reflections of a pragmatic optimist, lover of freedom

Month: October 2005 (Page 1 of 2)

Wanting to believe

Enclosed with a recent letter, my parents sent me a brief clipping by regular Salt Lake Tribune columnist Robert Kirby, titled “Why the animosity? Can’t find it in the Quran”, in which the author relates his preliminary reaction to beginning to read the Muslim holy book.

Kirby’s piece begins:

On the wall above my desk is a framed quotation. I don’t know who said it, only that I saw it once and liked it.

“A book is like a mirror. If an ass looks into it, you can’t expect an apostle to look back out.”

The quote is especially poignant now that I’m slogging my way through the Holy Quran. It’s a tough read, but I don’t blame the book. So much of it is deeply spiritual and I’m not.

Technically, I should be reading something else. The LDS Church wants all of its members to read the entire Book of Mormon again this year. We’ve been given weekly reading goals and everything.

Doing this is supposed to bring me closer to God. That’s all well and good, but right now I’m more interested in staying alive.

According to the news, about a billion Muslims also want me closer to God and are eager to kill me to help me get there. It seems only prudent that I find out why.

Toward this end I picked up a copy of the Quran two months ago.

“Here’s the deal,” Kirby concludes a couple of jokes later:

So far, I can’t find anywhere in this book that says I’m supposed to be killed. There’s plenty that says I’m going to hell in a hurry, but that’s nothing new. The Bible, the Book of Mormon, and my mom all say that.

What I do find are continual references to tolerance and well treatment of others.

If the rest of the Quran is like what I’ve read so far, I’m pretty sure I won’t find anything that deliberately encourages violence toward me or anyone else.

Bible, Book of Mormon, Quran, they all come down to what kind of person is looking into them. It always seems to be way too many asses.

Certainly I have read similar claims before, and would like very much to believe them. This was my carefully considered reply:

I sincerely hope that Kirby is right based on his reading so far — I really do. But I must say that I feel skeptical about his conclusions based on evidence I have seen elsewhere. I want very much to believe the assertion — oft-repeated by our own embattled president, no less — that “Islam is a religion of peace”. Yet I fear that our charitable desire to be tolerant and ascribe innocent intentions to others may be putting us in serious danger, by persuading us to dismiss evidence to the contrary in favor of what we might prefer to believe, or what fits our expectations of people who think and behave as we do.

As I see it, for tragic reasons we have yet to understand, Islam either produces a disproportionate share of the world’s violent extremists, or at minimum seems disproportionately prone to being twisted into an attractive ideological recruitment device and justification by such extremists. (For how often does one hear of suicide bombers of Hindu, Christian, Jewish, or Buddhist affiliation?) There are men calling themselves Muslim clerics, rightly or wrongly, who preach a doctrine of violent holy war — not just in predominantly Muslim lands, but also in the U.K., Europe, and here in the U.S. Whatever its causes, this is a correlation that remains unexplained to me, yet whose implications seem important to honestly confront, investigate and understand. As Kirby himself says, “It seems only prudent that I find out why.” I respect Kirby’s open-mindedness and search for reliable firsthand answers, but in his conclusion he seems to verge on denying that any real problem exists beyond our suspicion itself, which I fear is a dangerous mistake that plays into the hands of the extremists. There is indeed a human tendency to see what we want or expect to see, and I’d certainly prefer not to be an ass. But I also have no desire to be an ostrich (especially not a dead one).

While I fully believe that the majority of Muslims are reasonable moderates who do not advocate or have ties to violent extremism, it’s unfortunate that the world seemingly hears only hesitant criticism from them when it comes to denouncing the acts and rhetoric of such extremists, who invoke Islam in their calls for jihad against the West and in celebration of terrorist acts. I certainly hope we will see that change, and that moderate Muslims will be successful in reclaiming their religion and reining in the extremists among them. To paraphrase a blogger whose patient, reasoned and thoughtful writing I have enjoyed this past year, I don’t feel secure in sitting on a hot stove waiting for that to happen. But I would be very happy to be proven wrong in that possible underestimation of the moderate Muslim community. I certainly hope I will be.

Explaining the barbarians to themselves

During a recent visit to Urban Ore, a sort of catch-all used junk/treasure store and minor Berkeley institution, I found myself sucked into the used book section. It’s inevitable, it seems — I do the same thing at antique stores, and have to keep a close eye on my watch when doing so, lest I lose all track of time browsing the worn spines with curious titles, leafing through pages of words once read and now mostly forgotten, as if searching for nothing in particular and something I can’t quite identify.

Among the more interesting relics I examined that day was a 1946 high school yearbook, whose first dozen or so pages were devoted to class-portraits-in-uniform of young men (and more than a few young women among them) who had served in the U.S. armed forces in World War II. I wish I could remember the moving words of humble gratitude that were placed therein to honor their service (and in many cases their ultimate sacrifice). I wondered if the yearbook committees of today were addressing comparable subject matter with such reverence.

The yearbook went back on the shelf, but another book that caught my eye went home with me — a somewhat yellowed and tattered but otherwise intact copy of a poem by Stephen Vincent Benét, whose earlier work “Listen to the People” I had read and deeply enjoyed. “Western Star” is the title of this one, a book-length story, published in 1943, about the American frontier and those who made and lived it.

I picked it up and started reading tonight, and am enjoying it very much so far. Three pages into the “Prelude” came a passage that seemed especially appropriate to excerpt here:

The stranger finds them easy to explain
(Americans, I said Americans,)
And tells them so in public and at length.
(It’s an old Roman virtue to be frank,
A tattered Grecian parchment on the shelves,
Explaining the barbarians to themselves,
A lost, Egyptian prank.)
Here is the weakness. On the other hand,
Here is what really might be called the strength.
And then he makes a list.
Sometimes he thumps the table with his fist.
Sometimes, he’s very bland.
O few, stiff-collared and unhappy men
Wilting in silence, to the cultured boom
Of the trained voice in the perspiring room!
O books, O endless, minatory books!
(Explaining the barbarians to themselves)
He came and went. He liked our women’s looks.
Ate lunch and said the skyscrapers were high,
And then, in state, passed by,
To the next lecture, to the desolate tryst.
Sometimes to waken, in the narrow berth
When the green curtains swayed like giant leaves
In the dry, prairie-gust,
Wake, with an aching head, and taste the dust,
The floury wheat-dust, smelling of the sheaves,
And wonder, for a second of dismay,
If there was something that one might have missed,
Between the chicken salad and the train,
Between the ladies’ luncheon and the station,
Something that might explain one’s explanation

When dinner parties and political parties mix

It’s about time I posted something else to move the previous headline out of the way (lest someone think there had been yet another terrorist attack in Bali already).

I’ve started making progress again toward the second post in my intended series, but I don’t yet have a feel for when that will be ready. Meanwhile, there’s an interesting post and ensuing discussion on “Dinner party politics and how to avoid them”, over on Neo-neocon’s blog — discussing an awkward situation in which I’ve certainly found myself on more than one occasion.

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