Reaching fundamental agreements
I have a daughter who works with refugees from Somalia: Muslim refugees – Muslim families, Muslim women, and Muslim children. She recently posted her response to the antagonistic sentiment increasingly found on social media: “These are hard working, peaceful, and grateful people, looking for a country in which they can enjoy a peaceful existence and freedom of religion… I am amazed at the high level of compassion and empathy they have shown, despite horrific ordeals they have all endured. Please let us show our own compassion for our fellow human beings.” Inevitably, this brought about antagonistic replies.
My own replies – again, on social media – were that it’s time to move beyond anger and disgust, and to accept the challenge that lies before us to improve our situation. Anger only militarizes the heart, while disgust distorts the mind; they poison our attitude, and paralyze our will. I believe no religion is, in itself, evil. The founders of all religions recognized and taught fundamental moral principles to live by, according to the needs and values of their people.
I was reminded by my son-in-law that the source of our national antipathy to Islam dates back to the 18th Century, when we developed a navy to confront pirates of the Barbary Coast (the Ottoman and Moroccan provinces of north Africa), much like the more recent pirates off the coast of Somalia. Yes, they claimed to be Muslim, but they were more clearly simply criminals. A great deal of our current prejudice is residual rubble from those days, based upon an ignorance of the facts of history and religion.
When Thomas Jefferson and John Adams met with Tripoli’s ambassador in 1786, they were told that Islam “was founded on the Laws of their Prophet, that it was written in their Quran that all nations who would not acknowledge their authority were sinners, that it was their right and duty to make war upon them wherever they could be found, and to make slaves of all they could take as prisoners, and that every Musselman (Muslim) who should be slain in battle was sure to go to Paradise.”
This was, and remains, a distorted, perverted political reading of their sacred text, meant to validate criminal behavior for an economic gain that is not sanctioned by their religion – which a close reading of the Quran will easily demonstrate. Of course, Islam is not the only religion that has been made the excuse for immoral and criminal behavior; evil can be found anywhere. Our battle is not against Islam, it is against evil; and the sooner we enlist Muslims as our allies in this battle, the more quickly it can be won.
We easily forget what the word “religion” really means. The word itself originates in the Latin word religare: binding back, consciously reconnecting – on one hand to core values that demonstrate a belief in a larger picture, or greater power, while on the other hand connecting with a community of similar believers who also comprehend that picture, and celebrate that power.
I have often thought of religion as a wheel. About the time that the wheel was discovered as a revolutionary device for transportation, civilization also discovered religion – and then things really got moving. The spokes that run from the hub to the rim are the various denominations that reach out into various societies: Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and all the innumerable others. Here, in an America that many have called a melting pot but more closely resembles a salad bowl, these disparate possibilities encounter one another within an uneasy and dynamic society.
At the hub of the wheel is found an esoteric connection with – and reverence for – the ultimate experience of an inner meaning of life known by mystics of every religion, while at the outer rim fundamentalists of every religion feel an exoteric connection with their community. The hub carries the freight of significance – a meaningful human condition – while the rim distributes that weight, showing how that belief is carried out across every landscape traveled by civilization.
We look to our religious leaders to reach out and teach the meaning that the legendary founders – Krishna, Siddhartha, Moses, Jesus, Muhammad, and all the others that stood closer to the axle – understood. And although there is a great diversity in expression as the spokes diverge toward particular communities, there is also the danger of spiritual amnesia where blind tradition embalms and fossilizes a rich legacy – like the woman who asked her mother why she cut off the ends of a pot roast before putting it into the oven. “I don’t know,” the mother replied, “that’s just what my mother always taught me.” Later she learned from her grandmother that her pot was simply too small for the roast.
The attitude that a particular religion is the only true religion – and that all others are therefore dangerous to civilization – remains the real danger to civilization. Here the rim of the wheel can split and civilization can collapse, pitting soul against soul in a true Armageddon, a battle between good and evil that finds evil everywhere out there – and never within.
No religion is, in itself, evil. To live life well, we must overcome our fear of something that is merely different; for if we cannot take in something that is new we can never grow into a widening world, nor recognize the presence of meaning in everything that we learn.
Jim Shere lives in Glen Ellen. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org