One More Time

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.

8 thoughts on “One More Time

  1. Boy, I haven’t heard/seen the name of Gurdjieff in a very long time. What a flashback you just gave me.

    • What a flashback you just gave me.

      I skipped the Gurdjieff phase myself, but I think just about everyone I’ve ever met who was into some kind of spirituality and who was born before 1945 or so — and some younger — started with Gurdjieff. This includes my current Zen teacher.

  2. Sincere appreciation for these musings. My first experience with Muslims was as a Peace Corps volunteer in Lanao, Mindanao, southern Philippines. The Muslims students I taught were intellectually alive, very aware of their people’s history and proud of their culture and folklore. The Christian Filipinos in my philosophy classes tended to be passive and uncritical. They seemed to exhibit an enormous inferiority complex toward the West.

    Thanks for pointing out some of the complexities within Islam; unfortunately the people who need to be educated about the differences don’t want to know. They just seem to want to rant and hate.

    May I recommend Prof. Juan Cole’s blog “Informed Comment”

    With metta,

  3. Maybe I’m a junior version of that encyclopedia to which you referred. In the mid-seventies, on one of my deployments to Antarctica, I read the koran or qur’an. I have always felt that ‘a Jihad’ was an internal struggle within the person, at least initially.

    Sufism I think I understand at least to the point that they are happy with their religion/beliefs. Wahabis seem to be much more dogmatic.

  4. This is getting to be like the Twilight Zone episode, “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street.”
    Go take a look at a video on Balloon Juice where a swarthy man wearing a white cap is walking through the protest and takes the full brunt of verbal abuse from a crowd of white bigots. He even says to the crowd, after throwing a few well aimed “f” bombs, that he’s not even a Muslim. It almost comes to physical violence. Check out the asshole in the blue construction helmet.
    If Bin Landen’s alive, he, like the aliens in that episode, is watching from somewhere else and laughing at how easy it is to destroy America. Let them do it to themselves.

  5. Thank you for posting this. I can see it was necessary from some of the jaw-droppingly ignorant troll comments under the Andy McCarthy post.

    Sadly, though, I see the anti-Cordoba House crowd refuse to accept facts. Understanding of history and culture would rob them of their anger, which obviously is the only thing that gets them out of bed in the morning.

  6. The different factions within Islam are way to complex for the dimwitted teabaggers to comprehend, all they know is Islam = Terrorism. That is what the TV machine has been telling them ever since the Iran hostage crises, hell that situation spawned the whole booblehead infotainment era. It’s unfortunate that the cable networks can’t give a simple and thoughtful explanation such as the one you’ve constructed in this post. You’d think with 24hrs, 7 days, they’d have the time? In my former life as a steel worker at the big mill I worked with an African American Muslim. Man did he take alot of shit from co-workers and managers, especially during Ramadan. People would actually taunt him with food at lunchtime, they called themselves “Christians”. As an out and proud Atheist I found it odd that occasionally I would come to his defense. Though I find religion in general offensive, I had more respect for his, at least he practiced it faithfully. Maybe that’s part of the problem the Sunday morning Christian crowd has with Islam, they know deep down that they (themselves) practice religion out of habit and as part of a social scene; maybe the seriousness of many Muslims scares the shit out of them.

  7. I’ve come to realize that compared to most people in the U.S. I’m a bleeping Islamic encyclopedia

    It’s not just ignorance, either, the really virulently anti-Muslim bigots tend to be steeped in mis- and disinformation. I’m always amazed at the people who learn a couple of words like dhimmi and shariah and suddenly think they know everything there is to know about a 1400 year old religion with over a billion adherents.

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