Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Al-Qaida and Interfaith- What's Not To Like?

Al-Qaida has finally caught up with the Missouri-Synod Lutherans.

Shortly after the murder of thousands of Americans on 9/11/01, the Rev. David Benke was suspended from the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod for taking part in an interfaith service at Yankee Stadium for the families of the victims. Now, escaped al-Qaida commander Abu Yahia al-Libi is calling for the murder of Saudi King Abdullah for hosting an interfaith gathering of his own.

To be honest, I have to sympathize. These interfaith gatherings are too much. Every other week clergy people are holding interfaith meetings to assure one another that their respective faiths really don’t mean what they say.

Honestly, if I have to listen to another liberal clergyperson pretend that his or her take on his or her religion is really what that religion is about, I will scream. At least Abu Yahia al-Libi is honest: “equating Islam with other religions is a betrayal of Islam.”

The fact is equating Christianity or Judaism with other religions is a betrayal of those faiths as well. Each of these faiths knows they are the one and only true revelation from God. At least Abu Yahia al-Libi is honest. Of course calling for the murder of the King is a bit over the top, but you have to admire his enthusiasm.

The point of King Abdullah’s conference is to get religions to renounce extremism, but he has to hold the conference in Spain because most of the invitees wouldn’t be allowed into Saudi Arabia unless disguised as diplomats or oil workers. How does the King define extremism, anyway?

And what’s the point of having a religion that isn’t extreme? I’m an extremist. I think anyone who disagrees with me is wrong. I just don’t think it matters that they’re wrong, so I wouldn’t kill them or damn them to God’s private Abu Ghraib. But they're still wrong.

If we must have interfaith gatherings, let’s invite extremists only. At least they’re interesting. Most clergy at interfaith conferences are too polite— “While I suggest that the distinguished imam is wrong in believing that the Qur’an is the Word of God, and in fact follows a false prophet, peace be upon him, and will burn in hell for all eternity, I’m sure we can still find enough common ground to apply for a generous faith-based grant once Senator Obama is elected president.”

No! I say, “Bring on the extremists!” Let someone sponsor a real Battle of the Gods. Let’s hear how God chooses this one, and saves that one, and sticks the rest in a living Hieronymus Bosch hellscape.

We won’t do this, of course, because, if we did, most of us would be so horrified by what our respective religions teach that we would subscribe to Free Inquiry magazine, and spend our weekends at the natural history museum.

Of course I don’t want King Abdullah to die. And I wish we would catch Abu Yahia al-Libi and throw his ass back in jail (or, better yet, let him go hunting with Vice President Cheny), but please let’s not waste another dime on conferences that pretend to solve the problem that the attendees themselves are creating.


AaronHerschel said...

I tend to agree with you on the flaws of the interfaith perspective. Our culture, I mean American culture, has tended to lionize a melting pot multiculturalism that actually suppresses difference. In The Closing of the American Mind, Allan Bloom locates the typical manifestation of this fallacy in the commonplace "Everyone has right to their own opinion." In terms of social behaviour this democratic sounding adage creates a deadening politeness that amounts to a gag order. In interfaith dialogues, the gag takes on a peculiar reductivism, wherein theological differences are smoothed over by an appeal to broad (and deliberately vague) humanistic principles. These principles are afforded the status of universals, and tend to obscure (without actually resolving) tensions and contradictions in and between faiths. Thus interfaith poses itself as an already completed dialectic: one in which secular humanism has already won out, and religious conflict is intellectually suspended. That such conflicts might actually be productive of new knowledge never enters the interfaith picture. Indeed, no new understanding ever really arises--all the conclusions are foregone.

So, sure, let's bring in the extremists (but ask them to leave their suicide vests at the door). I envision a religious discussion characterized by risk, tension and, yes, conflict. Something closer to what teacher and pedagocgical theorist Mary Louise Pratt called the "contact zone." Contact zones are "social spaces where cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power...." This is not an easy psychic environment to inhabit, but it has its advantages. As Pratt puts it:

"In the absence of community values and the hope of synthesis, it was easy to forget the positives; the fact, for instance, that kinds of marginalization once taken for granted were gone. Virtually every student was having the experience of seeing the world described with him or her in it. Along with rage, incomprehension, and pain there were exhilarating moments of wonder and revelation, mutual understanding, and new wisdom--the joys of the contact zone. The sufferings and revelations were, at different moments to be sure, experienced by every student. No one was excluded, and no one was safe."

I would love to try an interfaith dialogue built along these lines--just to see if anything new came out of it. Not necessarily a new consensus, but new ideas, new tensions and new conflicts! Anything less spells the arrest of religious (symbolic, mythological) thinking, and the death of religion as a vital meaning making force.

For a fuller discussion of the contact zone (especially the concept fo the safe house, which is essential to balancing the intrincsic conflicts of the zone) see Pratt's article: "The Arts of teh Contact Zone."

Rabbi Rami said...

As always, Aaron Herschel, your thoughts are cogent, challenging, and provacative. I like what you have to say about the "gagging" of real dialogue and the need for risk.

I had not heard of Mary Louise Pratt or the contact zone idea, but I will follow up. Please let us know where her article can be found.


Rabbi Rami said...

I was curious about this Pratt essay and I found it on line. It is part of a collection of essays. Here is the reference:

From Ways of Reading, 5th edition, ed. David Bartholomae and Anthony Petroksky (New York: Bedford/St. Martin's, 1999)

soldiermom said...

There are no interfaith gatherings in my community, only the other kind, where people of like minds clump together and point crooked fingers at those who believe differently. It is ugly and ungodly.

Rami, I know your tongue is in your cheek and I love your willingness to see the humor in situations that we take so seriously. (Especially the Hieronymus Bosch visual…so good!) And, I love a rousing round of "tell me who your God is" as much as the next girl, however, the thought of being around people who actually tried to get along, sounds pretty damn refreshing!

I am a mediator; small claims, family, child custody, community and divorce. I see lots of conflict and I hesitate to romanticize it, yet it is in the tension that I learn everything I need to know about the people that come for help. There is much revealed in the conflict if we know how to look for it and not just react to the pressure. But sometimes…it is nice to just have a conversation.

Aaron, you are smart. I had to read your posting about 5 times. Then I read the Pratt article…a few times. Then I read your posting again. Your writing is challenging for us mere mortals.

Thanks for the challenge.

Mike Smith and Rami Shapiro said...

Soldiermom, maybe you should start an interfaith conversation in your community.

soldiermom said...

Hilarious! I actually started a church 8 years ago and got kicked out last year!!! Too funny. Long and painful story...best left in the past.

I would love to start a conversation, or one of the "Year of Reading Dangerously" groups. I am considering it, but live in FL in the winter. It is hard to start something and then say "Hey guys...good luck with that. I am outta here." With the right mix of people, however, it could work. Maybe that is in the future for me.