By Rudy Barnes, Jr.
Another episode of darkness, this time in San Bernardino. Is there any light to dispel the darkness that threatens to overcome us? The Apostle Paul wrote the Corinthians:
1. If I speak in the tongues[a] of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast,[b] but do not have love, I gain nothing.
4. Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
8. Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. 9. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10. but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. 11. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. 12. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
13. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.
1 Corinthians 13
You have to be a senior citizen to remember the TV series, I Led Three Lives. It was set in the McCarthy era of the 1950s when there was a pervasive fear of Communists, similar to the fear of radical Islamists today. It was just as difficult in those days to identify Communist sympathizers as it is to identify radical Islamists today; but there were demagogues like Senator Joseph P. McCarthy and J. Edgar Hoover who stoked public fears, suspicion and hatred for surreptitious Communists to further their own ambitions. It was an ugly time when fear and suspicion trumped the virtues of hope and love among Christians who knew better.
Today Trump and Cruz sound a lot like McCarthy and Hoover, with radical Islamism rather than Soviet Communism the threat. And in many ways, public fear and suspicion based on religious beliefs is more pernicious than those based on political beliefs. It is a real challenge to recognize and deal with a hidden threat among us—Communists then and radical Islamists today—without obsessing over the threat and allowing fear, suspicion and hate to corrupt us. Loving others requires sharing our lives with people of other religions and protecting them from those who would do them harm, and there is no place for hate in the process.
Amidst the darkness of religious fear, hate and violence, there are promising signs. On the theological front, an Indonesian organization known as Nahdlatul Ulama, or NU, has challenged Arab Wahhabist and Salafist forms of Islamism that have provided legitimacy for Islamist violence, and is offering an alternative understanding of Islam that is compatible with the values of libertarian democracy. According to A. Mustofa Bisri, the spiritual leader of NU: The spread of a shallow understanding of Islam renders this situation critical, as highly vocal elements within the Muslim population at large — extremist groups — justify their harsh and often savage behavior by claiming to act in accord with God’s commands, although they are grievously mistaken. According to the Sunni view of Islam, every aspect and expression of religion should be imbued with love and compassion, and foster the perfection of human nature.
On the secular front, education initiatives are challenging Islamist violence. Gordon Brown, a former prime minister of Britain and now a UN special envoy on global education, has highlighted a Lebanese common school curriculum of shared values for Muslim children that has a focus on how the rights and duties of citizenship relate to religious diversity.
The curriculum focuses on “the promotion of coexistence” by embracing “inclusive citizenship” and “religious diversity” and aims to ensure what the instigators call “liberation from the risks of . . . sectarianism.” But the new curriculum is more than an optimistic plea to love thy neighbor and an assertion of a golden rule common to all religions. It teaches pupils that they can celebrate differences without threatening coexistence.
The Lebanese curriculum is designed for children starting at age 9 and includes four modules. The first tells the story of the global human family, asserting that all are equal in dignity. The second focuses on the rights and duties of citizenship, irrespective of religious or ethnic background. The third covers religious diversity, including the “refusal of any radicalism and religious or sectarian seclusion.” In the fourth, the emphasis shifts from the local to the need for global cultural diversity.
Of course, there is a long way to go before this experiment bears fruit, but the fact that it is happening today in Lebanon is of global significance because of the country’s decision to offer schooling to all Syrian refugee children. Operating under a double-shift system — Lebanese children are taught in the morning, Syrian refugees in the afternoon — the public schools now house more refugee pupils — nearly 200,000 Syrian boys and girls — than local ones.
Lebanon’s offer of school takes young people off the streets and ensures that they are being taught in an ordered environment. More important, the curriculum’s focus on peace and reconciliation between religions is an antidote to the extremist propaganda of the Islamic State. The curriculum challenges the narrative of the violent extremists that there is an irreconcilable divide between Muslim believers and the apostate “others.”
The NU initiative originated in Indonesia, which has the largest Muslim population in the world but is not an Arabic country, and the education project is in Lebanon, which has religious diversity unlike any other Arabic nation. Both are challenging the extremism and violence of radical Islamism as representative of mainstream Islam. Past efforts that originated in the Arabic Middle East, like a common word in 2007, have not reached the general public and have had little effect. Perhaps these recent initiatives will succeed where a common word faltered.
Notes and References to Resources:
Previous blogs on related topics are: The Greatest Commandment, January 11, 2015; Love over Law: A Principle at the Heart of Legitimacy, January 18, 2015; Jesus Meets Muhammad: Is There a Common Word of Faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims Today? January 25, 2015; Is Religion Good or Evil?, February 15, 2015; Fear and Fundamentalism, July 26, 2015; The European Refugee Crisis and Radical Islam, September 6, 2015; and Tough Love and the Duty to Protect, November 8, 2015.
On the promising NU movement from Indonesia that is challenging the legitimacy of radical Islamism, see http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/27/world/asia/indonesia-islam-nahdlatul-ulama.html?emc=eta1.
On the Lebanese education project highlighted by Gordon Brown as a powerful antidote to the Islamic State, see https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/antidote-to-isis-school-for-syrian-refugee-children/2015/11/29/4750d708-9232-11e5-8aa0-5d0946560a97_story.html?wpmm=1&wpisrc=nl_opinions.
Fareed Zakaria has noted the difficulty of Muslims to acknowledge and condemn the Islamist radicals among them and the concomitant demagoguery of U.S. politicians. Zakaria concludes that “This is the first time that I can recall watching politicians pander to mobs — and then congratulate themselves for their political courage.” He must not be old enough to remember the McCarthy/Hoover era. See https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/anti-muslim-rhetoric-isnt-brave/2015/12/03/8442019c-9a01-11e5-94f0-9eeaff906ef3_story.html?wpmm=1&wpisrc=nl_opinions.