I realize I’ve been something of a stuck record lately, but I really hate bigotry. And while I’m far from an expert on Islam, I’ve come to realize that compared to most people in the U.S. I’m a bleeping Islamic encyclopedia. Which is pretty pathetic.
This knowledge came slowly, though. The first time I can remember the Middle East conflict getting my full attention was during the Munich Olympics. I was in college at the time, and I remember going to the Hillel House on campus for a memorial service for the slain Israeli Olympians. Like a lot of people, back then I associated Palestinians with terrorism. It was quite a while before more information seeped in and I realized the Palestinian-Israeli issue wasn’t nearly as black and white as I’d assumed.
Now, fast forward to the Gulf War. You might remember that at one point Iraq launched Scud missiles into Israel, and television news showed Palestinians dancing in the streets because Israel was being bombed. I was really angry at this, flashing back to the Munich Olympics. But by then I was a Zen student, and part of the practice is to not harbor anger.
The local Ethical culture society was hosting a series of lectures on Islam, so I went to as many as I could as a kind of anger therapy. The lectures were given by Muslims who were professional people in the community. One fellow I remember was a heart surgeon, originally from Afghanistan, who had lived in the U.S. most of his life. I liked this guy, because I recognized he was a real spiritual seeker, not a dogmatist. For example, he explained that he understood “jihad” to be the spiritual struggle with oneself, not “holy war” with other people.
The other thing I got out of the lecture series was an appreciation of the power of Islamic practice. I could see that the daily prayers and other practices would not only make the religion the center of one’s daily life — for good or ill — but also forge a deep sense of communal bonding with other followers around the world. So although I was not at all tempted to adopt it for myself, I certainly developed a deep respect for it. And folks, it ain’t going to go away.
In a weird kind of way I got to know Sufi Islam through Buddhism, in particular Sufi poetry published in Buddhist journals. A lot of mystic Sufism comes uncannily close to some aspects of Buddhism. I also understand that Sufism was an influence on G.I. Gurdjieff, who was something like the father of New Age spirituality, or at least every hippie New Ager I ever met told me they’d started by studying Gurdjieff.
Something else I learned along the way is that Wahhabis really hate Sufis. In fact, Abdul Wahab (1703-1792) began his movement primarily to “cleanse the Arab Bedouins of Sufi influence,” it says here. To this day, Wahhabis consider Sufis to be dangerous heretics. As I’ve said earlier, the rise of jihadism and fundamentalist Islam in recent years has brought a lot of punishment to Sufis. Mosques and shrines have been attacked by suicide bombers, and lots of Sufis have been killed by Jihadists. And the fundamentalist Shia regime in Iran doesn’t like them either and tends to round up Sufis for detention from time to time, just because.
So, you would think that the same people who are perpetually sniffing out evidence of the depravity of fundamentalist Islam would have some sympathy for the very non-fundamentalist Sufis and their frequent victimization by jihadists. But no. Because, you know, all Muslims are alike to them. For example:
Who is investing in this project? I doubt many moderate businessman will want to attract the sort of publicity swirling around this, but I bet there is plenty of Wahhabi money in Saudi Arabia that would love to get behind the Victory Mosque.
One does want to pound one’s head against the wall in frustration sometimes. If you have any appreciation at all for the situation of Sufis, you could argue that putting up a big Sufi “mosque” near Ground Zero amounts to sticking Wahhabis in the eye, since Sufis and Sunni jihadists are pretty much natural enemies. But try explaining that to the bigots.