On the morning of September 11, 2001 the lives of Americans, and those in the rest of the word, were changed forever. It was on this day that we were awakened to something to which we had never given much thought, terrorism. While there had been random acts such as the Oklahoma City bombing, the first World Trade Center bombing, the Unibomber, or Waco, those committing these crimes were for the most part Americans. They looked like us, talked like us and grew up in our cities and towns. The crimes of 9/11 were perpetrated by a group of “Thems” from countries most of us never heard of, let alone visited. Americans, “We”, once again had a “Them” to point to and blame.
Over the past nine years following 9/11 there have been many actions and much rhetoric taking place when it comes to a “war on terror.” Putting aside the semantics of such inflamed language and the actions they promote, I want to address certain attitudes, beliefs and values of those involved in an issue that has become a very hot topic in many circles of American life. Over the past few months the issue of building mosques has become a topic of hot debate. From President Obama to the blogosphere, it seems that everyone has an opinion. What are these opinions based on and how are they affecting our understanding of our religious freedoms and the United States Constitution?
We have been brought up to believe there are always two sides to an issue, yours and mine. I have come to believe there are three sides to a story, yours, mine and the truth. What if there were several truths, how would that change the dialogue and conversation? When it comes to issues of the day we basically hear two view points on a given topic, left and right. These two viewpoints have become so polarized in the past thirty years that each side cannot hear what the other side is saying.
News in the United States has cycles and those with the loudest voices are the ones that get heard. The voices of the moderate view points on both sides of the political spectrum are often drowned out. This has lead to a general feeling of apathy among the populace.
What I am suggesting is a new type of dialogue; a new way of looking at issues. Otherwise we are doomed to the continuation of more of the same, like the rat in the proverbial maze, easy to enter but never able to find our way out.
Mosques in America oh my!
The issue of mosques in America is the latest in a long line of flash point issues. Time magazine’s August 30,2010 cover asks, “Is America Islamophobic?” The extremes on both sides of this issue find themselves in a frothy uproar. These are the zealots and flame throwers who feel it is their God given right to stoke the flames of intolerance lobbing bombs, verbally or literally, at one another. Currently we are being presented with issues over mosque’s being proposed or being built in New York City, two blocks from the World Trade Center, Mufreesboro,Tennessee, and in Temecula, California. I choose to look at the Temecula mosque, but what follows can and does apply to any of the proposed mosques.
There is a seeming debate between those who support the builders of the Temecula mosque and those who are opposed. The rhetoric from both sides of this issue is like a house ripped from its foundation in a tornado with debris flying everywhere. It does not seem to matter to those opposing the building of this mosque and community center that there is currently an existing practicing community of Muslim worshipers in Temecula.
There is however, no real debate taking place. Instead what we have are people on both sides of the issue pointing fingers at one another and calling names, all in the name of righteousness. See if you can suspend your thinking mind for a few moments and imagine you have two televisions sitting side by side, one is airing MSNBC and the other Fox. Here is what we would hear when we turn up the volume:
MSNBC: Madam, you support the building of the mosque in Temecula what do you think of those who oppose the building of this mosque?
Supporter Guest- “Not only are these protesters woefully uneducated about Islam and Muslims, their brazen bigotry is astounding. I find it absolutely amazing that American citizens in 2010 display so proudly their ignorance, prejudice, and hatred of entire classes of people; that they are calling for baiting “the enemy” with things they supposedly dislike; and pushing for the burning of books, what with all the connotations of Nazi Germany that brings up.”
Fox: Sir, you are one of the protestors who oppose the building of this mosque, can you explain why that is?
Protestor Guest- “It’s time to find the courage to stand up and speak out and defend our liberty despite the local, left-leaning newspapers and their pro-illegal immigrant, pro-islamist extremist editorials and articles. We will not surrender to political correctness – we will fight this!” We fear the mosque will bring unwanted traffic and noise, as well as attract Islamic extremists.
After listening to the two “voices of reason” several things stand out. It is the words and the thinking behind them that is important. Words such as; uneducated, bigotry, ignorance, prejudice, hatred, Nazi, left-leaning, pro-illegal immigrant, pro-islamist, extremist. All of these words have a negative connotation and only inflame the issue.
Now imagine we invite the two guests from MSNBC and Fox to sit down together with a moderator on CBS to discuss and debate the building of this mosque. Given today’s vitriolic environment there would be a shouting match, and talking over one another. The language used by both guests is once again vitriolic; “bigotry, ignorance, prejudice, hatred, Nazi, left-leaning, pro-illegal immigrant, pro-islamist, and extremist.” At the end of this discussion and debate nothing has been accomplished, and in fact it may lead to people becoming more entrenched in their belief of being right. Unfortunately this is how the American public are often presented such important issues. Is it any wonder there is such a high level of apathy among the American populous.
A different conversation!
There is another way of communicating, listening and understanding one another. When we sift through all of the zealots and flame throwers screams and rants we find some grain of truth in what each is saying. Yes, that is correct there is truth in what each is saying. What are those truths?
Most of us born and raised in America are unfortunately relatively ignorant when it comes to Islam. As a society, and given our geographic borders, the exposure to Islam and what it means to be a Muslim is for the most part limited to what we hear on television, read in publications or read on the internet, if one is inclined. Thus, unless one takes it upon themselves to study the Islamic culture, their knowledge will be limited to the interpretation and beliefs of others, whether or not such beliefs are base upon truth. What are these limitations? A person’s worldview, perceptions and value systems all help to shape how people think of their world.
Question – Are those protesting the building of mosques prejudice? Perhaps perhaps not. We all know that prejudice does still exist in this country.
Question – Do the protesters hate every person that is Muslim? Probably not. I would imagine if the protesters were to participate in a meet and greet with individuals from Islamic communities, that over a short period of time the fear that exists would evaporate making way for real dialog to occur.
Question – Do some mosques in the West attract Islamic extremists? Yes. This is a documented fact. This has been true in at least the United States, the United Kingdom and Germany. Currently one of the most notorious terrorists in the world spent time practicing in a San Diego, California mosque before his eventual move to Yemen.
Question – Are all mosques breeding grounds for terrorists? No. This view point is one of ignorance and fear.
Question – Are those supporting the building of these mosques pro-islamists and extremists? Probably not. There may be some who share this ideal but certainly in the minority.
Question – Is there fear and misunderstanding regarding this issue? Absolutely. We are fearful of that which we do not understand, or that which we perceive as a threat.
The uses of words inflame an issue.
Other than the use of the infamous N-word the second worst thing you can call a person in this country is a Nazi. If someone calls you a Nazi it is akin to having a scarlet letter branded on your chest. It is a real conversation stopper.
When one stands up and speaks out about defending our liberty a deep cord is touched in many Americans who feel that they live in the greatest country in the world. “Proud to be an American” and “America love it or leave it”, also touch that cord. This is not something to be taken lightly or brushed aside.
The defending of religious liberty is a key part of the Constitution of the United States of America. Religious freedom played a major role in the founding of this country. We have all been raised with this belief. Defending this liberty is very important. However when those who protest the building of mosques call those who support the Constitutional right of Muslims to build mosques pro-islamists, and extremists, this only serves to fan the flames of intolerance.
What is the point?
The point is that both sides are right. If you strip away the rhetoric and name calling both groups are right given their current life conditions and value systems because these conditions and values provide the lenses with which they see the world.
This world is composed of some 6.8 billion human beings all in various stages of human development. One of the ways to view development is based on a person’s life conditions and their resultant values based on those conditions. If we are to have constructive dialog, and wish to reach some positive resolutions, we must take these things into consideration. What has happened since the advent of jet travel and instant communication is that a world once isolated and expansive is now interconnected and small. However this shrinking of the world has not necessarily advanced human development. The one thing that we as citizens of the United States must remember is that our current life conditions have afforded us with the opportunity to live in certain conditions with resultant value systems that do not currently exist in other parts of the world. So, we must always remain mindful of that when we view events and chose to get involved in other parts of the world.
As Americans we have always been afraid of the boggie man, it is in our historical cultural DNA. My generation was raised with the fear that at any moment “those” Russians where going to be storming our shores to replace Democracy with Communism. Hence, all Russians are bad. We didn’t know any better, but after the fall of Communism we learned that the huge threat was in fact more of a paper tiger. Once again we have a new boggie man. This one comes from the Middle East and is out to dominate and control us with a strict brand of religious fanaticism and Sharia law. Hence, all those from the Middle East are bad.
We need to be able to view people, countries and religions in a way that affords us a perspective from fifty thousand feet. Being able to view life conditions from such a vantage point we are able to see differences, contours, and variations in how people think, and in this case how religions can have multiple expressions even when calling themselves a single religion.
Christianity as an Example
Let’s take Christianity as an example, as most of us are somewhat familiar with it. There is a wide spectrum when it comes to those who call themselves Christians. On the one hand you have those who attend Unity and on the other you have those who are involved with fundamentalist Christian based sects. If you sit with people from each branch of Christianity you will find huge differences in world views, political persuasions, value systems, life style choices etc. But, both groups call themselves Christians. Then you add into the mix, Baptists, Presbyterians, and Episcopalians. How can all of these expressions call themselves Christians?
What is happening is that each of these groups calls themselves Christians but their different worldviews are a result of their current life conditions and resultant value systems.
How does this all relate to mosques?
Islam’s detractors often use the following argument: Most terrorist attacks are conducted by Muslims and in the name of their faith; Hence, Islam is a violent religion.
What if we were to be able to view Islam from a different perspective?
According to Spiral Dynamics integral, a Bio-Psycho-Social theory of human development, life conditions and resultant value systems help to create different versions of Islam, just as we see with Christianity.
Depending where one’s lot in life finds them there are certain thoughts and ideas that exist depending on life conditions. It is those life conditions that create the values that one holds. Changing life conditions may change a person’s current value system. This is not a hierarchical system, as people may progress up or down depending on their current life conditions. Viewed in this light Islam takes on a different perspective.
Based on this theory let us take a look at several versions of the same faith.
A) There are millions of Muslims who find themselves in desperate straits, and live with a sense powerlessness and hopelessness. They find themselves with no jobs and very little to look forward to. It is in this cauldron of discontent that certain people make their way to the top of the pecking order and offer some sort of promise. For example, Hitler took advantage of economic and political life conditions in Germany. The same is true for Osama bin Laden, and leaders of the Taliban, etc. These personalities conspire to keep their followers subservient and needy, giving them just enough to keep hope alive while at the same time keeping them weak. We can equate this to the bully who runs roughshod over other children and at the same time has his circle of underlings who do most of the dirty work. If they cross the bully they are punished and serve as examples to others. If one breaks the rules punishment will be swift and harsh, stoning, beheading, or honor killings to name but a few. Those in positions of power are able to offer food, shelter and indoctrination, primarily to young males. These young men vow allegiance to the hand that feeds them, and the voice that indoctrinates them. What is common among all of these young men are attitudes and behavior geared towards avoiding shame, defending their reputations, and respect. Those at the top will use any means necessary to fuel the discontent these young males feel. Given this pattern of thinking they are willing to fight without remorse and guilt; they will die if necessary to prove they are worthy and to make their leader proud and further the cause. The ends justify the means, and in this case using a perverted interpretation of Islam is quite all right. When one is able to find and train the uneducated, teaching falsehoods is a very easy thing to do. When one is taught not to question and just follow instructions there is no room for individual thought. Flying planes into buildings, or strapping on a vest of explosives and killing men, women and children is not a tough decision.
The question we must ask is; How do we categorize this type of thought and behavior? Is it truly a legitimate version of Islamic faith? Is it a fundamentalist movement that is using Islam as its cover story, or are these just thugs hijacking Islam to lend some sort of legitimacy to their destructive behaviors? We could equate this perspective with certain fundamentalist Christian sects who have carried out certain acts and behaviors in the name of Jesus.
It is possible for those who have lived and viewed life from this perspective to transition to a different perspective of Islam. It is in this transition where things get dicey. If we take the leadership of Iran we can see there is a combination of these types of thoughts and behaviors along with the strict code of the Koran. There is the attitude of do not cross or disrespect me, along with the legitimacy of the power structure. An example is the way in which the Green political movement in Iran was dealt with by the Iranian government after the elections of last year. This is a dangerous place in that those in this transition still have a heavy dose of the ends justify the means along with a new found zealotry in their discovery of the “Way.”
B) There are those who follow the strict code of the Koran. They view life from a good versus evil perspective. The thoughts and behaviors of those who have transitioned from the previous way of thinking are now transformed. No longer is there the desire or need to follow the singular leader or movement. There is a now higher authority. Their purpose is now to follow Allah and live life as was laid out in the Holy Koran. People see life on this earth as hard and one must do all that they can here on earth to ensure everlasting life. There is a path that leads to the promise land, to eternal life, to joy, bliss, and streets paved with gold.
At this stage “proper” authority rules and people willingly follow the directives of the power structure, recognizing that power was bestowed to the authority from on high. There is no compromise; there is one way, and one way only. Fear and guilt are powerful tools that keep followers in line. One knows their place and they are happy to follow “proper” authority as it helps to maintain stability, morality and ethical behavior within society. Pleasure and purpose are gained by following the one true way. But don’t be fooled there can be conflict in what that true way is. In Islam we see a fight between Sunni and Shia over lineage, and the proper interpretation of the Koran. And, they are fighting and killing one another because of it.
This is where the majority of practicing Muslims live currently and it can be equated to Pentecostal Christians and other fundamentalist Christian groups.
C) There are those who have moved out of the strict adherence to “proper” authority and the Imam’s presentation of the Koran. They have a more autonomous and independent way of seeing and living their lives. Guilt is a now thing of the past. There is no need to follow “proper” authority as “I am now my own authority.” While one still maintains their underlying faith and structure, those things take a back seat to more important matters, “myself and my success.”
There is now a striving for the good life. Taking advantage of every opportunity will allow a person to become successful in worldly terms. Striving for the good life and taking advantage of every opportunity, wanting to be successful, knowing what one wants and going after it, are life’s goals. Being successful in a career or business, large homes, fancy cars, gold jewelry, yachts, trips abroad, beautiful women, these are the fruits of one’s hard work and labor. And, on Friday one attends prayer service.
This can be seen when men from Saudi Arabia travel to Dubai to let it all hang out. This perspective can be equated to American Catholicism or Episcopalians.
D) At some point there may be a reconsideration of what this striving for success is all about. They may ask themselves, is this all there is? At this point there may be a shift to a more spiritual communal view of live and what is has to offer and one’s place in that world. They wish to promote unity and believe that people must be liberated from oppressive authoritarian control in order to bring harmony to all. Inter-faith dialogue is a symbol of tolerance and humanism. Flexibility and non-violence are a part of their practice.
An expression of Islam known as Sufism is an example. This is a mystical form of Islam which some Muslims don’t consider to be a part of Islam. Sufism has been condemned by the likes of Osama bin Laden and other strict fundamentalist types. This version of Islam may be compared to the Unity version of Christianity.
It must be noted here that Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf of the controversial New York City mosque is of the Sufi tradition.
Just as with Christianity there are many different variations on Islam. To paint Islam with a broad brush believing all are the same is a mistake and will ultimately do more harm than good. We must look at current life conditions, values systems, and the complexity of each to determine how we can create a multi faceted approach and response. We also must keep in mind that one thing runs deep for those in the Muslim world, a strong tribal content. This ties people together no matter where they live. An attack on one may be viewed as an attack on the whole tribe.
Our challenge is to address the issues of complexity in a way that serves everyone. We must not over react, but at the same time we must be aware of the fact that there are those in this country right now who have the mindset to commit crimes using Islam as the cover for their criminal behaviors. However, we must resist the temptation to “do the usual” and refrain from framing the issues from an us versus them perspective, as is currently being done. It is important to keep in mind that the zealots and flame throwers on both sides have a vested interest in stoking the flames of discontent. It is the moderate voices and conversations on both sides where the solutions will be found.
Roger Wetzel M.A. is Co-director of the Center for Human Emergence – California, ( [http://www.humanemergencecalifornia.org] ) a think and do tank dedicated to cultivating conditions for personal, organizational and large scale change. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Copyright Roger Wetzel M.A.
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