Friday, January 23, 2015

An Unholy War

ISIS.  al-Qaeda.  Boko Haram.  Mass killings and beheadings.  Executions of  cartoonists.  Kidnapped girls and child bombers.  These can be frightening times, when one’s sense of rational decency is challenged, the moral ground shifting beneath our shaking feet.  We wonder what has happened, how to explain this descent into seeming madness.  After so many hopes arising, now we seem to be spiraling into chaos.  Where is world civilization heading?

Clearly there is a wave of mind-numbing violence occurring that must be stopped.  But how do we stop something so outlandish that we really do not even understand?  Yet we must try to understand, however difficult.  Because even as we realize that violence must be met with violence in the short term, long-term resolution must come from responding to the thinking and ideas permeating the minds of these violent offenders.

The first understanding must be about who these terrorists are, and as importantly, who they are not.  Many news media descriptions say that: these are the acts of Islamist radicals; Islam is the root cause of this violence; followers of Islam (Muslims) are by nature violent and opposed to all others; Muslims are inherently different from “us” (i.e. western non-Muslims).  That is simply wrong.  By using such a broad stroke of prejudice and stereotyping, we lose the ability to separate the good guys from the truly bad guys.  We need to differentiate between genuine Islam and the bad people inappropriately distorting true Islamic beliefs.

Some background.  Islam (“surrender unto God”) is based upon the worship of a single god called “Allah.”  It is not a different heathen god; it is the Arabic language word for the same “God” that Jews and Christians worship.  It is the God of the biblical patriarch Abraham, from whom Arabs were descended through his second son Ishmael.  The prophet Muhammad began to establish the religion of Islam in Arabia in the early 600s based upon the words of God as recorded in the Qur’an, Islam’s most holy book.  It is in the Qur’an that we must look to find the true nature of Islam, not the blogosphere.

We are led to believe that Islam hates Jews and Christians, and are in a perpetual war against those faiths.  In the Qur’an, nothing could be further from the truth.  Muhammad was an admirer of Judaism, and in some respects Islam was modeled after Judaism.  Much of the Qur’an focuses on the stories from the Jewish Torah/biblical Old Testament, and the lessons to be learned from Adam, Abraham, Moses, and Noah.  The Qur’an’s is very specific that other non-Islam religions are to be respected and protected: e.g. “There shall be no coercion in matters of faith … there is no compulsion in religion.”  Like many today, Muhammad did not believe that Jesus was God in human form, but he did believe that Jesus was one of God’s true angels and was to be so honored.  The only issues Muhammad spoke out against were: 1) those who failed to observe their Jewish/Christian beliefs and led hypocritical lives; and 2) claims by Christians that their religion is the one and only path to God, all others being wrong.  (Both are objections we should share today.)  The Qur’an requires that those of other religions who follow their faith honestly and devotedly be honored and left unharmed, expecting that they reciprocate that honor to Muslims.

Another misconception in the West is that Islam is a “warring” religion, committed to violence.  Yes, there are passages in the Qur’an calling for Muslims to “defend the faith.”  But these come from Islam’s founding history of being attacked and persecuted by the Arab establishment who felt threatened by, and were opposed to, this new religion that espoused belief in one god, living a simple life, fair treatment for all, and living responsibly within community.  Islam was literally baptized in a violent birth, requiring fighters to come to its defense.  And after this religious war was won, no conversion to Islam was required of its opponents.  (“Go back to your homes; you are all free.”)  It was a defensive war in which cruelty was prohibited; the defeated who sought peace were to be harmed no further; war against any “fellow believers” was prohibited; “offensive” wars were rejected.  Certainly harming defenseless innocents – women, children, non-combatants – is a great sin.

Space in this blog does not allow for more examples of our misconceptions.  But even these three examples do not jell with the actions and images that are pouring through our televisions and displayed on our web pages.  The disconnect is that these violent perpetrators are not true Muslims acting from the religious basis of Islam.  Which is why true Muslims do not condone or share in these aberrations of their faith.  This violence is the work of the few, not the beliefs of the many.

This violence is in fact a secular war, reflecting a litany of perceived grievances – cultural disrespect, secular conflicts, lack of economic opportunity, homeland issues, foreign interference, etc. – that are falsely cloaked under a religious mantle.  That mantle is manipulated to give nobility to this secular fight in order to attract many despondent and suffering people looking for greater purpose in their life.  Whatever religious benefit Islam might give to them has been contorted in the morass of that desperation.  In the end, this is a violent war led by people seeking personal power – just as such wars have been fought through the millennia.

In 2005-2007, I had the great opportunity for business travel to Lebanon.  These trips allowed me to talk directly with many diverse and wonderful people of that country during times of significant political upheavals.  In one such conversation, I was able to speak at length with a Muslim college professor about his religion and the Middle East environment in the context of the 9-11 attacks.  He said to me quite emphatically: “These people were not Muslims.  They did not act out of Islam.  They are simply thugs.”  Succinctly said.  A decade later, the brother of a recently slain Paris policeman said, “My brother was Muslim, and he was killed by people who pretend to be Muslims.  They are terrorists, that’s it.”

If we are ultimately to “win” this war and reclaim our sense of safety, then we need to see these terrorists for who they truly are, and quit labeling them what they are not.  They are not Muslims, any more than Timothy McVeigh was “Catholic,” or the Ku Klux Klan is “Protestant Christian,” or the German military in WWII was “Lutheran.”  Terrorists do not act out of religious faith; their actions in fact deny their faith.  They act out of a momentary fantasy of power in a life consumed by powerlessness.  Powerlessness always seeks a cause, preferably one wrapped up in a seemingly unarguable religious justification.  What we are witnessing is not a holy war of Islam against Jews and Christians.  Powerlessness is our true enemy.  It is an enemy within and without.  Given that we cannot shoot powerlessness, what is our alternate strategy?

If we truly want to know what Islam and Muslims are about, stop listening to the media commentators.  Read the Qur’an for ourselves.  I have.  Three times.  (Or perhaps read my book “Lessons From The Teacher Muhammad” about some of the significant teachings from the Qur’an.)  Or talk to a religious leader in a nearby mosque.  Or talk to everyday Muslim citizens quietly going about their daily business, aspiring to the American Dream by trying to make a better life for their families.  Then grapple with the fact that it was Western Europe in 1095-1291 that first started religious war against the Muslim community (the Crusades) “to defend the [Christian] faith.” An aggressive war over religious differences.  The West lost that war.

At the very least, we need to recognize that by blaming all Muslims for being anti-Jewish/anti-Christian terrorists, we play directly into the hands of terrorist recruiters by confirming their sales pitch that “everyone is against us.”  And it keeps us trapped in yet another cycle of prejudice and intolerance that have plagued American for centuries.  So even if we still believe it, we need to stop saying it!  We need to deny the terrorists the false cloak of religious respectability and the fantasy of being self-righteous religious avengers.  They are simply thugs, criminals, cowards, gangsters.  Let us just call them what they are, and deal with them accordingly.  If we are ever to stop this terrorist threat, we need to stop fighting religion and start fighting cultural powerlessness.

©  2015  Randy Bell

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Who Is Running America, Anyway?

“Justice is indiscriminately due to all,
without regard to numbers, wealth, or rank.”
(John Jay, first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, 1794)
The concept sounds simple enough.  “We the People … do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”  We the People run our government, versus thousands of years of the government running the people.  A radical concept in the development of civilization.  And each of us has an equal say in how it is run, by right of citizenship rather than the right of royalty, ownership, wealth, or heredity.  But 225 years later, how is that concept working out?  At best, a cautious “OK.”  Which is all the more frustrating since we have had over 200 years to try to get it right (while criticizing “emerging democracies” for not getting it right in just a few years!).
Clearly, wealth buys favoritism in running our government.  The influence of wealth on government has been a problem since America’s founding, influencing the design of the Constitution itself to protect property (wealth) as much as ensuring human rights and liberty (for some).  Until presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy called out federal troops to protect civil rights protestors fighting then-legalized discrimination, all previous use of federal power was to protect business property and wealth against protests from the working population.
Today wealth control of government shows up as lobbyists stalking Congresspersons and Executive agencies personnel, out of the limelight, pleading their cases for special treatment.  Or, more directly, bundles of cash are given to finance candidates’ elections, or for the wealthy to publishing whatever statements they wish without regard to truth, reasonableness or relevance.
The result shows up in legislation and tax rules that upend the “level playing field” of competition needed for true capitalism to thrive.  It shows up in the tax code that now results in a “reverse” graduated income tax system – the more you make, the LESS you pay.  It shows up by neutering regulations that seek to keep consumers, and the general public, safe from unethical/criminal actions by companies unconcerned about the products they make and sell.
And it shows up in Congresspersons doing whatever corporate moneymen tell them to do, regardless of the convoluted explanations they give to a dubious public.  Just when you think you have seen it all with Congress’ incompetency, ineptitude, and indifference, they still manage to leave us shaking our heads is disbelief.  Witness a here-to-fore unknown Representative from Kansas who inserted a rider into the federal budget that reversed the Dodd-Frank prohibition against “derivative” trading – the very activity that brought about the 2009 recession.  It was a rider written by Citigroup banking corporation that once again puts the American taxpayer on the hook for losses from these banking speculations.  A taxpayer guarantee not available to the local Mom and Pop business on Main Street.  A guarantee any other business person would certainly love to have.  A guarantee I would like to have for my own pension investments.  But it is clear that Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase and “the king of Wall Street,” is running the country far more than I.  As entertainer Will Rogers said back in the 1930s, “We have the best Congress that money can buy.”
We also have elected officials who wield unequal power among themselves.  Our Constitution said we would elect persons from our residential entity to go to Washington to represent our needs.  But the Constitution never mentioned Majority/Minority Leaders and their deputies, or legislative committees and their Chairs who control legislation.  Our Declaration of Independence said that all men are created equal.  But our Constitution forgot to say that all Congresspersons are created equally.  So the truth is that some representative or senator far away from where I live likely has more control over my political agenda that does the representative or senator subject to my vote.  So when I am told to “write to my Congressperson,” to whom should I really address my letter?  My locally elected officials?  Or the person who actually controls all the marbles on my pet issue, but who does not even accept my email on his/her website?
Congressional “procedures,” bewildering to most common-sense Americans, further hide the real power, and makes folly of “majority rules.”  Committees, chairs, and leadership decide whether my issue even gets heard for a vote.  40-50 Tea Party House Republicans manage to control their party’s agenda over the other 175 Republicans.  The Senate has its overused and abused filibuster procedure such that 60% is the real majority vote on most all issues.  And it has a lesser known “privilege” called “Holds”: that any one senator can prevent a vote – especially on executive appointments – without their name or their reason for objection being revealed.  It all means that regardless of what the majority of Americans may want, some hidden minority of legislators can effectively block those wishes.  Do we wonder why Congress now has only a 10% approval rating?  And 2/3rds of American voters did not bother to vote in 2014?
We are told that the way to fix this broken system and to return equal citizen ownership is to “throw the bums out.”  Exercise the power of the ballot box.  Except that the ballot box has a “going out of business” sign sitting over it.  Access to voting is the first key to making a democracy work.  But that access is being closed in by the powers-that-be in order to protect those same powers-that-be.  The tools of such exclusion are the Voter ID, costing millions of wasted dollars to solve a voting fraud problem we do not have; reduction in days/hours of early voting to make it harder for busy people to get to the polls; more restrictions on who, when and how people can register for voting.  But he most insidious tool for undermining our equal government ownership is the gerrymandering of legislative districts.  Instead of bringing like-minded voters together, districts are blatantly hacked out to divide the electorate into safe, political camps designed to overwhelm opposition voters.  Hence in North Carolina, for example, 44% of Congressional votes went to Democratic candidates, but 10 of 13 seats were awarded to Republican candidates.  Lesson: when you cannot win on principled arguments, then change the rules and eliminate the argument.
Jamie Dimon and I are not equal owners of our government.  My Congressman does not have an equal say in federal spending as does Paul Ryan.  My Senator does not even respond to my monthly letters anymore, and has not cast an independently-minded vote in years.  David Koch and George Soros have millions of dollars to spend on commercials to express their highly divergent opinions; I have none.  The CEOs of auto, high-tech, energy, medical, financial and agribusiness industries all have dependent friends in Washington ready to do their bidding.  Mom and Pop on Main Street and I have none who even care what we think (versus how much I can donate to their campaigns).
America is still a land of opportunity, but not one of equal opportunity.  So who is running America anyway?  Not me.  Not anyone I know.  Not the 2/3rds who did not vote.  Is it you?
“This would be a great time in the world for some [person]
to come along that knew something.”  (Will Rogers, 1931)
©  2015   Randy Bell