A possibly significant development in Muslim-Christian-Jewish relations is being spear-headed by the Islamic Scholars of North America (ISNA). In July of 2012, ISNA Director of Community Outreach, Dr. Mohamed Elsanousi, convened a small multilateral forum of scholars in Mauritania to discuss challenges faced by religious minorities in Muslim-majority communities around the world.
Mauritania is an interesting choice, since it has no indigenous Christian population, and the CIA World Factbook lists the country as “(official) 100% Muslim.”
So, officially, Mauritania is 100 percent Muslim, which begs the question: If the ISNA is reaching out to Islamic scholars in Mauritania on the issue of minority religious rights, and the (official) statistic is that Mauritania is 100 percent Muslim, is this a tacit recognition on ISNA’s part that some of the 100 percent officially Muslim Mauritanians have secretly switched their religion … and that international human rights standards should allow them to do so?
If that’s the case, then this is a significant development in interfaith relations.
… the key word being if.
The most recent discussions of U.S. foreign policy and the Middle East, once again say more about politics during an election year, than they do about the fundamental issues we must confront if we want to see substantial change.
So let’s look at the basic issues and fundamental choices we need to make.
Today the Middle East — where about 60 percent of the population is under the age of 25 — is a region dominated by humiliation and anger.
Failure + rage + the folly of youth = an incendiary mix.
The roots of anti-American hostilities in the Middle East run deep (literally and figuratively). We can start with the fact that our oil (and its economy) lies beneath their sands. Couple that with U.S. support of repressive and backward regimes, the continual presence of foreign troops on their land and in their holy places, and the endless wars waged there, ultimately fueled by the geopolitics of energy.
Add to that incindiary cocktail the unresolved Israeli/Palestinian conflict, which continues to drive the deepest emotions of mutual frustration, fear, and retaliation throughout the Middle East and the rest of the world.
Injustices and violence caused by the oil economy have sparked a reaction from dangerous religious fundamentalists in the Islamic world. Fundamentalism — in all our faith traditions — is both volatile and hard to contain once it has been unleashed, and it becomes hard to reverse its essentially reactive and predictably downward cycle.
“Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me.”
How many of us grew up with this old adage ringing in our ears? How many of us believe it’s true?
I’ve gone back and forth over the years. I understand that the saying is an invitation to turn our backs on harsh, mean-spirited words thus robbing them of their power, but how many of us are really capable of simply doing that? The truth is words do hurt and sometimes they do more than hurt. Sometimes they are downright destructive and on a large scale.
I think this is what the writer of James is getting at in this morning’s text. Words, the works of our tongues, can be used for good and evil. It is not always easy for us to shape our words and move our tongues in a fashion that serves our faith, our calling as Christians, our work for the reign of God on earth.
One important spiritual discipline, one vital element to our faith formation, then, is learning to tame the tongue. That is, we are challenged to develop custody of our speech in such a way that good news is proclaimed and people are lifted up toward the fulfillment of their creation in the image and likeness of God. Remember, James is especially concerned that we align our words and our work so we both “talk the walk” and “walk the talk.”
If we are offspring of the heavenly parent, if we are made in the likeness of God, how should that shape our speech and control the way we wag our tongues?
My heart is heavy.
Every day for the last week, media outlet have told their version of the current uprising stretching across the Middle East (Egypt, Libya, Yemen). Whether it’s pictures of embassies burned to the ground, rioting citizens, or highly politicized comics, the surge of content has been anything but “feel-good” and hopeful.
And that’s because the events and corresponding responses have been anything but “feel-good” and hopeful.
My heart breaks because I know the events that are unfolding do not represent the majority of those who inhabit the Middle East. I spend a significant amount of time in there and have built deep, life-long friendships.
Just two weeks ago I sat around a table and shared a meal with Christians, Jews and Muslims in the home of a devout Muslim family in the region. A day after that, I served alongside Muslim youth workers who are promoting non-violence and reconciliation in the face of oppression and poverty.
On the same day, I sat with an Arab Christian who embodied Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount in dealing with daily injustice by saying, “We refuse to be enemies.” Lastly — and what keeps playing over and over in my head — are the words spoken to me by a Muslim friend named Omar who said,
“Please give this message to all of your American friends. We (Arab Muslims and Christians) desire peace. The violence you see in the news does not represent us. It is not the majority, it is the smallest minority of extremism. Please listen to our story and accept our friendship.”
Anti-American riots that have spread to more than a dozen countries across the Middle East are a sign of fissures between radical and more moderate Islamists that are vying for power as their societies undergo change, Middle East experts say.
Whether U.S. foreign policy has helped create a political environment where radicals are struggling to remain relevant, or emboldened extremists to act out, is a matter of disagreement.
President Obama's approach to the Arab Spring, to engage with the Islamists and not the secularists, "is seen by our foes as disengagement, while the radicals are not backing off," said Walid Phares, an adviser to the Anti-Terrorism Caucus in the U.S. House of Representatives and author of the 2010 book The Coming Revolution: Struggle for Freedom in the Middle East.
"When we withdraw, they advance."
Tamara Wittes, who served as deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs until a few months ago, sees it differently.
The U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq removed "a massive source" of grievance for ultra-conservative Muslims, called Salafis, who have been leading the charge in the recent protests and who are ideologically close to Islamic terrorists who have warred with the U.S., Wittes said. "Now they're left trying to gin up anti-American feelings over this campy movie. If Salafi groups are left having to troll the Internet for a pretext, I think we're in pretty good shape."
A group of Episcopal bishops is asking President Obama to help assure that a United Nations agency continues to support a diocese-run hospital in the Gaza Strip.
In a June 6 letter, the 102 bishops ask the president to support funding for Al Ahli Hospital from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees. The letter asserts funding was cut off in May, though an UNRWA official said a final decision has not been made.
The hospital, run by the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem, “is the only facility of its sort in the Gaza Strip that is not run by the Hamas government and as such, it is able to provide care without any outside interference or political calculation,” the letter states.
While compiling the morning “Daily Digest,” I often recall the advice of Karl Barth, who is said to have told young theologians “to take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both. But interpret newspapers from your Bible.”
There are many mornings that Jesus’ advice comes to mind after reading the news. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come (Mark 13:7). While I am not an end times apocalyptic, there are days that Jesus’ prophecy seems all too real.
It seems like every day we hear from another politician saying that “we are ready to attack Iran if necessary," or from another pundit full of hot air telling us why we should invade Iran right now.
The presumptive Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, has said that he would support “something of a surgical-strike nature, to something of a ‘decapitate the regime’ nature to eliminate the military threat of Iran altogether.” President Obama has said: “Every option is on the table.” All of these conversations typically go along the lines of emphasizing how Iran poses a serious and immediate threat to the United States.
As was the case in the conversations leading up to the 2003 Iraq war, there is much heat, and not a whole lot of light.
CAIRO, Egypt — From her home, Samia Ramsis holds a key chain bearing the face of the Virgin Mary as visitors outside come to look upon the spot where Egypt's Coptic Christians believe Mary, Joseph and the infant Jesus found refuge after fleeing Bethlehem.
Once crowded with Christians, Cairo's Coptic quarter where she lives with her husband, Mounir, and two children is now home to fewer than 50 Christian families.
"We know many Christians have left," said Mounir Ramsis, speaking not only about this quarter but about all of Egypt. "But we love this country and will stay until death."
The Arab Spring uprisings that toppled secular dictatorships have unleashed long-suppressed freedoms that have allowed Islamic parties to gain a share of political power they have been denied for decades. Their rise is creating near-panic among ancient Christian communities that dot the Muslim world and predate Islam by centuries.
Ridiculous. Ignorant. Racist. Dangerous.
These are just a few of the terms that flew out of the Middle East this weekend following Newt Gingrich’s unwelcome remarks about Israel and the Palestinians on Friday.
As the Republican front-runner, Gingrich was speaking to the cable TV Jewish Channel and hoping to curry favor with its conservative pro-Israel constituency.
What did he do? He described the Palestinians as an “invented people” and lumped every Palestinian under the terrorist umbrella. There is no difference between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, he said.
On Saturday night during the ABC Republican debate, Gingrich doubled-down: “They [the Palestinians] are all terrorists.”
A few of the other candidates looked, well, alarmed.
Increasingly, in meetings focused on a wide variety of human tragedies, I hear these words: "What are you doing here? I didn't think evangelicals cared about these things."
I understand those comments. I grew up in a form of Christianity in which "saving souls" was pretty much all that mattered. The God I discovered in that church was a harsh, demanding tyrant; I knew that if I wanted to earn God's love I would have to be very good, follow all the rules, and work very hard. As a devout adolescent I did that. As a young pastor's wife I did that.
Unfortunately, I worked a little too hard and eventually became utterly exhausted, seriously depressed, and physically sick. That plunged me into a total life crisis in which I felt compelled to give up the God of my childhood.
Fortunately, a wise friend said to me, "For a while, forget everything you've ever thought about Christianity; forget the Old Testament; forget Paul and the epistles-and just read Jesus."
So for months -- for years actually -- I just read Jesus. And slowly but surely, Jesus reshaped my understanding of what it meant to be a Christian.
American Christian Zionism is pushing the U.S. government to support Israeli policies that our international friends find immoral and illegal.
We have come to believe that Christian Zionism underwrites theft of Palestinian land and oppresses Palestinian people, helps create the conditions for an explosion of violence, and pushes US policy in a destructive direction that violates our nation's commitment to universal human rights.
We write as evangelical Christians committed to Israel's security. We worry about your support for policies that violate biblical warnings about injustice and may lead to the destruction of Israel.
Recent analyses of the Arab Spring have questioned the efficacy of nonviolent resistance compared to armed struggle in ousting authoritarian regimes. The relatively expeditious victories of the nonviolent uprisings (not "revolutions," as some suggest) in Tunisia and Egypt stand in stark contrast to Libya, where a disparate amalgam of armed groups, guided politically by the Libyan Transitional National Council (TNC) and backed militarily by NATO, are on the verge of removing Moammar Gadhafi from power. As someone who has written extensively about civil resistance, notably in the Middle East, while at the same time working on the Libya portfolio within the State Department, I've been grappling with the meaning and significance of the Libyan revolution and its possible impact on the region.
First of all, like most people, including my State Department colleagues, as well as democrats and freedom fighters around the world, I am delighted that an especially odious and delusional Libyan dictator is getting the boot. I applaud the bravery and determination of the Libyan people, who have endured four decades of a despicable dictatorship and have made great sacrifices to arrive at this point. I hail the extensive planning that my U.S. government colleagues have undertaken over the past five months, in concert with Libyan and international partners, to support a post-Gadhafi transition process.
Won't it reduce our dependence on Middle Eastern oil? Won't somebody else develop the Alberta tar sands if the U.S. doesn't do it -- someone like China, perhaps?
I've been wrestling with many of these issues as I contemplate risking arrest as part of two weeks of sustained protest by leading environmentalists, climate scientists, and faith-based groups at the White House forth to pressure the Obama Administration to block the Keystone XL Pipeline. This pipeline project will connect Canadian tar sands -- containing the second largest and dirtiest oil reserves on the planet -- with the oil refineries in Texas.
Mark O. Hatfield's political witness shaped a whole generation of students, teachers, pastors, and social activists in the evangelical community and beyond. The voice of Christians today who plead for social justice and peaceful alternatives to war would not have emerged with its strength and clarity in the 1970s without his leadership. His death underscores the vacuum of such spiritually rooted voices uncompromising in their commitments to peace and justice within the cacophony political rhetoric today.
One of my life's greatest privileges and joys was to work as an assistant to Senator Mark O. Hatfield for nearly a decade, from 1968 to 1977. I saw first-hand what courageous leadership, combined with unswerving compassion and civility, looked like within the political life of that turbulent and formative era. Those experiences are shared in my book, Unexpected Destinations (Eerdmans).
An account in The New York Times by Ethan Bronner reports that Israeli women and West Bank Palestinian women and girls have once again broken Israeli laws. They have gone swimming in the Mediterranean Sea.
More than two dozen Israeli women invited Palestinian women and girls from the southern part of the West Bank of the Jordan River -- who are not normally allowed into Israel and have no access to the sea -- to go swimming with them. Under Israeli military occupation since 1967, according to Bronner, "most had never seen the sea before."
I prefer my revolutions to be simple: A corrupt dictator/tyrant, an oppressed population, inspired reformers who risk their lives, calls for democracy, waves of marchers in the streets, background music from Les Misérables. The stories from Tunis and Cairo were epochal. The Arab spring was in full bloom as calls for participatory government could be heard from every corner of the Middle East.
Then there was Syria. The Assad government has been infamous in its intolerance to dissent. It is a military regime whose 30-year leadership under Hafez al-Assad (1930-2000) established it as one of the most severe in the region. In 2,000, after the death of Hafez, the world was intrigued to see his second son -- Bashar al-Assad -- ascend the throne. Bashar was an ophthalmologist who had studied in London, but because of his older brother's death in a car accident in 1994, he was called to follow his father. Bashar speaks English and French fluently and has been as critical of the U.S. as he has been of Israel.