Tuesday, August 31, 2010


I had an unusual Sunday evening: I got invited/dragged to a Ramadan break-the-fast interfaith service, in a mosque just off of Market street in San Francisco. There were some speeches promoting interfaith understanding and the idea of a moderate version of Islam, a service in the mosque, and a vegetarian dinner (mostly Pakistani food). The first part succeeded in conveying that Muslims were normal people who could even tell jokes. The second part was the first time I had seen Muslim worship up close, and it both moved and disturbed me...the muezzin's call harking back to ancient desert tents, the women relegated to the back of the large east-facing room, the men prostrating themselves.

One of my companions mentioned that, for all the cultural similarities between Jews and Muslims, there were some key differences in their beliefs, which he boiled down to the idea that Jews are supposed to wrestle with god while Muslims are supposed to submit. The idea of submission has a powerful spiritual charge, to be sure, a form of or pathway to egolessness. But it's not really my thing, although I guess there's an element of it in my awkward dalliances with any sort of religious practice.

The prostration was the point at which my empathy dropped away and I felt momentarily that I was viewing something foreign and potentially dangerous. The moment passed, but left me with the realization that interfaith understanding and coexistence is not something easy and automatic, but must be laboriously constructed. And of course there is a whole network of people -- the "interfaith community" -- who do this on a regular basis.

There were quite a few references to the Cordoba House project, of course. I went to this event partly to spit in the eye of the repellent and harmful Islamophobia on display from the likes of Newt Gingrich. But it can't be denied that any religion has the potential to pose a threat to the liberal order of society, and while most Muslims aren't al-Qaeda they don't exactly strike one as fertile grounds for progressive values. So my feeling is, build the community center by all means, and encourage the more progressive elements in Islam and build dialog, but at the same time I can't entirely dismiss the fear that the right is mongering.

Oh well, to get the taste of submission out of my mouth, here's St. Yossarian:
"And don't tell me God works in mysterious ways," Yossarian continued, hurtling on over her objection. "There's nothing so mysterious about it. He's not working at all. He's playing. Or else He's forgotten all about us. That's the kind of God you people talk about-a country bumpkin, a clumsy, bungling, brainless, conceited, uncouth hayseed. Good God, how much reverence can you have for a Supreme Being who finds it necessary to include such phenomena, as phlegm and tooth decay in His divine system of creation ? What in the world was running through that warped, evil, scatological mind of His when He robbed old people of the power to control their bowel movements? Why in the world did He ever create pain?"   
"Pain?" Lieutenant Scheisskopf's wife pounced upon the word victoriously. "Pain is a useful symptom. Pain is a warning to us of bodily dangers."   
"And who created the dangers?" Yossarian demanded. He laughed caustically. "Oh, He was really being charitable to us when He gave us pain. Why couldn't He have used a doorbell instead to notify us, or one of His celestial choirs? Or a system of blue-and-red neon tubes right in the middle of each person's forehead. Any jukebox manufacturer worth his salt could have done that. Why couldn't He?"   
"People would certainly look silly walking around with red neon tubes in the middle of their foreheads."   
"They certainly look beautiful now writhing in agony or stupefied with morphine, don't they ? What a colossal, immortal blunderer! When you consider the opportunity and power He had to really do a job, and then look at the stupid, ugly little mess He made of it instead. His sheer incompetence is almost staggering. It's obvious He never met a payroll. Why, no self-respecting businessman would hire a bungler like Him as even a shipping clerk!"   
Lieutenant Scheisskopf's wife had turned ashen in disbelief and was ogling him with alarm. "You'd better not talk that way about Him, honey," she warned him reprovingly in a low and hostile voice. "He might punish you."   
"Isn't He punishing me enough?" Yossarian snorted resentfully. "You know, we mustn't let Him get away with it. Oh, no, we certainly mustn't let Him get away scot  free for all the sorrow He's caused us. Someday I'm going to make Him pay. I know when. On the Judgment Day. Yes, that's the day I'll be close enough to reach out and grab that little yokel by His neck and-"   
"Stop it I Stop it!" Lieutenant Scheisskopf's wife screamed suddenly, and began beating him ineffectually about the head with both fists. "Stop it!"   
Yossarian ducked behind his arm for protection while she slammed away at him in feminine fury for a few seconds, and then he caught her determinedly by the wrists and forced her gently back down on the bed. "What the hell are you getting so upset about?" he asked her bewilderedly in a tone of contrite amusement. "I thought you didn't believe in God."   
"I don't," she sobbed, bursting violently into tears. "But the God I don't believe in is a good God, a just God, a merciful God. He's not the mean and stupid God you make Him out to be." 
Yossarian laughed and turned her arms loose. ‘Let’s have a little more religious freedom between us,’ he proposed obligingly. ‘You don’t believe in the God you want to, and I won’t believe in the God I want to. Is that a deal?’

-- Joseph Heller, Catch-22
Random related links:

Background on mosques in America

Asshole against coexistence

Islamophobia and Reality


exuberance said...

I certainly know nothing, but Stephen Prothero's simple enumeration of the different problem/solution of various religions seems helpful here.

What he say: pride and exile are the top issue for islam or judism respectively. Both are pretty widespread tough and interesting problems. He say: that the goto solutions "submission" and "return to god" - respectively.

I spent a lot of time, after learning of Prothero's framework trying to think about what it means to deeply deeply worry about each of the problems on the list. A sort exercise of the of walk in those painful shoes kind. It is curious how little time members of one religion spend worried about the core problem of another. Christians devote very little time to worry about pride or exile; sometimes even prescribing them as part of a treatment for their concern - e.g. sin.

goatchowder said...

I've never been to a Muslim service, but in general the religion seems to me to be a lot more similar to Catholicism than Judaism. Something about the submission, the bowing, the kneeling, etc. seems similar, and perhaps related to the medieval origins of both. Of course, Islam is very different and lacks Catholicism's essential infantilization (why are priests called "Father"?) and general mode of dark-ages hopelessness.

I noted at a very young age-- probably while attending a friend's Bar Mitzvah service-- that religions definitely each have their own unique flavor, and also feel to to me to be set in (or stuck in) a particular historical time and geographic place.

My first time attending Jewish services gave me a very powerful sensation of stepping into the Bronze Age-- the earilest days of western civilization. The language, the customs, the traditions, have been remarkably well-preserved for so many thousands of years. It felt alien to me, but fascinating. The very strong intellectual-- even argumentative-- aspect of it always appealed to me, though, being a geek. I guess that's not too surprising from a people who have had a 100% literacy rate since the Bronze Age, as compared to most cultures which have had a literacy rate of like 1% or something during most of history. Having grown up in the Catholic church, so the closest cousin I found to that is in Jesuit tradition.

But it took many years after finding my own Daoist/Discordian faith and saying far away from my parents religion, to finally get the same kind of alien/fascinating sensation from a Catholic mass, and it was a very odd sensation indeed. I definitely got a strong but momentary sense of threat and danger, but also of grief and sadness, like visiting a cemetary. It felt so MEDIEVAL to me, like stepping into France in the 12th century CE. Somber, depressing, morbid, with the stench of plague victims ("Bring out your dead! Bring out your dead!") almost palpable. And it wasn't even a Latin mass.

I suppose that as long as people don't take any of this stuff too seriously, it's all good. In any case, the violent extremism is really the problem, and every religion has it.

I still find it useful to remember that the most deadly terrorists on earth are Hindus-- the Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka-- the same religion as Gandhi.