Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Rogue Religion--Both in Christianity and in Islam

The restored Caliphate and its
Caliph Abu Bakr al Baghdadi 
Religion has great potential for good in the world; unfortunately it also has a great potential for evil.   The Dalai Lama has written that the purpose of religion is to cultivate such positive human qualities as tolerance, generosity, and compassion.  To this end religion has been the motivating factor in creating great works of art, music, and literature.  Even more impressively it has built massive health-care systems, institutions of learning, and movements for peace and reconciliation.  Religion has produced such people as Mother Teresa, Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King, Archbishop Tutu, the Dalai Lama, Jimmy Carter, Jacques Bunel, Damian of Molokai, Thich Nhat Hanh, Corrie ten Boom, Raoul Wallenberg, and Millard and Linda Fuller.  But there is a shadow side to religion as well which has led to pogroms and persecutions and inquisitions and wars. 
We now see this new phenomenon known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) under the leadership of the self-proclaimed caliph Abu-Bakr al Baghdadi.  The Iraqi division of Al-Qaeda proclaimed the Islamic State of Iraq in that part of Iraq where it had been able to drive out the Iraqi military and establish its authority over the local populace. Abu-Bakr al Baghdadi, the mullah of a small mosque, had risen to prominence in Iraq in great part because of his having been held by American forces for ten months in 2004.  He had a seat on the Mujahedeen  Shura Council,  the Sunni Islamic Council that directed the Iraqi insurgency.  In 2010 when Abu Omar al Baghdadi was killed in an American attack, abu-Bakr was selected to succeed him as the head of the insurgency quasi-State.
When in 2013 the Iraqi insurgency expanded into Syria in Syria’s ongoing civil war, Abu Bakr proclaimed the establishment of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.  But this was only the initial step of his dream—shared by many radical Muslims—of reestablishing the ancient Islamic Caliphate—a religious and political empire that in his heyday stretched from what is today Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Uzbekistan in the east through Armenia, Turkey Greece and the Balkans as well as Syria, Palestine (and modern Israel), the Arab peninsula, Iran and Iraq, along north Africa with Egypt, Morocco, Libya, Tunisia and up into Europe in Spain and Portugal to the Pyrenees.  To this end, two weeks ago Abu Bakr proclaimed himself Caliph.
Now there is not agreement in the Muslim world about Abu Bakr being Caliph any  more than there is agreement in the Christian world that Pope Francis is the Vicar of Christ.   I think he is; my Baptist neighbor likes Francis but doesn’t think he is the Vicar of Christ—in fact, doesn’t think that Christ has a vicar, or needs one.  We are both Christians, we just disagree on this point.  Well, ok, there are other points as well.  And the same is true in the Muslim world.  Islam is not a unified religion. In fact it is far less unified than Christianity.  But the dream of a restored Caliphate will capture the imagination of many young Muslims who feel that for these last six centuries or so their religion has not been respected and this is the chance to make its mark once again.  While this Abu Bakr fellow would seem to be another religious nut-case like David Allen Bawden, aka “Pope Michael,” a peculiar young man from Kansas who, along with his 30 “solid followers” believes he’s the true Pope, the self-selected Caliph needs to be taken far more seriously as he has the potential to bring together a significant portion of the Muslim world that has been moving more and more towards fundamentalism over the past twenty years. 
The Caliph is the successor of Mohammed.  From the very beginning there has been discord over the position with Shiite Muslims claiming that the caliphate must descend through the family of Mohammed while Sunni’s do not.  In a future posting we will look at the struggles in Islam that followed the death of Mohammed in 632 AD and the origins of the Sunni/Shia conflict.  Although himself a Sunni, Abu Bakr, now known officially as Amir al-Mu’minin  Caliph Ibrahim, in an effort to gain Shiite support as well as Sunni, claims descent from Al-Husayn ibn ‘Alî ibn Abî Tâlib, the grandson of Mohammed.  
I think when we remember that President George W. Bush said that God told him to invade Iraq we can see the danger that religion , in the wrong hands (and minds), can create.  I remember a few days before the second Iraq war began having dinner with friends.  Other guests at the table included a Christian Arab couple.  The wife is Syrian; the husband Egyptian.  Both are Catholics.  Although they are staunch Republicans, they emphatically said that this war would destabilize the entire Near East and bring great suffering on many, including and especially, the Christian population of these nations.  Truer words were not spoken.  Pope John Paul warned us very sternly not to go into this war and he was ignored.  The American bishops did nothing to make his message heard in this country.  Few clergy took up the Pope’s admonition. 
There was, I believe, a time when the situation in the Near East could have be defused by the United States insisting on a just solution to the Palestinian issue.  The Israel Lobby in this country made sure that did not happen and we have continued to give Israel a blank check to abuse its Arab population.  Muslims—and Christians—have seen their co-religionists have their centuries-old olive orchards uprooted, their homes bulldozed, their communities divided by “the Wall,” and their people terrorized  by the “settlers” and the Israeli soldiers who protect the thieves who rob the Palestinians of their fields, their shops, and their homes.  The injustices perpetrated on these people whose ancestors lived in that land when Joshua first led the Hebrew people across the Jordan into a “promised land”  have set the Arab world afire and that conflagration now threatens the whole world.  It is, I am afraid, far too late to douse the flames by correcting the injustices in Israel/Palestine.  Militant Islam is on the move.  Thank you to the Presidents Bush.  Thank you to Dick Cheney.  Thank you to Ronald Rumsfeld.   And thank you to the “Christianity” that enabled this disaster.  

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