I have learned much from my Muslim friends, foremost this: Political disagreements come and go, but genuine respect for each other, rooted in our respective faith traditions, does not. If there is no respect, there is no relationship, merely a transactional encounter that serves no one in the long term.
1. "The Clash of Civilizations." Invariably, this kind of discussion ends up with us as the good guy and them as the bad guy. There is no clash of civilizations, only a clash between those who are for civilization, and those who are against it. Civilization has many characteristics but two are foundational: 1) It has no place for those who encourage, invite, and/or commit the murder of innocent civilians; and 2) It is defined by institutions that protect and promote both the minority and the transparent rule of law.
2. "Secular." The Muslim ear tends to hear "godless" with the pronunciation of this word. And a godless society is simply inconceivable to the vast majority of Muslims worldwide. Pluralism – which encourages those with (and those without) a God-based worldview to have a welcomed and equal place in the public square – is a much better word.
3. "Assimilation." This word suggests that the minority Muslim groups in North America and Europe need to look like the majority, Christian culture. Integration, on the other hand, suggests that all views, majority and minority, deserve equal respect as long as each is willing to be civil with one another amid the public square of a shared society.
4. "Reformation." Muslims know quite well, and have an opinion about, the battle taking place within Islam and what it means to be an orthodox and devout Muslim. They don't need to be insulted by suggesting they follow the Christian example of Martin Luther. Instead, ask how Muslims understand ijtihad, or reinterpretation, within their faith traditions and cultural communities.
5. "Jihadi." The jihad is an internal struggle first, a process of improving one's spiritual self-discipline and getting closer to God. The lesser jihad is external, validating "just war" when necessary. By calling the groups we are fighting "jihadis," we confirm their own – and the worldwide Muslim public's – perception that they are religious. They are not. They are terrorists, hirabists, who consistently violate the most fundamental teachings of the Holy Koran and mainstream Islamic scholars and imams.
6. "Moderate." This ubiquitous term is meant politically but can be received theologically. If someone called me a "moderate Christian," I would be deeply offended. I believe in an Absolute who also commands me to love my neighbor. Similarly, it is not an oxymoron to be a mainstream Muslim who believes in an Absolute. A robust and civil pluralism must make room for the devout of all faiths, and none.
7. "Interfaith." This term conjures up images of watered-down, lowest common denominator statements that avoid the tough issues and are consequently irrelevant. "Multifaith" suggests that we name our deep and irreconcilable theological differences in order to work across them for practical effect – according to the very best of our faith traditions, much of which are values we share.
8. "Freedom." Unfortunately, "freedom," as expressed in American foreign policy, does not always seek to engage how the local community and culture understands it. Absent such an understanding, freedom can imply an unbound licentiousness. The balance between the freedom to something (liberty) and the freedom from something (security) is best understood in a conversation with the local context and, in particular, with the Muslims who live there. "Freedom" is best framed in the context of how they understand such things as peace, justice, honor, mercy, and compassion.
9. "Religious Freedom." Sadly, this term too often conveys the perception that American foreign policy is only worried about the freedom of Protestant evangelicals to proselytize and convert, disrupting the local culture and indigenous Christians. Although not true, I have found it better to define religious freedom as the promotion of respect and reconciliation with the other at the intersection of culture and the rule of law – sensitive to the former and consistent with the latter.
10. "Tolerance." Tolerance is not enough. Allowing for someone's existence, or behavior, doesn't build the necessary relationships of trust – across faiths and cultures – needed to tackle the complex and global challenges that our civilization faces. We need to be honest with and respect one another enough to name our differences and commonalities, according to the inherent dignity we each have as fellow creations of God called to walk together in peace and justice, mercy and compassion.
Of the ten terms, I agree very strongly with numbers 2 through 6 (Secular, Assimilation, Reformation, Jihadi, Moderate); also, with number 9, Religious Freedom. Here's why:
- "Secular" - To a Muslim, there is very little positive about this word. I've heard many non-Muslims complain over time that there must be some secular Muslims out there somewhere, not knowing that "secular Muslim" is a contradiction in terms. A Muslim does not lead a secular life; if only non-Muslims knew how often the name of God passes a Muslim's lips. About to start up the car? Bismillah! Just burped? Alhamdulillah! Something wonderful just happened? Masha'allah! Not sure if something's going to happen? Insha'allah! To be a Muslim means to lead a religious life; if non-Muslims can accept that then we can move forward together.
- "Assimilation" - This seems to be a term favored by the far right. At the very minimum, "assimilation" seems to mean for them a shared common language; hence the popularity of the "English Only" movement in several states around the U.S. Beyond that, to be honest, I'm not really sure what people expect when they want others to "assimilate." Does that mean going to the bar for drinks? Eating pork chops for dinner? Neither of those are going to happen with Muslims, obviously. The way the term is bandied about, it seems like "assimilation" really means "conformity." You must be just like everybody else. And if "we're" engaging in sinful behavior, don't rock the boat! Come and join in, too!
- "Reformation" - This is another common plea from non-Muslims: if only Muslims would reform their religion. Here's a clue: it ain't gonna happen! Actually, I find the suggested word ijtihad to be almost as offensive as "reformation." Too many weak Muslims pray for a renewal of ijtihad because they can't take their Islam straight. Ijtihad, when spoken of by non-Muslims and weak Muslims, has largely become synonymous with "reformation," with secularism.
- "Jihadi" - This is a perfect example of people twisting the meaning of words into something completely the opposite of its original intention. Jihad in Islam is such a positive force, and non-Muslims have completely perverted that positiveness. For more on the subject, see here.
- "Moderate" - "Moderate Muslim" isn't necessarily a bad term per se, but the real problem is that for most non-Muslims, a "moderate Muslim" really means a "secular Muslim." The way non-Muslims talk about Muslims, there's little to no difference between an observant Muslim (one who prays, fasts, etc.) and the al-Qaida types. That's what makes "moderate Muslim" such an offensive term. It doesn't help matters when governments promote this type of thinking, such as in the recently leaked British documents that "define" who is an extremist Muslim. (According to the British criteria, I qualify as an "extremist," an idea I find patently absurd.)
- "Religious Freedom" - Finally, the author's description of "religious freedom" as how American Protestants perceive it is spot on. Muslims ask for minor changes here and there to accommodate our lifestyle and non-Muslims become upset! Consider the recent case of a Domino's Pizza in the UK that recently switched to halal toppings, the first in the country to do so. "It's a disgrace. ... I can appreciate them having it as an option but to have it completely halal is just not on. I'm all for racial and religious tolerance but if anything this is intolerant to my beliefs and discriminatory against me. Instead I had to travel two miles out of my way to another branch – I was appalled." "This is a global pizza chain that is isolating western values and choice. It's alienating people and that's just not on. I'd been coming here for ages but now I'll go elsewhere because I can't get a pepperoni pizza, which is what I always have." (Actual comments from the original article.) The whining! It's amazing! At least here in S'pore, more and more restaurant chains continue to switch to halal foods. But in the intolerant West, religious freedom really means Christian freedom. Thank God for the East.
Update: Although I cross-posted this essay on Street Prophets back on March 31st, the discussion about the diary seems to have finally reached its conclusion (insha'allah!) nearly two weeks later. The essay received a total of 140 comments to date (a personal best; the most comments any of my previous diaries over at SP had gotten was a mere 60). So give that discussion a look-see if you're interested, but be sure to budget at least a half-hour's reading time. ;)