her, so she has come here. We will keep her safe."

My grandmother has been sheltering abused women for 40 years by hiding them in her home. Those who are interested in education, she sends to school. For those who want to live with family in other parts of India, she pays for their travels. Others just stayed and helped my grandmother around the house until they got married and started their own families. My grandmother has pictures of some of them, faded black-and-white shots, with pencil scribbles on the back telling the story.

After hearing the stories of about a dozen of these women, I wanted to know one more -- my grandmother's. "Why do you do this?" I asked.

"Because I'm a Muslim. This is what Muslims do," she said.

My grandmother was a Muslim Dorothy Day. Her home had been a Muslim Catholic Worker house. The heroes I was looking for were within my religion, in my very family.

I immersed myself in Islam. I sought examples of giants who had fought tyranny with love, and found them in Farid Esack and Badshah Khan. I desired beauty and found it in the poetry of Rumi and Ihn Arabi. I discovered the stories that revealed the grand purpose of humankind that Allah made humanity abd and khalifa -- Allah's "servant" and "representative" on earth. I felt the truth of Islam in my soul: that Allah created Adam through the spirit in Allah's breath, that Allah chose Muhammad to be Prophet and that Allah wanted me to submit to the will of Allah. I felt embraced by the compassion of Allah, forgiven by the mercy of Allah and guided by the light of Allah.
I found full nourishment in Islam for ideas I initially encountered in other traditions. I am a Muslim whose first faith hero was Dorothy Day.

This column is an excerpt from 'My Neighbor's Faith: Stories of Interreligious Encounter, Growth, and Transformation.'
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HuffJummah: The Soul of Islamic Symbols

Published: Huffington Post: Posted: 05/18/2012 11:38 am - All Rights Reserved, Copyright
Most, if not all religions, function in the world of symbolism and communicate their universal messages to their followers through these religious symbols. Rituals, sacraments, prayers, worship services, religious ceremonies and more are nothing but to invite believers to engage with very deep ethical, moral and spiritual teachings through set of symbols and symbolic acts and behaviors. These religious symbols are never meant to be goals as themselves but vehicles and agents to much higher ultimate goals. If one does not get lost in the actual practice of these religious symbolic acts but constantly strives to get connected and feed him or herself with the deep teachings beneath these acts, he or she could develop a healthy spirituality, strong ethical and moral values, righteousness and more. However, it is one of the most common human weaknesses to easily get disconnected from what those religious symbols have been trying to teach us and keep practicing them as a form of habit or regular task that we feel obliged to do.

Islam, through its foundational texts (Holy Quran and Sunnah), and daily, monthly and annual rituals and practices, offers one of the richest such worlds of pedagogy of symbols to Muslims. Every Islamic ritual and practice is an invitation for the believers to commit themselves to a process of increasing purity, tranquility and peace in their internal and external world. This khutba is an invitation for me and to all to strive to live Islam meaningfully and purposefully by paying attention to the language of those religious symbols.

Let me discuss several such central Islamic symbols in this regard. What is religiously more central, for believing and practicing Muslims, than five daily prayers in their lives? We stop and pause five times a day, every day through out our adult lives to pray. Wherever we may be, Muslim men and women rush to the water tabs, take our ritual ablution (Wudu), spread our prayer rugs toward the proper direction, and then stand, bow and prostrate before God Almighty five times a day, every day of the year. Every single step of these five daily prayers are nothing but a series of Islamic symbols and in high volumes talks to us about the ethical moral teachings of our beautiful religion. We should not fail to pay attention to their voices as we practice these Islamic rituals. Otherwise they will turn into voiceless, repetitive acts of useless traditionalism.

Let's start reflecting on our ritual ablution practices that we do before we pray. We wash our hands, wash our mouths, our arms unto our elbows, clean the dust on our heads and wash our ears and feet. The purpose of this symbolic cleansing is not only for our physical hygiene and health but more importantly to engage in a conversation and prayers of thanksgiving and forgiveness with God Almighty and with ourselves. If we pay attention to the meaning of the prayers we say during this ritual bath, the believer in effect says, as she or he washes each and every body part in that process, "Thank you merciful God for this healthy hand, mouth, tongue, eyes, nose, ears and feet. Their health is from you as you are the source of all blessings. Empower and guide me to do good things with them and I ask forgiveness for the wrong things that I have done or might have done with them." These ritualistic symbols are there to make the believers slow down and remember if he/she might have said something hurtful or have done anything ethically, morally questionable with his/her hands, eyes, ears, feet and so on since the last prayer. These Islamic symbols are there to clean and purify and improve us internally, spiritually, ethically and morally if we can constantly engage and pay attention to their symbolic language and voice.

Our prayer rug is another Islamic symbol. I call our prayer rugs "Portable Muslim Airports." We set up this portable symbolic airport to spiritually take off to the higher realities and meanings, to our five daily appointments with the Beloved, and after our brief reunion with our Maker, we land back to earth to our regular lives. As we pray, we practice symbols such as standing in awe of God, bow and prostrate before God. All these symbols teaches us and reminds us our main identity: Being Human, completely dependent on God. These symbols attacks our arrogance, the idea of self-glory and inflated egos. They humble us before God and fellow human beings. However, these symbolic practices will only have their real affect on us by not just doing them but by allowing their deep meanings to tame our internal demons and shape our souls.

These Islamic symbols are not exclusively limited to our worship and prayer lives only but could be found in every distinct Islamic ritual related to our personal, professional, family and communal lives. Take Islamic marriage contracts (Nikah) for example. If one pays attention to how these religious contracts are crafted, they will see that every symbolic ritual is there for a purpose of teaching and inspiration. The fact that Islam requires for couples to draft a written contract and sign it in the presence of reliable witnesses, symbolically tells these souls who are committing themselves to this serious business of marriage: "Love, mutual respect and mutual consent is essential for the success of such holy union but simply not enough to sustain happy marriage. Marriage requires a lot of work and investment from all sides to work. All contributing factors need to be discussed and agreed upon with a firm commitment prior to marriage." The symbolic practices of such Nikah contracts invites couples to take this very seriously and built their marriage upon sound foundations.

These Nikah contracts, the way they have been uniquely done according to Islamic regulations, simultaneously encourage and warn the future husbands and wives to the potential challenges and opportunities, gender dynamics and more. For example, one of the main requirements of Islamic marriage contract is Mahr, where the groom promises to pay a substantial amount of money to bride which functions as a financial insurance and guarantee to women in case if marriage goes wrong. This genius Islamic practice is a lot more than potential problem solving. For a man to agree Mahr before even marriage starts, this Islamic practice symbolically tell this about to be husband guy in high volumes: "There is something in men's soul and psyche, if it is not tamed and disciplined, which can bring so much harm to marriage, cause abuse and destruction." The practice of Mahr is a clear warning for potential male domination and domestic violence. By agreeing to the institution of Mahr, Muslim men symbolically acknowledge this potential danger and promise to constantly work against it. I wish more Muslims would take Nikah contracts and its very many beautiful symbolic teachings more seriously these days.

Fellow believers, extend the microphone to every single Islamic ritual and symbolic act (as you practice, study and or learn about them) and listen to what they have to say very closely. Those symbols are not just symbols but powerful way of our beautiful religion communicates her moral ideals with her adherents. Let us resist becoming lost and losing sight in the external Dos and Do Nots of these symbolic Islamic rituals and practices. Let us strive to mindfully engage and shape our lives with beautiful messages that they give us. May Almighty guide us and be our source of strength in this process, inshallah. Amin.
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Indonesia's Rising Religious Intolerance

Op-Ed Contributor By BENEDICT ROGERS Published: May 21, 2012 
New York Times
All Rights Reserved - Copyright

JAKARTA — Just a few days after Lady Gaga’s concert in Indonesia was canceled after protests by Islamic groups, I flew 1,370 kilometers from Jakarta to Padang, West Sumatra, and drove a further 130 kilometers, a four-hour journey along rough, winding roads, to Sijunjung, to visit an Indonesian atheist jailed for his beliefs. 

Alex Aan, a 30-year-old civil servant, is a gentle, soft-spoken, highly intelligent young man who simply gave up his belief in God when he saw poverty, war, famine and disaster around the world.
He faces the possibility of up to six years in prison, charged with blasphemy, disseminating hatred and spreading atheism. Radical Muslims came to his office, beat him up, and called the police after reading about his views on Facebook. 

Alex is the first atheist in Indonesia to be jailed for his belief, but his case is symptomatic of a wider increase in religious intolerance in the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation. The previous Sunday, I joined a small church in Bekasi, a suburb of Jakarta, for a service, but found the street blocked by a noisy, angry mob and a few police. 

The church, known as HKBP Filadelfia, was forced to close a few years ago, even though the local courts had given permission to open. The local mayor, under pressure from Islamists, has declared a “zero church” policy in his area. For the past two months, the congregation has been blocked from worshiping in the street outside their building, and the atmosphere has grown increasingly tense.
When I was there, I felt it could have erupted into violence at any moment. The radicals in control of the loudspeaker shouted “Christians, get out,” and “anyone not wearing a jilbab (headscarf), catch them, hunt them down.” 

World leaders and commentators like to point to Indonesia as a model of tolerance and pluralism and an example of how Islam and democracy are not incompatible. To a certain extent they are right — Indonesia does have a great tradition of pluralism, a generally tolerant brand of Islam, and has made a remarkable transition from authoritarianism to democracy. 

The majority of Indonesian Muslims remain moderate, and are appalled by rising intolerance. But three factors are undermining religious freedom: the silence and passivity of the majority, growing radicalization, and the weakness of the government at every level. 

It is not only religious tolerance and freedom that is under threat, but also the rule of law. Another church, GKI Yasmin in Bogor, an hour from Jakarta, has approval from the Supreme Court to open, but the local mayor, again under pressure from Islamists, refuses to allow it. A district mayor is in defiance of the Supreme Court, and no one says a word. 

The Ahmadiyya Muslim community is perhaps the most persecuted. Violent attacks against this group, whose beliefs are considered heretical by many conservative Muslims, have increased significantly. Last year I met victims of one of the worst outbreaks of violence, an attack on Ahmadis in Cikeusik on Feb. 6, 2011, which left three people dead. 

One man described how he was stripped naked and beaten severely and a machete was held at his throat. He was dragged through the village and dumped in a truck like a corpse. Another man fled into a fast-flowing river, pursued by attackers throwing rocks and shouting “kill, kill, kill.”
He hid in a bush, dripping wet and extremely cold, for four hours. A third suffered a broken jaw, while a fourth, pursued by men armed with sickles, machetes and spears, was detained by the police for three days, treated as a suspect not a victim. 

Of the 1,500-strong mob that attacked 21 Ahmadis, only 12 people were arrested and prosecuted, according to The New York Times. Their sentences were between three and six months.
These are by no means the only cases. Earlier this month, radicals attacked a lecture by the liberal Canadian Muslim Irshad Manji. In Aceh, 17 churches were forced to close. 

I met other church pastors who talked about their churches being closed, and a woman, the Rev. Luspida, who was beaten while one of her congregation was knifed. “We have no religious freedom here anymore,” she told me. “We need to give a message to the president. He cannot say the situation is good here. We need to remind him our situation is very critical, and he should do something for the future of Indonesia. Support from outside is very important to pressure the president.” 

As Indonesia faces its Universal Periodic Review by the United Nations Human Rights Council — a process applied periodically to every member state — serious questions should be asked about the country’s future. If action is not taken, Indonesia’s accomplishments over the past decade could be jeopardized. 

It is not too late. There are some excellent Indonesian Muslim organizations such as the Wahid Institute, founded by former President Abdurrahman Wahid, and the Maarif Institute, whose work should be supported. 

If President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono acted, he would have the silent majority behind him. His government made progress in tackling terrorism, but it should not shirk its responsibility to fight the ideology that underpins terror. His government should stop giving in to the radicals and start protecting the rights of all Indonesians to choose, change and practice their religion, as provided in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 

I went to meet Alex Aan because as a Christian, I believe in the freedom of religion, which includes the right not to believe. 

Benedict Rogers works for the international human rights organization Christian Solidarity Worldwide, based in London.

Religions are poems by Nick Laird

I've spent a lot of late nights over the past year working on a long poem that I hoped would pull everything together, would unify all my little thoughts and theories. It was meant to be a hymn to the natural world, but also touch on neuroscience and evolution and quantum physics. It had sections set in the past in Northern Ireland, in the present across several continents, and a scene set in the future. One bit was split into three sections meant to represent the ego, id and superego. It contained riddles, a recurring alter ego, and two creation myths. It is - was - an unbelievable mess.

A good poem is a closed belief system, and I was trying to create, I think, a kind of religion to supplant the one I was raised with, and have now lost. In my part of the world the village religion that achieved full spectrum dominance is Christianity, and I was trying to supplant its dominance of my own mind. I am struck by how often I think of things in biblical terms. To start in the kitchen - apples, loaves and fishes, bread and wine are all lit with Christian significance. The poem I was trying to write talked about the Jacob of a nectarine, the Esau of a peach - even texture can be analogised in biblical terms. In any event, the whole enterprise grew too unwieldy, unfocused, and rambling. Some days I could persuade myself it was like Ashbery's "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror", though without the good bits. Then yesterday, in a fit of honesty, I realised it was just prose with delusions of grandeur, and I began the depressing project of stripping it for parts.

Though an atheist - in that I believe we're here only by happy accident - my sensibility is religious. I like ritual and heightened states. I like mind-altering drugs. I believe in invisible forces - radioactivity, magnetism, sound waves - and I'm more than willing to sit for an hour listening to a church organist practice, which I did just last week. And I'll let myself shiver along with the immense chord changes. I don't like faith but I'm fond of its trappings- the kitschy icons, the candles, the paintings, the architecture and, especially, the poetry. Though many great religious figures, from Augustine to Screwtape, have taken prose as their instrument for confessing or cajoling, when it comes to praise, poetry's the usual choice. I've been reading Robert Alter's magnificent new translations of The Book of Psalms, and "My heart is astir with a goodly word".

The relationship between poetry, those goodly words, and religion is hard to quantify. Both involve the hidden, working at the borders of the sayable. They share an experiential dimension. Personal religion involves a private speech act (prayer), chanting (psalms), heightened states achieved by ritualised words. The Lord's prayer is one of the first poems I learned. Leached of its import by years of mindless recital, it's almost a Sitwellian sound poem to me.

Our father, who art in heaven,
hallowed be thy name,
thy kingdom come, thy will be done
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread
and forgive us our trespasses
as we forgive those
who trespass against us,
and lead us not into temptation
but deliver us from evil
for thine is the kingdom,
the power and glory,
forever and ever, amen.

The verse uses an octosyllabic baseline and contains plenty of the features we expect in poems. Even though it is syntactically complex (it's only two sentences), the lines are heavily endstopped with solid, repetitive masculine endings and there is a lot of sound play. In "trespasses" the feminine ending (meaning that the last syllable isn't stressed) seems to replicate the very act of trespass - by going one step further than it should - and that "amen" is a neat full stop, a click on the send button of the email to God.

But give me real poetry over religion. Poems have the mythological dimensions of religion - the hearthside stories, histories, imagery and myths through which the invisible world is symbolised - but lack the doctrine.

Theology tries to systematise the accumulated revelations of a religion. It picks and chooses: it says let's have Eve and leave Lilith. Poetry admits everything is apocrypha, that all things are open to faith or nothing is. As Kavanagh puts it in "The Hospital", "nothing whatever is by love debarred".
Poetry can hold oppositions in equilibrium. Life tends to paradox and poetry can cope with that. Doctrine attempts to clarify and erase the contradictions, to organise lessons, laws and belief systems. Doctrine insists on an ethical dimension. It insists the scriptures be prescriptive. Poetry, being many-headed, doesn't try to cohere. It is free-floating, various, associative and each poem sets out its own rules. George Herbert, John Donne, Gerard Manley Hopkins were as various in their religious poetry as modern poets who deal in the numinous - John Burnside, say, or Geoffrey Hill, or Les Murray. The modern writers seem to have in common a loose argument for pluralism. Burnside writes, as one poem's title puts it, "For a Free Church". Always trying to locate "the dream behind this dream", he writes wonderfully of "the gift of the world, the undecided: / first light and damson blue ad infinitum".

Hill writes intense and compacted verse which breaks free from a battered Christianity, "in an abashed way invoking light, / the beatific vision, a species of heaven . . . " Les Murray, whose Collected Poems is dedicated "to the Glory of God", writes in a newly renovated language, fit to praise the earth. In "Poetry and Religion" he argues, definitively, that the two things are
the same mirror:

mobile, glancing, we call it poetry,
fixed centrally, we call it a
and God is the poetry caught in
any religion,
caught, not imprisoned. Caught
as in a mirror
that he attracted, being in the
world as poetry
is in the poem, a law against its
There'll always be religion around
while there is poetry

or a lack of it. Both are given, and
as the action of those birds -
crested pigeon, rosella parrot -
who fly with wings shut, then
beating, and again shut.