Confronting Islamophobia: A Sermon for Rosh Hashanah 5771

From my Rosh Hashanah sermon last Thursday:

So what is the real issue here?  I don’t think it’s about sensitivity to individuals who may or may not be offended by this particular construction project. The real issue is really quite straightforward. The real issue, I believe, is the same as it ever was – and as Jews, it’s an issue we know all too well. Will America be a land of religious liberty for all or merely the few?

Click below to read the entire sermon:

I think many of us experienced something of a first last night.  I may be wrong, but I’m pretty sure that even the most seasoned High Holiday worshipers among us never had to to run a gauntlet of anti-semitic protesters outside Rosh Hashanah services before.

For those of you who didn’t have the pleasure of this experience, I’m very sorry to report that a small group from the Westboro Baptist Church spent their evening picketing in front of a variety of High Holiday venues in the area. Westboro is a notorious hate group led by a gentleman named Fred Phelps and is known for their incredibly noxious protests of everything to soldiers funerals, to Gay Pride rallies. Apparently they hate Jews as well – as their signs and their chants indicated. What can I say other than this is not how any of us expected to be greeted on the eve of our holiest season of the year?

As I mentioned last night, the one major ray of light in this whole sorry episode was the incredible amount of support, well-wishes and blessings that I received from faith leaders and colleagues literally from the moment the demonstration was announced. Last night, as we lit the holiday candles I was honored to invite my very dear friends and colleagues Father Cotton Fite and Imam Mailk Mujahid to share words with us from the bimah. We where also honored by the presence of Reverend Dean Francis, who serves here at First United Methodist, who was on hand to greet JRC members as they left services. It was a truly comforting reminder that JRC is part of a very, very special and supportive interfaith community.

I suppose some might say that the smaller consolation is that this group, Westboro, seems to be an equal opportunity offender. They seem to hate just about every group and religion under the sun. Their views are so off the charts extreme – and in many cases so patently bizarre –  that it’s actually not always clear what exactly they stand for except maybe the reverence of intolerance itself.

So yes, Westboro’s hate rhetoric is so grotesquely extreme, that we  might be tempted to dismiss them as a radical group of wackos. But of course it’s not that easy. They may been extreme in their views, but at the end of the day, prejudice is prejudice. And the sad truth is that this one group is really represent an exaggerated version of attitudes that have been ingrained in American life for centuries.

It’s an irony of American history that while the earliest colonists of our nation were fleeing from religious persecution, religious intolerance has been an indelible part of our national culture from the beginning. We Jews know this only too well, of course. While this country has provided an unprecedented haven for Jewish immigrants, we all know with the darker side of our national narrative: an abiding intolerance and hatred of minority groups – a familiar kind of ugliness that rears its head particularly during times of economic stress and hardship.

So yes, we shouldn’t dismiss the brand of hate spewed by clowns like Fred Phelps and the Westboro gang. But I would also suggest that it’s only an exaggerated version of something much more troubling: an intolerance that’s packaged in a more acceptable wrapper and peddled by so-called “mainstream” politicians and talk show hosts – popular demagogues who have a much, much larger constituency.

And so here we are today. We all know the signs. We’re living in a fearful post-9/11 national culture currently experiencing it’s worst economic downturn in generations.  We’re rolling headlong into the kind of era that’s historically been quite fertile for bigotry, scapegoating and hate-mongering. Only this time around, Islamophobia is now the racism of choice.

I know we’re all familiar with the uproar that’s been stirred up in our country over the building of an Islamic Community Center (known as Park51) two blocks away from Ground Zero. It’s a debate has given rise to deeply hateful and ignorant characterizations of Muslims and Islamic tradition – and much of it is coming from prominent political officials and public figures.

Newt Gingrich says that building this center two blocks from Ground Zero would be “like putting a Nazi sign next to the Holocaust Museum.”  A New York gubernatorial candidate says the center would constitute a threat to New Yorkers’ “personal security and safety.”  Leaders are sponsoring regular rallies at Ground Zero that sport signs such as: “”All I Need to Know About Islam, I Learned on 9/11.” And in Florida, as we all know, a pastor of a insignificant congregation is seeking publicity in the sickest way – and frankly the less said about him, the better…

These kinds of statements should ring warning bells for us as Jews – especially when they come from our elected officials. I’ve been proud to see that by and large, many prominent leaders and organizations in the Jewish community have supported Park51 against this basest form of prejudice.  But I have to say I was profoundly disappointed when the Anti-Defamation League, one of the most prominent Jewish organizations in the country, publicly came out in opposition to the project.

This is what the ADL said in its released statement:

Ultimately this is not a question of rights, but a question of what is right.  In our judgment, building an Islamic Center in the shadow of the World Trade Center will cause some victims more pain – unnecessarily – and that is not right.

Shortly after releasing this statement, the ADL’s director Abraham Foxman said this in an interview with the New York Times: “Survivors of the Holocaust are entitled to feelings that are irrational.” And referring to the loved ones of 9/11 victims, he said, “Their anguish entitles them to positions that others would categorize as irrational or bigoted.”

Foxman’s statement is actually incredibly revealing. In a way, I think we owe him a great debt, because though he didn’t intend to, I believe he illuminates the essential choice that lays before us all. What is our vision for this country? Do we live in a country that entitles certain citizens to positions that are irrational and bigoted?  Will we countenance bigotry and irrationality as long as it is not being directed toward us?

It’s also telling that Foxman and others like him essentially frame this as a thorny complicated issue between the rights of American Muslims and sensitivity to 9/11 survivors. I’d suggest it’s really not all that “complicated.” After all, 9/11 is a traumatic memory for all Americans. Americans of many faiths were murdered on that horrible day, including, yes, Muslims. The Americans of many faiths were among the first responders and volunteers who rescued victims, including, yes, Muslims. And the dead of 9/11 are mourned by Americans of many faiths, including, yes, Muslims.

And if the issue is about sensitivity to the people of Lower Manhattan, it’s important to point out that Muslims have been part of the social fabric of that area for decades. Muslims have long been been living, working and praying in these neighborhoods and there are already mosques quite close to Ground Zero. Indeed, most of the residents, shopkeepers and merchants of this area have no problem with the prospect of an Islamic community center in their backyard. The project was endorsed by its community board twenty-nine to one, and according to a recent poll a majority of Manhattan residents already support it.

So what is the real issue here?  I don’t think it’s about sensitivity to individuals who may or may not be offended by this particular construction project. The real issue is really quite straightforward. The real issue, I believe, is the same as it ever was – and as Jews, it’s an issue we know all too well. Will America be a land of religious liberty for all or merely the few?

In truth, America is by far the most religiously diverse country in the world – and this is something of which we should be enormously proud. With each wave of immigration has come a new piece of the national mosaic. And on the other side of the equation, as each group has made their home in America, their religions have also in a sense become “Americanized” in crucial ways.

Today, Islam is the fastest growing religious group in the country. According to a Pew Research Study released in 2007, there are currently 2.35 million Muslims living in the US. The study also found that Muslim Americans themselves are a highly diverse population but that they are decidedly American in their outlook, values and attitudes. This belief is reflected in their income and education levels, which generally mirror those of the American public. And perhaps most notably, the report found moreover that Muslim Americans reject Islamic extremism by significantly larger margins than do Muslim minorities in Western European countries

It should also be stated that Islamophobia is significantly worse in other countries where Muslims are a minority. There’s nothing like what we’re seeing in Europe, where France has banned the burqa and Switzerland has a new law against building minarets.

Indeed, most Muslims feel safer and freer in the US than anywhere else in the Western world.  And we’re beginning to see important signs of this: two American Muslims have been elected to Congress, and this year for the first time a Muslim was named Miss USA. Our country’s first Muslim college, Zaytuna College just formally opened its doors in Berkeley last month. The college’s motto is, tellingly, “Where Islam Meets America.”

But with all of this success, there are ominous signs that push-back and intolerance are growing – and many observers say was this even the case before 9/11. Since that day, there is an abiding sense among many – even among those who consider themselves liberal – that Muslims represent a kind of “fifth column” in our country. According to a more recent Pew study, less than a third of Americans hold a favorable view of Islam and about a third think Islam is more likely than other religions to encourage violence.

And so, I’d like to recommend a book to you. I read it shortly after the Lower Manhattan controversy began to erupt and I found it to be one of the most important and insightful books on religion in America that I’ve ever read. It’s called “What’s Right With Islam is What’s Right With America” and it was written by Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf – the man behind the Park51 Islamic Cultural Center.

Imam Abdul Rauf is an adherent of Sufi Islam who was born in Kuwait and came to the US as a teenager in the 1960s.  Since that time has become a major figure in the American Muslim community as well as leader in interfaith dialogue in this country.  He is well known in the interfaith community for espousing the notion that the core values of Islam have much in common with the core values of American democracy.

This is, essentially, the thesis of his book. At the outset, he makes a claim that he admits might seem strange to some: that he considers America to be an “Islamic” country inasmuch as our government embodies the principles that Islamic law – or Shariah – requires of a government.

In his book, Imam Abdul Rauf painstakingly examines both Islamic law as well as American political tradition, and he makes the compelling argument that both traditions consider values such as civil rights, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, separation of church and state, and the equality of women to be sacrosanct.  He goes on to say he believes these are core values shared by all faith traditions, including secular humanism.

He writes in his book:

We strive for a “New Cordoba,” a time when Jews, Christians, Muslims, and all other faith traditions will live together in peace, enjoying a renewed vision of what the good society can look like. In this good society all religious voices are welcome and given maximum freedom, and no one religion (or even atheism) is allowed to inhibit another. Toward this dream we aspire.

This is the Imam who is currently being put through the ringer in our national discourse. This man – who publicly claims Islamic piety compels him to be a better American, an American Muslim leader who actively reaches out and dialogues with leaders other faith traditions, who goes on trips around the world sponsored by the State Department where he preaches the importance of moderate Islam – this is the man whose affiliations and loyalties are now being questioned, who ideas are being publicly distorted, whose Islamic community center is now called a “shrine to Al-Queda” by our public officials.

Although I am not a Muslim myself, I related a great deal to much of what the Imam had to say in his book. In particular, I deeply appreciated how he looks to America to make him a better Muslim and how he believes his Islamic faith makes him a better American. If this sounds vaguely familiar to some of you, this is, in fact, precisely what Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan sought to do a century ago when he founded Reconstructionist Judaism. Like Imam Abdul-Rauf, Rabbi Kaplan came to this country as a teenager. Living as a traditional Jew in modern America, Kaplan sought to create a Judaism that truly lived in consonance with values of democracy, pluralism, freedom of thought, and equal rights. Like him, Imam Abdul-Rauf has much to teach us all about what it means to be a religious American.

And so we would do well to ask: what exactly is our vision of this country? Will Americans continue to let fear to rule our attitudes toward Islam and other faiths, or will try to actively learn about and from one another – precisely because we are Americans?

I’d like to close with an excerpt from another book you should read. It’s called “A New Religious America.” It was written by Diana Eck, a scholar of Comparative Religion at Harvard University. I’d suggest that her vision of our national culture is profound and exceedingly important for us all:

She writes:

“We the people of the United States” now form the most profusely religious nation on earth. But many, if not most, Christian, Jewish, or secular Americans have never visited a mosque or a Hindu or Buddhist temple. Many Americans are not so sure what Sikhs or Muslims believe, let alone Jains and Zoroastrians. Similarly, Muslim or Hindu Americans may have a sketchy and stereotypical view of Christians and Jews. So where do we go from here? It’s one thing to be unconcerned about or ignorant of Muslim or Buddhist neighbors on the other side of the world, but when Buddhists are our next-door neighbors, when our children are best friends with Muslim classmates, when a Hindu is running for a seat on the school committee, all of us have a new vested interest in our neighbors, both as citizens and as people of faith.

As the new century dawns, we Americans are challenged to make good on the promise of religious freedom so basic to the very idea and image of America. Religious freedom has always given rise to religious diversity, and never has our diversity been more dramatic than it is today. This will require us to reclaim the deepest meaning of the very principles we cherish and to create a truly pluralist American society in which this great diversity is not simply tolerated but becomes the very source of our strength. But to do this, we will all need to know more than we do about one another and to listen for the new ways in which new Americans articulate the “we” and contribute to the sound and spirit of America.

Those of us who share this vision cannot dither on this question. There are too many in this country who are threatened by our increasing diversity. They are finding their voice and, yes, they are amassing political clout. If we agree our diversity is truly the source of our strength and not simply a fact to be tolerated, then we will need to find the courage of our convictions and we will need to act upon them. And the first step, as Diana Eck suggests, is to learn about and from one another.

I’ve always been proud that interfaith programming and learning has been a priority at JRC. It’s never felt so crucial to me than it does right now. I pledge to make this a priority. If we are truly committed to a pluralistic vision of this country, we will have to reach out to one another now more than ever.  And the coalitions we build will become increasingly more critical in the years ahead.

I’ll conclude with a verse from the Koran: “O people, We have created you from a male and a female and made you into races and tribes so that you may know each other.” This has always been our test. On Rosh Hashanah, we celebrate the birth of our world and the rebirth of our humanity. We affirm the divine image in all people and pledge to be worthy of it.  God has made us into peoples and tribes not so that we might build higher walls between us but so that we may truly know each other.

This is our test – let it be our blessing for this New Year.

Amen.


15 Comments on “Confronting Islamophobia: A Sermon for Rosh Hashanah 5771”

  1. Y. Ben-David says:

    Could you please elaborate on how Rauf shows that Islam stands for “freedom of speech” and “separation of church and state”? Would he agree that states that define themselves as “Muslim” such as Iran, Saudi Arabia and Sudan are exemplars in these areas?

    • YBD:

      I hesitate to answer your first question because I believe his book does a very thorough job of showing how central these particular values are to Islam. I would suggest you read it for yourself.

      My answer to your second question is: No.

    • Shirin says:

      Ben-David,

      Why don’t you try actually reading his book yourself, or if you don’t want to buy the book, read some of his other writings and speeches? Then you’d know from his own words what his vies are.

    • Muhannad says:

      I never understood why people keep asking Muslims what they think of Saudi Arabia !!! Anybody who knows anything about the Muslims knows that the overwhelming majority disapprove of that government.

      In fact Saudi Arabia is much more popular in the White House than among Muslims.

  2. Omar says:

    Dear Rabbi Rosen
    Great article thank you for sharing your thoughts. I wish and pray that there are more Muslims, Christians and jewish leaders with views like yours

    My warmest wishes to all the Jews around the world on Rosh Hashanah and I pray that may this day to the start or the rebirth of humanity, acceptance and tolerance.

    Salaam and may God be with you
    Omar

  3. Kol hakavod to you, Rabbi Brant — this is a beautiful sermon and I applaud you for giving it. May the coming year be a year of compassion and understanding for all of us.

  4. Muhannad says:

    I have been following your blog for sometime now…and you became one of my favorite bloggers..
    Today you made a grown man (me) cry.

    As a practicing Muslim, I am amazed how you have great understanding of our religion despite all the misinformation out there.

    Wish you and all our Jewish brothers around the world a great Holliday

  5. Rashed says:

    Dear Rabbi

    I found your article deeply moving and inspiring. As a muslim I am very grateful to you for writing such beautiful words. May God always bless you, ameen.

  6. Eric Selinger says:

    Brant,

    That verse from the Qur’an has always struck me as a gem. Thanks for bringing it to the heart of our service.

    -E

  7. Y. Ben-David says:

    Muhammed-
    People ask that question because Saudi Arabia, in addition to Iran and other Middle Eastern states define their national policy as “Muslim” i.e. having their legislation and internal policy drawn up in accord with Sharia law. So when people look a these countries and their policies, it is legitimate to ask if what we see there is a legitimate expression of what Islam is.
    Imam Rauf says “Freedom of speech” and “separation of religion and state” are an integral part of Islam. I don’t think most people would say Saudi Arabia and Iran reflect these values. In fact, if “separation of religion and state” are part of Islam, how could any country even say that Sharia law is the basis for legislation?
    I know one answer might be “Saudi Arabia and Iran do NOT reflect ‘true Islam'”. But then, we could also ask if Imam Rauf reflects “true Islam”. What is the answer?

    • Muhannad says:

      Again,if people know enough about Muslims as they claim,then they should be aware of the fact that the Saudi gov. claim to to be represntative of Islam is a source of so many jokes among Muslims.So why do we keep getting this question? if we joke about it then clearly we do not believe it is representative of Islam. Most Muslims know that regime is one of the sources of our misery- by the way: it was crowned by the British and currently enjoy the support of the western world.
      As for Iran, they are shia Muslims which mean that outside of Iran and parts of Iraq they are a small minority.I DO not know how they feel about Iran, but surely since the rest of the Muslim world are not shia then they do not consider them representative of Islam. Sorry for kind of getting off the subject, but I felt since Muslims keep getting these questions,I needed to somehow comment on that.

      As for your question”In fact, if “separation of religion and state” are part of Islam, how could any country even say that Sharia law is the basis for legislation?” I am reminded of a famous muslim scholar(Jamal al-Afghani) in the 18th century who visited some parts of the West and then came back, he said then after experiencing some of the freedom of speech and respect to human rights : ” I found Islam in the West, but I did not find Muslims , and I found Muslims in the east but could not find Islam”

      AS for your question if Rauf represnt true Islam,I do not know much about him, but that is irrelevant since the only representative of true Islam is Islam itself.There is an old saying in Arabic ” the truth is not defined by people who claim to have it”-hope I did not ruin the saying with my poor translation
      Thanks Ben-David

    • YBD,

      The answer is that you ask a very loaded question. What is “true Islam?” We may as well ask what is the “true Judaism?” When, for instance, the former Chief Rabbi of Israel and current head of the Shas party Rabbi Ovadia Yosef proclaims before the latest round of peace talks, “Abu Mazen and all these evil people should perish from this earth,” and “God should strike them and these Palestinians — evil haters of Israel — with a plague,” does this represent “true” Judaism?

      I prefer to avoid terms such as this and recognize honestly that there are many different streams and attitudes w/in Judaism. Some preach compassion, tolerance and moderation, and some advocate xenophobia, fear and intolerance of the other. For me, the more appropriate question is not which is the “true version,” but to which vision will we adhere? As always, the answer is up to us.

      So too, I believe, for the Muslim community.

      • Matt Planchak says:

        Beautifully put.

        Perhaps whichever path we choose to follow _becomes_ the true version.

        It also makes me think the ‘true version’ of a religion is subjective for outsiders and followers alike. (For some, the True Judaism is bloodthirsty tribalism with the aim of taking over the Arabian Peninsula. For some, True Islam is a violent attack on Western civilization with the aim of spreading a perverse form of Shariah Law through the entire world.) It’s been my experience that the concept of a ‘true version’ of a religion, positive or negative, is a very hard thing to shake.

        Maybe it all comes down to which wolf we feed.

        For better or worse, we bring actual and idealized versions of ourselves to everything we experience. Maybe those who ‘claim to have it’ just aren’t fully aware that the truth they see also contains themselves.

        Thanks everyone for the thought-provoking discussion. And thank you, Mohannad for sharing that saying. I love discovering the overlap in Greek/Judaic/Muslim/Christian/Daoist thought.

        All the best to everyone ending or preparing for their fast.

  8. Clif Brown says:

    Rabbi Rosen – hello from a neighbor in Evanston. The JRC buiding is one of the coolest in town. 🙂

    To the topic. Your words are well said.

    Separation of church and state is vital to the success of America.

    To me, choosing a religion is like choosing a flavor of ice cream – there is no appeal, to someone who chooses differently than you do, on an objective basis. Since it’s impossible to argue for or against a belief in a god on a rational basis open to proof, the next best thing is the company of other believers. Nothing so strengthens a belief of any kind as its popularity. Even Judaism enjoyed a several hundred year period of proselytism in the ancient world when many were converting to the new monotheism. Religions are catching.

    I see the religious right in America as a frightened group because they see inroads by other faiths and a general loss of adherents to Christianity compared to times past. If people are leaving the faith, it gives cause to question one’s own faith. This is the reason that atheists are doomed to fail if running for office. Non-belief is the most frightening prospect of all – to an unquestioning self-satisfied believer for whom all the answers are in the Bible such as John Hagee, for example. There is also the comfort of having a common enemy to detest and unify the devout.

    John Locke and Thomas Hobbes both saw with despair the unending destructiveness in Europe of unbending belief. We are the beneficiaries of their break with the past.

    Whatever one’s faith, or lack thereof, the key to a good society is, when it comes to differences of faith, let them be! In this the Founding Fathers, all of whom knew their Locke and Hobbes, should take a well deserved bow.

    But when religion gets into politics, so does the idea of God. Next is what God wants for society. Enter those who feel qualified to express His wishes. That’s a recipe for disaster that history virtually screams to us.

    To YBD – Howdy once again!


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