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First Parish Universalist Church
790 Washington Street, P. O. Box 284, Stoughton, Massachusetts 02072 
(781) 344-6800
Worship: 10:30 AM
Church School: 10:45 AM

Should We Be Afraid of Islam?

Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, September 26, 2010

            In the Conservative and Orthodox strains of Judaism (though not in the Reform), the chief Torah reading for the Yom Kippur service comes from the book of Leviticus. It tells the story of the ritual sacrifice that marked the very first Day of Atonement in ancient Israel.


            In the selection, the High Priest takes two males goats, and marks them: one is marked “For Yahweh”—for the Lord, for God; the other is marked “For Azalzel”. (Azalzel was an ancient mythological creature whom the Hebrews feared; the equivalent in our minds might be the Devil or Beelzebub or something like that. Not a very nice guy.) On the Day of Atonement, the High Priest then takes the goat dedicated to the Lord and sacrifices it. The other goat is sent into the desert, where he caries away his own sins, as well as those of all the people.


            Such were the origins of what we today call scapegoating (a term that was first coined in English in the 16th Century.) The scapegoat represented the animal upon which the community transferred its guilt. But scapegoating has come to represent something a little different in our own time: rather than the one who carries away the guilt of others, we now look upon a “scapegoat” as the one who is to blame for all our present woes. “It’s not my fault that the country is going to hell in a handbasket,” we say. “It’s the fault of the…. Jews… or the Blacks… or the Catholics… or the whomever.”


            Scapegoating is a convenient end run around personal responsibility. If we can blame someone else, then we don’t have to change anything about ourselves then, do we? Because change is never easy, and most of the time, we human ones would rather avoid it than not.


            Although we are willing to change our scapegoat from time to time. As a culture, we’ve chosen different groups over the years to blame for our problems. Different groups have become, in the public mind at least, Sinister Threat #1-- that malevolent force—that great conspiracy—whom, we are lead to believe, exert their own insidious power in order to subvert America and conquer the world with their foreign ideology.


            First it was the Catholics. Back in the 19th century, Samuel F. B. Morse was a distinguished professor at New York University and an accomplished inventor; he is most famous, of course, for his invention of the telegraph. He was also, it seems, a virulent anti-Catholic. In his book, A Conspiracy Against the Liberties of the United States, Morse wrote:


“Surely American Protestants, freemen, have discernment enough to discover beneath them the cloven foot of this subtle foreign heresy. They will see that Popery is now, what it has ever been, a system of the darkest political intrigue and despotism, cloaking itself to avoid attack under the sacred name of religion. They will be deeply impressed with the truth, that Popery is a political as well as a religious system; that in this respect it differs totally from all other sects, from all other forms of religion in the country.”


It was words like these which inspired a mob to burn down the Ursuline convent in Charlestown in 1834, or to try to burn down St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City in 1835. Anti-Catholic ideas would remain a force in American political life, at least until the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960.


The next scapegoat was the Jews. It was the Jews, some said, who were out to dominate the world. As late as the eve of the Second World War (and the eve of the Holocaust), anti-Semitism was an active ideology in American political life, not just something insinuated and whispered about. In 1939, Father Charles Coughlin (a Catholic priest, interestingly) unleashed his venom against the Jews to a crowd of 20,000 at Madison Square Garden. Even a highly respected public figure like Charles Lindbergh made speeches across the country denouncing “the Jews” for trying to pull America into the war in Europe.


During the Second World War, the Japanese became a favorite scapegoat. More than one hundred thousand  Japanese-Americans were taken from their homes and relocated in camps across the American West. Then, after the war, with the rise of McCarthyism, Communists—“Reds”—became the new scapegoat, and Americans were told that there were (supposedly) vast numbers of Communist agents, infiltrating all aspects of American life, even the U.S. government.


So now, there is Islam. Some people fear that Muslims are attempting to foist Shariah law on our national institutions and our government. They’re out to take over the world, we’re told, and replace our Constitution with the Koran. Billy Graham’s son, Franklin, calls Islam “a very wicked and evil religion”. Talk radio hosts like Glenn Beck and Michael Savage and Rush Windbag inveigh against the inroads of extremist Islam in American life, and the influence of radical Muslim clerics. Almost 70% of Americans, according to some polls, oppose the proposed building of a mosque near Ground Zero in New York City.


Why do some people have such a problem with the religion of Mohammed? What are the sources of the West’s fear of Islam?


For one thing, Islam is different. It presents a completely different worldview from that which we’re used to here in the liberal, democratic West. Islam does not recognize any equivalent of that principle enshrined and honored in the West by (almost) all of us: the separation of church and state. To the Muslim, Allah is the Creator and Lord over all—the secular world no less than the sacred; the political realm no less than the religious. Throughout the Muslim world, there is no such thing as religious pluralism, as it exists in the West. There are non-Muslims who live in Muslim countries, certainly—characterized as “non-believers”, religious minorities. These non-believers, the Koran teaches, are to be free from religious coercion. Within Islam, Christians, Jews, and people of other faiths are free to practice their own religions, as long as they submit to Muslim authority. When they resist this authority, then they forgo their status as “protected” (but distinctly inferior) minorities, and become instead kafir—non-believers, infidel, enemies of Islam. As kafir, their ultimate choice becomes either to convert to Islam, or to die at its hands. If one defames Islam, then one becomes a kafir—subject to Islam’s righteous rage.


Secondly, the relationship between Islam and the West has been tortuous one, from its earliest days. It is not a troubled relationship that began with September 11th. It didn’t begin with the Ayatollah Khomeni seizing power in Iran in 1979. It didn’t even begin with the creation of Israel in the Middle East in 1947.


“The struggle between these rival systems has now lasted some fourteen centuries,” Bernard Lewis tells us. “It began with the advent of Islam in the seventh century, and has continued virtually to the present day. It has consisted of a long series of attacks and counterattacks, jihads and crusades, conquests and reconquests. For the first thousand years, Islam was advancing, Christendom in retreat and under threat. [Islam] conquered the old Christian lands of… North Africa, and invaded Europe, ruling, for a while, in Sicily, Spain, Portugal, and even parts of France.”


Crusades were launched by Christian authorities to reconquer lands lost to Islam in the Holy Land; but at the same time, the forces of Mohammed drove deep into Europe, overrunning the Balkans, and twice reaching the very outskirts of Vienna.


Lewis continues: “For the past 300 years, since the failure of the second Turkish siege of Vienna in 1683… Islam has been on the defensive, and the Christian and post-Christian civilization of Europe and [America] has brought the whole world, including Islam, within its orbit.”


Now, we have entered a new stage in this long and difficult relationship, and we are in the midst of rebellion against Western dominance. In the very rise of Islamic radicalism, we are reaping the whirlwind of Western interference and exploitation of the peoples and cultures of other lands. For our part, we may not understand how thousands of Muslims can be provoked to riot in the streets because of a cartoon in a newspaper, or by the threat of some insignificant fringe pastor in Florida to burn a Koran But on the other hand, most Muslims the world over cannot understand how a nation thousands of miles away and its European allies can have the arrogance and hubris to send thousand of its troops to occupy Muslim lands and interfere in Muslim affairs.


            I don’t pretend for a moment that the relationship between Islam and the West is anything other than a complicated one. It is one that is fraught with great dangers and there are no simple solutions. What can we do then, besides live in fear as we await Islam’s next onslaught?


            As men and women of goodwill, we can do two things, at least: We can hold steadfast to our deepest values, and we can search out ways for engaging in dialogue with other men and women of good will of whatever faith—including the moderate forces that exist within the Islamic world.


            In the face of the present “Mosque at Ground Zero” controversy (and, just to be persnickety: it’s not a mosque, it’s a cultural center; and it’s not at Ground Zero, it’s two city blocks away—two New York city blocks-- in an area that already contains such sacred sites as a McDonald’s restaurant, a Burger King, at least three bars [including the “New York Gals Gentleman’s Club”], an Off Track Betting office, a vitamin shop, dry cleaners, and (of course) at least one Dunkin Donuts. And did you know that there was, prior to September 11th, a mosque in the World Trade Center [on the 17th floor]?)  But in the face of the present “mosque at Ground Zero” controversy, people of moderation and goodwill (like us, I hope) have certain responsibilities:


            One is to affirm our belief in and practice of religious toleration, just as widely as we may. That means affirming the right of Americans of the Islamic faith to practice their religion as freely as any of us practice ours. That means celebrating their right to build their houses of worship wherever they see the need existing.


            Building this Islamic cultural center in the heart of New York is a clear statement that the bells of religious freedom still ring forth across our land. In doing so, we thumb our noses at religious fanatics and religio-fascists wherever they abide—especially at the Islamo-fascists who ploughed those airplanes into the World Trade Center, and wrought so much horror and tragedy to so many thousands of lives.


            The September 11th terrorists didn’t care about the religions of their victims. They didn’t care that about 70 of those men and women they killed were fellow-Muslims. One was a cafeteria manager from Guyana. Another was a copy machine repairman from India. Another was a computer technician from Palestine, who was going to celebrate his fourth wedding anniversary on September 12th.


            These dear souls deserve a memorial at September 11th as much as any of the other victims do.


            The truth is that the vast majority of American Muslims are faithful American citizens. They pay taxes, follow the rules, contribute to the lives of our communities, as much as any of us do. Their sons and daughters fight in our wars; they get killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, too.


            Their rights deserve to be defended as certainly as ours do.


            Now, more than ever, we need to join forces with our beleaguered Muslim brothers and sisters, and defend them and befriend them. We must avoid at all costs the kinds of scapegoating hysteria that have marred the pages of our history all too often. It’s not time to inter those who are different than we are. It’s time to reach out to them.


Now, more than ever, we need to seek out dialogue with moderate Muslim forces, and seek common cause wherever we can. It’s interesting that the Imam Feisal Rauf, the earliest proponent of the Islamic Community Center in lower Manhattan, was for years characterized as the most moderate of American Muslim leaders. One observer called him “a sort of Islamic Rotarian”. In 2006, talk show commentator Glenn Beck called him “one of America’s good Muslims”. Now, he is vilified in the popular media as an agent of extremist Islam.


Sadly, voices of toleration and moderation (on both sides of the Western-Islamic divide) seem increasingly muted and weak in relation to those more outspoken, harsh, and strident. What is wrong with us?


Are all Muslims all about peace and love and understanding? No, I am not (quite) foolish or naïve enough to believe that. No more than I think that all Christians or all Jews are all about peace and love and toleration.


But I know that heroic and inspirational figures and people of goodwill abide in all faiths, and I know it is my responsibility to try to learn from them. In one of his poems, W.H. Auden wrote: “You shall love your crooked neighbor, with your crooked heart.” Perhaps this is the attitude we need to adopt in this troubled and dangerous world.


That seems the challenge we face, as imperfect men and women is this (always) imperfect and difficult world.


The truest memorial we can build to the martyrs of September 11th—those dear men and women drawn from all faiths, dozens of nationalities, so many different cultures—is an America true to its deepest ideals of freedom and dignity.


In this light, not to build the Islamic Center in lower Manhattan would be a terrible tragedy of great proportions. As Michael Moore put it: “If the mosque isn’t built, then America isn’t America any more.” Or at least, it’s not an America that stands firm to its deepest values. It’s the America that has, as too often in the past, let voices of intolerance and narrow-mindedness hold sway.


America’s real memorial to the victims of 9/11 can only be built with the open hands, and the engaged hearts and minds, of all of us offering freely our gifts of love and compassion and justice and wisdom to this bruised and eager world.



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