What Does it Take to Wage Peace?
A Scriptural Vision of Peace Among the Abrahamic Faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam
By Imam Feisal
Bridging the Chasm between Islam and America
Reflections of an American Muslim Imam
Washington National Cathedral
April 10, 2003
Bismillah irrahman irrahim.
In the name of the all-merciful, all-compassionate God, the God of Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob and the Children of Israel, the God of Moses, Jesus and Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon them all, and whom we greet with the greetings of peace.
Ladies and Gentlemen, I greet you with the Islamic greeting of peace be upon you, assalamu alaykum.
Islam-a religion I deeply love and which comprises my essential identity as a human being-and Muslims, are broadly perceived as a national security issue in the United States, while America, a land I dearly love and whose values I cherish, has aroused broad antagonism in much of the Muslim World. This is our test today-in Christian language, the cross we have to bear. My fellow Americans have challenged me to offer some urgently needed fresh ideas for bridging and reversing this growing divide.
And in the context of today's victory of US military forces in overthrowing the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq, I seek your indulgence in focusing pointedly onto the very nub of the issues as I see it in the title of our theme, Waging Peace, especially vis-a-vis the Muslim world.
In attempting to fathom the underlying issues, my American non-Muslim friends have probed: Is Islam's theology to blame? Is the problem its various concepts of jihad, the suppression of women in some Muslim societies, the widely held Muslim belief of non-separation between Church and State, the erosion of moderate Islam at the hands of petrodollar funded puritan Wahabis, or the lack of a Reformation like that which Christianity went through?
The question-how the horror of 9/11 occurred in the name of Islam-and the legitimate American fear that Islamic values are fundamentally and inherently hostile to Western and democratic values was highlighted by a journalist who asked me, "I understand political movements, but until you tell me why most liberation movements in the Muslim world use Islamic religious vocabulary to express their grievances, even naming their movements the likes of Jemaah Islamiyah in Indonesia, Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah (God's Party) in the Middle East-how am I to believe that Islam is in fact a peaceful religion?"
We-the American Muslims, by this I mean those who have harmonized and integrated both the American and Muslim parts of ourselves-are uniquely positioned to meet this challenge of bridging the chasm between Islam and America. That means learning how to speak to America about Islam, and to the Muslim world about America, and to both about the concord between Islamic values and American values, how they are consonant and when they have parted.
Since 9/11, American Muslims needed to explain to Americans that the root of the violence conducted in the name of Islam was less about theology than about the power and economic structures of the Muslim world, these two being the root causes of all conflicts. While Islamic texts, law and theology mandate tolerance, democratic values, the rule of law under an independent judiciary, and support the principles of separation of powers and democratic capitalism, most Muslims do not live under such governance. The call for an Islamic State implementing Shariah law in Muslim lands, such as Nigeria for example, is invariably a popular cry for an uncorrupt State embodying the American notion of a 'nation under God,' passionately dedicated to the wellbeing of its citizens. Muslims cry 'un-Islamic!' for the very violations that make Americans cry 'unconstitutional!' Thus the corrective of establishing what we would call a constitutional government, in Islamic parlance, would be called an 'Islamic government.' Disenfranchised in their homelands by a privileged tiny minority in state owned economies, many Muslims traverse deserts on foot, and cross oceans on rickety boats, seeking these rights in Western lands, while others use Islamic vocabulary to express their grievances and demand corrective social justice. Yearning for the freedoms and economic empowerment that Muslims in the West routinely enjoy, they seek to reverse the tragic history of a Europe and America consistently supporting authoritarian regimes that have denied them what we consider inalienable God-given rights. Consider that when President Chirac of France visited Algeria recently, the Algerians lining the streets tellingly chanted "Visa! Visa!"
Respect for human life, gender rights, religious tolerance and pluralism are rooted in Islamic scripture. Muslims hear God's voice in the Quran unequivocally mandating non-interference in matters of human conscience: 'There shall be no compulsion in religion;' commanding Muslims to inform unbelievers: 'To you your religion and to me mine.' Finally it asserts that salvation is accessible through other traditions: 'Certainly those who believe, the Jews, Christians, Sabians: whoever believes in God and the Last Day and does good, shall have their reward with their Lord.' Thus we see how religious pluralism is anchored in the most primary of Islamic texts, the Quran.
Cooling the fires of rage first requires answering the simple question, what kindled them in the first place? Fueled by a century-long litany of perceived injuries suffered by the Muslim world, stemming from core principles of US and Western foreign policy, Muslim eyes have watched a western policy toward the Islamic world that appeared to consistently support the following three broad causes:
1. The overturning and suppression of existing or nascent democratic regimes in favor of authoritarian ones that have co-opted the independence of the judiciary and the legislative bodies, destroying the 'separation of powers' doctrine we value so highly in America. Without such highly valued checks and balances, human rights violations have run rampant while the West either looked the other way or actively reinforced such autocratic regimes. The desire for an Islamic State implementing Shariah law, for example, is as we noted earlier but a cry for justice and equity, for the rule of law, for an independent judiciary and for a state that embodies the notion of a 'nation under God,' accountable before the Creator for miscarriages of justice.
2. Non-separation of state and economy. With an economy owned by the state, power became far too concentrated. Too many Muslims see themselves disenfranchised from participating in the economic wealth of the nation, deprived of 'life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness' while watching it unfairly consumed by a tiny minority-thus the flight of refugees across deserts and oceans to Western countries.
3. The decapitation of a Muslim intellectual aristocracy, which a century ago thought and wrote of how to usher Muslim societies into modernity and of how to translate Western achievements in democratic governance and democratic capitalism into what was still then a very pluralistic Muslim society. Unfortunately, the rise of autocratic regimes eroded the independence of highly regarded and respected Islamic institutions. Such regimes forcefully shifted society's resources from Islamic education to military and technological education in an attempt to industrialize their agrarian societies. By the 1960's when 'the God is dead' reached its peak in the West and clerics were objects of ridicule and satire in movies and plays, it became difficult for Muslim parents to take pride in having a child be a cleric, or a specialist in Islamic studies, and such a field of specialization bore no financial secure professional future in the major capitals of the Muslim world.
An analogy would be the US reaction in 1959 to the Soviet Sputnik event, which shocked the US into the realization that if we wanted to win the space race, we had to invest in the physical sciences and engineering, and make the landing of man on the moon by the end of the 1960's a priority.
The solution, and by this a solution to so heal the relationship between the Muslim world and the US by the end of this decade, so that future 9/11's become impossible, so that nor more Osama ben Ladens arise, involves investing in a program that reverses each of the above causes.
Reversing this legacy requires a partnership between the institutions of power, institutions of economics, and of religion. Here is where the deployment of the American Islamic voice, especially as part of Abrahamic interfaith initiatives in this country, can play a key interlocutory and intermediary role. Such involvement will pay enormous dividends in helping extinguish these fires of history by providing culturally sensitive and Islamically correct avenues and solutions to the political needs of our times.
On behalf of a growing number of American Muslim thinkers, community leaders, and religious scholars, this call is for 'fast-tracking' an Islamic Initiative (as part of a broader Abrahamic initiative) to deploy a 'Manhattan Project' for Waging Peace. With the support of academic, religious and NGO institutions, we can offer our nation powerful arguments-based on the Quran, the Prophet's teachings and the writings of the earliest and most important Islamic thinkers-supporting democratic principles, an independent judiciary, a privatized economy and the non-interference of government in matters of cultural norms, religion and human conscience.
For example, Muslim audiences are often as surprised as non-Muslim audiences, to hear that the second Caliph Omar, a few short years after the Prophet's death on the Muslim conquest of Jerusalem, was the one who invited Jews back to take up residence in that sacred city, thus responsible for reversing the expulsion of the Jews from the City of David. Many of his decisions established legal precedents in Islamic law and jurisprudence, this being one of them. His edict on the protection of Christian and Jewish houses of worship and of their communities demonstrates the fundamental principles of Islamic pluralism. I often cite this history and the commonly known Islamic law that permits a Muslim husband to have a Christian or Jewish wife without requiring her to convert to Islam, to counter and refute the occasional absurd and false misinterpretations I hear from my own community about Muslims being prohibited from befriending Christians and Jews. No Muslim scholar or jurist of high regard or esteem has ever presumed to understand the Quran, the teachings of the Prophet, and the Divine intent embedded in these primary sources of Islamic teachings, more than the Prophet's companions and successors like the Caliph Umar and his cousin and son-in-law the fourth Caliph Ali. These precedents collectively have shaped the understanding of Islamic law and practice.
Muslims are also forced to re-think and nuance their notions of non-separation of Church and State when they hear that the great eighth century Imam Malik, one of the architects of Islamic jurisprudence and founder of the Maliki school of law (named after him), refused to allow his great legal work the Muwatta' to be hung from the Ka`ba in Mecca and adopted as the sole law of the land. Instead, he accepted and suffered punishment because he believed in a pluralistic interpretation of law and in an independent judiciary-as did many other great jurists and Muslim scholars. To put this in context, imagine an American jurist of note, on being asked by the President that his opus work be made the overarching law of the land, and he refuses, and accepts jail and punishment because he believes that other differences of opinion may be equally legitimate.
Such events demonstrate the struggle from the earliest times in Islamic history for what we call today, and take for granted in the West, an independent judiciary.
Islamic texts, and precedents of the greatest Islamic scholars and jurists, strongly support these principles of separation of powers, including that of the separation of Church and State, when understood as being that the role of the State is to be concerned only with issues of proper, ethical governance in accordance with Islam's principles of equity and social justice, and not with using the powers of State institutions to enforce one religious doctrinal opinion over another, or even to enforce one religion over another.
A critical component in implementing what to many appears as "such a fresh thinking American Muslim initiative" is the cooperation of especially important American Jewish and Christian institutions, business and academic institutions, and especially the media, in putting their shoulders to the wheel both to amplify the voice of this new American Muslim identity and to canvass for Muslims' unalienable human rights, while simultaneously sensitive to the legitimate concerns of our Jewish and Christian brethren in the Abrahamic family.
But what will really make this process 'burn rubber' and gain on the ground traction is a US administration that recognizes the importance of such a program to our homeland security, deploying its sole superpower status to project an enlightened compassionate global policy towards the 1.2 billion Muslims worldwide. Liberating Muslims from their democratic and economic disempowerment will begin immediately to transform this rage into friendship ... and an enhanced American security. But what will win the hearts and minds of the Muslim world, and nail the coffin on the ability of the Osama bin Ladens to recruit more anti-American young men, is when the US administration articulates its policies towards the Muslim world in Muslim language.
And let me give you an example.
In his speech to Congress after 9/11, President Bush referred to Muslims as a peace loving people; referring to the words of the Quran and the Prophet as a religion of peace. That speech had a deeply positive effect on many Muslims in the US and abroad. In the speech before the UN he used the UN's own resolutions to justify US stance. Why not refer to the teachings of the Quran and Islamic law in justification of action in Iraq?
Today, to gain trust and win friends in the 'Muslim street,' imagine if the President of the United States now addresses the Muslim world and begins by quoting, in Arabic, the oft-quoted Quranic verse (chapter 2: verse 193), fa la `udwana illa `ala-zzaalimiin, "there shall be no hostility except against the oppressive tyrant," and made a major, direct address to Muslims worldwide, explaining why according to the Quran a good Muslim should be supportive of action against Saddam Hussein. If he adds that Islamic law sanctions the projection and use of force to overthrow (when we cannot transform) a regime that is evil in order to establish a just and peaceful social order, which is why we see Muslims agitating all over the world for regimes that are democratic, fair and uncorrupt, and that his administration will aid Muslims in achieving this objective in the Muslim world, this would shock (and delight) Muslim audiences everywhere. If the speech itself then proceeded to address the Muslim world in its own terms with language that spoke to the issues of people on the street in the Middle East, the effect could be electrifying. This could be the "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech of our age-as John Kennedy did in Berlin-and it would be remembered for decades in the Muslim world.
The use of such arguments by the leader of the free world, demonstrating that American values are very much in sync with Islamic values would have a strong, positive effect on Muslim public opinion and be a big step in attenuating the anti-American sentiment in the Muslim world, especially in countries like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia that pride themselves on their Islamic credentials. In fact, it is not difficult to demonstrate to the Muslim world that the United States is far more 'Sharia-compliant' than many so-called Islamic countries.
The burning need now is for a structure that can catalyze this nascent dialogue between Islam and the West. Together with fellow American Muslims and fellow Americans of other faiths, I would like to thank my colleagues on this podium for their having tirelessly worked to fulfill those scriptural visions of peace, to be admitted by God into that class of 'blessed be the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.' I especially wish to thank the Rev. Dr. Joan Brown Campbell, for her recognition of the importance of this mission, and the conviction with which the Chautauqua Institution responded to being one of the many partners and stakeholders the American Muslims need in working together to create precisely that structure which best utilizes American Muslims' role as a bridge between the two civilizations.
President Reagan made history when he said "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" and the Chautauqua Institution, where Rev. Dr. Campbell heads the religion dept, played a key role by bringing a few hundred Russians to the US to bridge differences, memorialized in the book...(When the hammer and the sickle met the stars and stripes).
We pray that with the combined efforts of such visionary men and women we can repeat this history, and perhaps have a sequel book, 'When the star and the crescent met the stars and stripes. (I'm copyrighting this title Joan!)
Tearing down walls is the easier part, building bridges is the harder work. And we are here for this reason, to pave the way of winning the hearts and minds of those across the various divides.
All religions share a primary commandment-that which Jesus deemed co-equal to loving the Lord our God with all our hearts, our strength, our minds, and souls-and that is to love for our fellow human beings what we love for ourselves. And therefore before our Lord and Creator, we must act together, as Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, and all faith traditions whose lives mesh with each other, to do just that.
As one who loves this country, I beseech my President to wage the supreme effort, which Muslims call the 'greater jihad,' to make his policy reflect the language of the Old Testament Prophet Isaiah, by crafting and implementing a US policy that judges nations by God's justice, that will rise up to the challenge of our day to urge nations 'to beat their swords into plowshares, spears into pruning hooks, and usher in a time when nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall learn war any more.'
Am I asking for too much? And if you answer yes, my rejoinder will be to paraphrase Jesus, who suggested that we perfect and strengthen our faith and, "ask, with that faith so strong that it can move mountains, and we shall indeed be given."
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