Eid: A Promise Of Hope And A Celebration Of Empathy

Editor’s Note: This article is a modified and updated version of last year’s Eid al-Fitr message.

In the name of God, Most Gracious, Most Merciful, Eid Mubarak from the Raven Foundation to all of our dear Muslim sisters and brothers! The holy month has drawn to a close, and all around the world, the ummah, or Islamic community, is celebrating the culmination of 30 days of fasting. Long daylight hours, at least in the northern hemisphere, have made this Ramadan among the most challenging in decades, with faithful Muslims refraining from food, drink and sexual intercourse while the sun is up – about 17 hours a day here in Chicago and similarly long hours around the world!

The hunger in the belly, the dryness of throat during the heat of the day, the restraint against urges of desire, are all meant to invite the soul into deeper relationship with God and neighbor and train the heart in the ways of compassion and civility toward friends and adversaries. In recent years, the sacred intentions of Ramadan have been further challenged by the heartbreaking violence raging throughout the world and devastating Muslim communities in particular. This violence is ravaging places like Afghanistan, where our 14-year-old war has all but been forgotten by media, Iraq, where ISIS is hypocritically and violently undermining the spirit of Islam in the name of Islam, Libya and Syria, where ISIS also has strong footholds, and Gaza, where the rubble from Israel’s latest bombing campaign one year ago, which killed over 2000 people, still has yet to be cleared, and none of the 17,000 homes destroyed have been rebuilt. These are just a few examples of the violence and aftermath of violence devastating predominantly Muslim countries around the world. For many, this day of celebration must instead be a day of mourning. So in the midst of this devastation and chaos, it is important to remember the promise of hope that is Eid al-Fitr (literally, “the lesser holiday,” the holiday after the fast).

Let us first ponder the meaning of Ramadan, the 30-day fast meant to tune the heart, mind, and soul toward God and break down walls and build bridges of compassion and solidarity between the wealthy and the poor. Muslims believe that it was during the month of Ramadan that the Qur’an was first revealed from God through the angel Gabriel to Prophet Muhammad. The Qur’an describes itself as a mercy and a guidance, and just like our world today and all times and places throughout history, mercy and guidance were desperately needed! My friend Adam Ericksen explains the world of pre-Islamic Arabia, the Jahiliyya, or Age of Ignorance, as a time when “fate” was thought to determine the rich from the poor, the winners from the losers, leaving little incentive for compassion or generosity. It was a world in which tribal gods were invoked in violent raids of conquest, and the wealth of a few created a world of desperation and misery for the poor, particularly the widow and the orphan. Sadly, this sounds very much like our world today. But it was in the midst of this violent and bleak hopelessness that Muhammad, tuning his heart and his mind to the needs of the poor and vulnerable, was able to hear the message of God: a message of ultimate peace, which is the meaning of Islam.

So it is appropriate that the month in which the Qur’an was revealed is a month of fasting, a time when the faithful enter into solidarity with the poor and hungry. As stomachs growl, those who are normally well-fed get a taste of the hunger 1 in 8 people worldwide experience (according to the 2013 statistics of the World Hunger Education Service). This voluntary material poverty is reminiscent of the world of Jahiliyyah into which the Qur’an was revealed, as faithful Muslims share the experience of the poor and suffering. Nothing dispels ignorance more than the active empathy that Ramadan requires.

This year, beyond connecting with the hungry, another profound way that active empathy was displayed was through a tremendous gesture undertaken by a coalition of Muslim networks working together to raise money for at least 8 African American churches that burned in the wake of the Charleston massacre. At a time when worship is brought into even sharper focus for Muslims, when spiritual connection and brother and sisterly solidarity is even more greatly pronounced, Muslims felt a desire to reach across faith boundaries. The burning of African American churches is an attack on the last, most sacrosanct refuge of the black Christian community, but Muslims reached out with an empathy deeply rooted in their faith experience and augmented by the holy month of Ramadan and raised over $30,000. In an interview for Al Jazeera America, spokesperson Linda Sarsour elaborated on the solidarity between Muslims and African Americans. This solidarity exists not only because the Muslim community includes African Americans, but also because Muslim Americans of all races are subjected to distrust and profiling on account of religion and the state of permanent US warfare in the Middle East. As Sarsour says,

We’re working on a lot of solidarity issues, including working against police violence, surveillance of political movements, building solidarity across the country. There’s so much more we can do together, and we’ve been able to do that in the past few years and it’s been remarkable.

The building of interfaith solidarity in the midst of the holy month is a powerful living example of Islam’s profound respect for the Abrahamic traditions and its tradition of peaceful interfaith relations. While the violence in Muslim countries gets a disproportionate amount of media attention, positive interfaith relations especially among the Abrahamic traditions are integral to Islam. This year, Ramadan has been a connection to those in times of struggle and turmoil, a time to build people up and provide a refuge of compassion and love – not just for fellow Muslims, but across religious lines.

Furthermore, in this month of spiritual renewal, desires are reoriented from human concerns to divine will. As Muslims find themselves sustained throughout the day not by food but by the loving God and supportive community, they liberate themselves from things that society tells us we need. Negative mimetic desires for material possessions, which can lead to envy and conflict, are tuned out as Muslims become models for one-another of positive mimesis. Turning away from selfish desire to following the desire of God, whose will is for all to love one-another, Muslims during Ramadan find mutual support as they strive through the day to renounce wants masquerading as needs, instead focusing their hearts, minds, time, and resources on those most in need. As food intake decreases, prayer, charity and compassion increase, and the empathy born from this experience extends past the imposed 30 days. The hope is that after the fast comes to an end, Muslims will continue to choose to spend fewer resources on themselves and more in the way of charity toward the poor and vulnerable, relying always on God’s abundant providence.

Eid is a festival of this abundance. It is a holiday that symbolizes that the mercy of God’s message, lived out among the faithful, dispels ignorance. It is a reminder that the same God who sustains us through hunger and poverty generously provides us with a rich and beautiful world to enjoy and share.  Eid is the promise of light after darkness, fulfillment after hunger, celebration after tribulation.

So many people worldwide, not only Muslims but people of all faiths and people who have lost all faith, are still in the midst of this tribulation and losing hope. Some have no food for a feast; some have no home to gather inside; some must bury their family instead of celebrate with them. May they be on the hearts and minds of all of those who can enjoy the feast today, and indeed all of us regardless of religion. As Muslims around the world come together today to celebrate the triumph of God’s mercy, abundance, and love, I pray that all of us may learn the lessons of Ramadan – empathy for the victims of violence and greed – so that we may all work toward a future Eid in which we invite all to the table – rich and poor, friend and foe, Palestinian and Israeli – to share the rich feast of God’s boundless love.

Image Credit: This image was generously created by ihsaniye and labeled for reuse.


ramadan kareem

Happy Ramadan! Encountering God’s Care through Islam

Happy Ramadan!

Ramadan Kareem means “Generous Ramadan” and points to the generosity of God in Islam. God’s generosity encourages Muslims to be generous people.

In the video below I discuss the importance of Ramadan. Ramadan critiques the popular misunderstanding that the God of Islam is a God of power, might, and conquest. Rather, Ramadan claims that the God of Islam is the God who cares about the poor, hungry, and marginalized of culture. Muhammad critiqued the pre-Islamic Arabian view that Fate was in control of life. The Jahaliyya, or Age of Ignorance, believed fate controlled who was rich and powerful and who was poor and marginalized. There was little incentive for the rich to care for the poor. Muhammad challenged this view, and fasting during the month of Ramadan forces Muslims to identify with and care for the poor, weak, and hungry by living in a generous way towards them.

I created this video during Ramadan a few years when Ramadan began in August, which is why I stated that Ramadan starts in August. This year it begins in June. The beginning of Ramadan changes each year because the Islamic calendar is based on the lunar phases, not on solar phases.

Book Feature Friday: Undivided: How a Christian Mother and a Muslim Daughter Find Reconciliation

0529113058.jpgUndivided: A Muslim Daughter, Her Christian Mother, Their Path to Peace is essential for anyone interested in interfaith dialogue. It is written by Alana Raybon and her mother Patricia Raybon. They write honestly about their faith, their passion, and their hope for reconciliation.

This book is important because increasingly the world seems to be divided upon religious hostility. Many in the US are suspicious of Islam. We are fed a constant diet of “Islamic extremists” on the news. That diet includes a poisonous main course that claims Islam is inherently violent. And if Islam is inherently violent, then Muslims are, too.

We need to stop eating that poison.

Just as the US is divided when it comes to religion, so were Patricia and Alana. Undivided invites the reader to glimpse into the life of a mother and daughter that seek reconciliation amid religious division. Like many mother-daughter relationships, the division and hurt between them is intense and painful. But Undivided also reveals that there is hope.

Patricia, a devout believer in Jesus, felt betrayed by her daughter’s conversion to Islam. She’s heartbroken because she believes that Alana has rejected Jesus in a “defiant choice of faith.” And in rejecting Jesus, Patricia feels rejected, too. She “feels the hurt of a daughter who turned the Lord down without spending even one second to ask her give-it-all mother what I thought.”

A little motherly guilt trip, there? Yes. Patricia “pounds” on Alana, in hopes of bringing her back to Jesus. “A few Christian friends of mine want me to keep pounding on Alana” she writes. “Even more want me to keep pounding on Satan. To take authority and pray Satan back to hell and Alana back to Christ. Jesus, instead, asks me to step out of the boat.”

But throughout most of the book, Patricia continues to pound on Islam. She writes about her steady diet of news stories claiming the Islam is violent and experiences with Muslims that are negative, putting Alana on the defensive. Alana defends Islam against the barrage of the news stories that emphasize violence in the name of Islam. She pleads that her mother stops watching the news and begins to understand that “I know firsthand about Islamic peace, through my own life and from the people who surround me every day.”

As I read Undivided, I noticed a general truth about family dynamics. The more a parent pursues, the more the child creates distance. Patricia’s pursuit to convince Alana that she needs Jesus only backfires because she talks past Alana. Alana distances herself by going weeks without responding to her mother. claims that her choice in converting to Islam wasn’t a “defiant choice of faith”; rather, Islam gave her a passion for God that she never felt before. Islam “holds me together when life seems to pull me in so many places.”

Patricia and Alana’s relationship was divided because they both insisted on being right about their religion. And in being right, the other had to be wrong. The religious battle between this mother and daughter is indicative of the religious battle of truth that seems to be playing out between Christianity and Islam on a global scale.

But not all Christians and Muslims are fighting that battle. In fact, Undivided is an important book because it reveals how this mother and daughter moved from an interfaith battle of right and wrong to walking hand in hand down the interfaith road to peace. Our religions aren’t the problem; it’s our shared desire to prove ourselves right and another wrong that divides us. This dynamic creates a mimetic rivalry because the more I want to be right and prove you wrong, the more you will likely respond by wanting to be right and prove me wrong. Fortunately, Patricia and Alana are no longer consumed by that rivalry. “We’ve moved past the point of needing to prove each other wrong,” writes Alana, “and I’m so grateful for that.”

I’m grateful for that, too. In fact, Alana states, “I find myself not offended” by statements that used to offend her. The spiritual maturity of becoming less offended is crucial for our future. We are so easily offendable, which leads to resentment, bitterness, and violence. If our society would read this book, we would discover how to better manage ourselves when we feel offended. We would discover that despite our interfaith missteps, the point of our religious traditions is not to be right by proving each other wrong, but to step out of the boat. To stop pounding on each other. And to seek reconciliation as we love one another as we would love ourselves.

Jihad For Peace

Amadiyya“What is ‘jihad?’” one of the Christian women asked.

We were gathered in the basement of the masjid, a handful of Christian women among more than a dozen Muslimas of all ages and nationalities. The sisters of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community in Glen Ellyn, IL were hosting a women’s interfaith fellowship event centered around the topic “Keeping the Faith In the Face of Hate.” The atmosphere was warm and joyful despite the gravity of the topic, and from the moment I walked in, I was greeted by smiles from ladies soon to become friends.

When the question was asked, we were in the middle of the “question and answer” session on Islam that was meant to be a precursor to the main topic at hand. The woman, I thought, sounded slightly apologetic, presumably because she understood that the term “jihad” must have a different meaning to Muslims than the negative, terroristic connotations it has in the Western media. But the Muslim ladies were quick to assure her that she had asked an important and helpful question.

The term jihad, they were eager to explain, does not mean “holy war,” as it is so often portrayed. At its root, it means “struggle,” and most often it refers to an inner struggle against sins of selfishness and turning away from God. While it can refer to the kind of struggle that is involved in physical battle, the primary meaning is the moral and spiritual struggle that manifests itself in so many ways in all of our lives. Our faith journeys are daily jihads in which we strive for greater understanding of and closeness to God. In terms of mimetic theory, this means submitting our desires – the basis for our rivalries – to the will of God so that we transform the goals of our lives from serving and preserving ourselves to honoring the Creator of humankind and serving one another, especially the “least” among us. Jihad can also take a corporate meaning as well as a personal meaning, referring to a struggle for justice, education, equality, dignity, and so on. Even when it refers to a struggle against injustice, it is urged that the means of jihad be undertaken peacefully – by the pen rather than the sword – except in urgent cases to defend life from immanent threat.

After the Muslims in the group explained how the media’s portrayal of jihad unfortunately reinforces the ideas of extremists and violent factions rather than reflecting the peaceful desires of most of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims, I raised my hand.

“I have often wanted to use the word “jihad” to talk about my own faith journey and my vocation,” I told them, “but I am afraid of being misunderstood.” I explained that, having grown up with Muslims, I have long been aware that the primary meaning of jihad is “struggle” rather than “war.” I went on to talk about the violent connotations of our own (English) language. “I find it disturbing the way the word ‘fight’ is so often used in a positive sense,” I said. I went on to muse about how, in American culture, we use the word “fight” to mean so many things, to strive for a goal or struggle against injustice. “When I want to explain the passion I have for reaching my goals, few words in the English language convey that passion like ‘fight,’ and as a pacifist, that bothers me. What am I going to say? I’m ‘fighting’ for nonviolence! That’s an oxymoron!” Laughter echoed through the room as I gazed at the smiling, nodding faces around me.

I would much rather use the word “jihad,” I continued, because I see it as a positive word at its core. The English word “struggle” does not convey all of the passion, long-suffering endurance, and faith-rootedness that “jihad” does. Jihad also implies a campaign, whether personal or corporate, that involves long-term patience and self-sacrifice that go beyond what “struggle” can express.

“So I often find that jihad is the best word to communicate the way I seek to strive for peace,” I concluded. “It frustrates me that the word is so associated with terrorism and violence that I am afraid to use it.”

Layers of irony went unmentioned but not unnoticed. The Western media portrays Islam as a violent, intolerant religion, with Muslims eager to wage “jihad” against any who do not proclaim its truth. But the violence of Western society is so deeply ingrained in our very language that we hardly even notice it. We use violent words like “fight” as metaphors for good struggles because we are hard-wired to see “fighting” as something positive. For the United States to use terms like “jihad” to paint Islam as a violent religion is the height of irony considering that we lead the world in warmaking and weapons production to secure resources and expand imperial control. All the while we invoke ideologies claiming to value freedom and human rights while rendering the rest of the world captive to the poverty, destruction and chaos we leave in the wake of our wars. While America “fights” for these ideologies with guns and bombs and drones, Islam encourages “jihad” on behalf of freedom and human rights through education and service. (This is not to say that everyone in America agrees with militaristic methods used to spread “freedom,” or that no Muslim uses violence. But the rhetoric of “civilized” America versus “violent” Islam is as backward as it is pervasive.) All of this ran through my mind, but I didn’t feel the need to voice it. I had a feeling that our presence in the room was testimony to likelihood that we knew it already.

Amidst expressions of agreement and appreciation for my understanding, one of the Muslim women challenged me: “Use it!” She went on to declare that we have the power to change language by the context in which we use it. She was emboldening me to engage in jihad on behalf of the word “jihad.”

But she was also urging me to do far more than help change the popular understanding of a single word. She was inspiring me to have faith in the ability of people to change hearts and minds by example. I could help the world come to understand the peaceful nature of Islam, she explained, by using an oft-misunderstood Islamic word, commonly thought to mean war, in the context of an endeavor for peace. The heart of the challenge she posed to me was the same posed to every Christian in the room, as we all expressed our desire to help Muslims counter the misunderstandings, slanders, and suspicion they so often receive. Speak up, they implored us. Dispel ignorance. Resist fear.

Of course, this call to humble ourselves to learn from each other and walk the path of peace together is incumbent upon us all, regardless of religion. It comes from the source that binds us all in our humanity, the one God who transcends our religions and speaks to us in many ways. Our eagerness to gather together, listen and dialogue, and come to know each other as friends reflected our desire to heed this call together, and we have only just begun.

We never actually did come to the main topic. Instead, the conversation that developed so naturally, punctuated by laughter as well as wisdom, took on a life of its own and refused to be reigned in. But that is the way real relationships begin – organically, spontaneously – and real relationships are the best way to keep the faith in the face of hate. There will be plenty of time to answer the central question of the event which was, (in perhaps slightly different words), Why do you think religion is so often used as a tool of hatred and violence? This is an essential question, one that I will soon explore in a future article. But the task of dismantling that hatred and instead using faith as a foundation to build bonds of trust, mutual service, and love, is already underway. It is a task that will involve patience and courage, the humility to discover our own prejudices and the strength to change them. It is a task to which we must commit with our whole selves, presenting challenges unique to each individual, and also a journey that we must make together. It is a mission we undertake through faith that makes our faith stronger. It is our jihad for peace.

Jesus, Drawing Muhammad, and the Idolatry of Free Speech

Pamela Geller had every “right” to host a conference in Texas that mocked Muhammad with a “Draw Muhammad” contest. The United States gives her that freedom – the Freedom of Speech, which includes the freedom to defiantly ridicule whomever she wants.

Geller is apparently not a Christian, but many Christians have come to her defense of the conference.

Let me be clear: There is no Christian defense of a conference that mocks Islam, Muhammad, or Muslims.

Please, tell me, when did Jesus ever endorse ridiculing others? Let me answer that for you: Never.

In fact, Jesus says the exact opposite. When he was asked which commandment was the greatest, he responded,

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.

As if there were any doubt, Jesus extended the whole “love your neighbor as yourself” law to include even those we call our enemies:

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not event he Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

If Christians are going to take seriously Jesus’ command to follow him, then we need to stop this absurd defense of drawing pictures of Muhammad. And if we defend the practice of ridiculing our fellow human beings by hiding behind the Freedom of Speech, then we have made Freedom of Speech into an idol.

Pamela Geller, as a non-Christian, has the right to host the conference. But Christians do not have the right, or the freedom, to support the conference. For Christians, freedom comes from following Christ in loving God and our neighbors as we love ourselves. The obvious implications of Jesus’ command to love our neighbors means that we should not mock them.

Jesus’ Challenge to Progressive Christians

And here’s where Jesus’ words about love come back to haunt me. I disagree wholeheartedly with Pamela Geller and the Christians who support her. Disagreeing is fine, but scapegoating isn’t. As a progressive Christian, I easily get caught up in scapegoating them; in thinking that they are everything that’s wrong with Christianity and that they need to get their act together.

In other words, progressive Christians are easily swayed by the same principle of hatred that we condemn in conservative and fundamentalist Christians. I start feeling hatred in my heart for Geller and her supporters, especially her Christian supporters. That hatred is my way of scapegoating those I deem to be scapegoaters.

And scapegoating doesn’t help. It only adds fuel to the fire of the scapegoating mechanism.

But if I’m going to seriously follow Jesus, then I need to own the fact that I have a strong tendency to scapegoat those I deem to be enemies. And that’s the problem. Each side is thoroughly convinced that their scapegoats are guilty and deserve to be mocked and ridiculed.

For progressive Christianity to make any progress, we need to repent of our tendency to scapegoat fundamentalists, evangelicals, and conservatives. If Jesus is right, which I am thoroughly convinced he is, then our fundamentalist, evangelical, and conservative brothers and sisters do not deserve to be mocked and ridiculed.

They deserve to be loved.

That’s what Jesus is calling us to do. And so, as we follow Jesus in standing up for justice, let’s repent of our own inclination to scapegoat and demonize the other side. Let’s repent of our own impulse to unjust actions. Let’s name injustice where we see it. Let’s work for a more just world. And let’s love our neighbors, including those we call our enemies, as we love ourselves.

Farkhunda: Their Scapegoat… And Ours

Image from Flickr.

Image from Flickr.

A month ago, a brutal and horrific tragedy took place in Afghanistan. A woman by the name of Farkhunda Malikzada was murdered by a mob of angry men. This is the story of a scapegoat, but it is also much more. Beneath the surface of this incident lies many layers of violence and humiliation. Reflexive rage against the killers, while understandable, would simply deepen the dark abyss of ignorance and refuel the caldron of hatred that can bubble over again at any time. As I mourn for Farkhunda, I have pondered many issues related to her death that I would like to share. It is my hope that as we reflect on Farkhunda’s courage and the violence heaped upon her, we will take meaningful steps toward peace and reconciliation. We all have work to do, for I believe her blood is on more than the hands of the mob; it is upon all of us.

Farkhunda’s Story

Farkhunda was a 27-year-old student of religious studies in Kabul, Afghanistan. She had visited the Shrine of the King of Two Swords the day before her death, bringing clothing for the poor. Upset by the superstitious practice of selling charms and amulets outside of a historic shrine, which went against her understanding of Islam, she criticized the shrine attendants and dissuaded visitors from buying. With business threatened, one attendant, Zain-ul-Din, sought to protect his livelihood by undermining Farkhunda’s credibility. He accused her of being an infidel who had burned the Holy Qur’an. Within moments, a mob descended upon Farkhunda, berating and beating her as she denied accusations and begged for mercy. Her cries fell on hundreds of deaf ears as the men continued to pummel her to death. Her bloodied body was then set on fire.

Rush to Judgment

Farkhunda’s story has all the hallmarks of classic scapegoating, complete with a false accusation and a mimetically-propelled mob. The mob was not made up of criminal thugs but regular, mostly young, men. They did not beat and kill her out of a sadistic desire to inflict harm; rather, they were propelled by a sense of righteousness as they struck her. We are most dangerous when we are convinced of our own goodness over and against someone else, especially when caught up in a crowd where self-righteousness is released like a drug into the very air we breathe. Many reading Farkhunda’s story in horror could easily be caught up in the same mob mentality; it is not endemic to Islam or Afghan culture but epidemic across humanity. Even so, such explosive violence can erupt spontaneously but not unconditionally. Tension, insecurity, and a buildup of hostility fuel a mimetic crisis for which the scapegoat is an outlet. Long-damaged by war and corruption, Kabul was a powder keg waiting to be ignited by Farkhunda’s false accusation. In some ways, her murder was more than thirty years in the making.

30 Years of War

Afghanistan has been plagued by war for over three decades. According to Political analyst Helena Malikyar,

Afghans are often praised for their resilience. In reality, they are a nation of survivalists. They are survivors of the communist regime’s brutalities in the 1980s, the mujahideen’s internecine wars of the early 1990s, the Taliban’s draconian rule of the late 1990s, imprisonments, tortures, abject poverty, lack of education, miseries of refugee camps and loss of loved ones. They are damaged goods.

Of course, all of this describes the state of Afghanistan before 2001 and the never-ending “War on Terror,” but the United States bears some responsibility for the conditions in Afghanistan even prior to September 11th. The United States supported rebel Afghan groups fighting the Soviets in the 1980s, but the weapons we supplied turned against the Afghan people as civil war broke out in the power vacuum left in the wake of the Soviet retreat. During these years of war, not only did American weapons remain in Afghanistan, killing people on all sides, but the eyes of the American government remained upon Afghanistan as well. According to an article by Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed, Afghanistan’s geographic location is strategic to America’s interest in controlling the oil of Central Asia by way of an oil pipeline. Needing a “stabilized” nation through which to build the pipeline, the United States originally supported the Taliban takeover of the nation in spite of their brutal human rights violations, only turning against it when it was clear that the Taliban would not be asset to U.S. oil interests. Thus, U.S. involvement in Afghanistan has never been in the interests of Afghan citizens but rather in the interest of profit at their expense.

Since American troops began occupying and bombing Afghanistan in 2001, many “official” casualty counts have underestimated the death tolls of Afghan civilians. According to another article by Nafeez Ahmed, the Washington DC-based Physicians For Social Responsibility have estimated that, since the 1990s, US interventions have been responsible for between 3 and 5 million preventable Afghan deaths. Night raids and drone strikes have made a vulnerable citizenry fearful, restless and insecure. In such an environment, Helena Malikyar writes that “today’s survivalist mentality … has no room for vital human virtues of compassion and tolerance.” We bear much responsibility for this environment. It is hard for compassion to take root in soil that has been blown apart by bombs and polluted by blood.

Thus, while individual soldiers may have good intentions, motivated to fight for humanitarian concerns, it is clear that American interests do not align with Afghan interests. The Afghan people have been suffering on behalf of American foreign policies, which have exacerbated corruption and civil unrest. The United States has helped to weave and is deeply entangled in the web of violence that has ensnared Afghanistan.

With the blood of so many Afghans on our hands, the mimetic crisis that fueled Farkhunda’s murder is largely on our hands as well. As my colleague Adam Ericksen said, we may not have cast the stones, but we did cast the bombs.

 The Role of Religion

 There are many who use this tragedy to denounce Islam, claiming that only an inherently violent faith could inspire such violence on its behalf. But any religion can be interpreted either peacefully or violently, and Helena Malikyar’s article makes it clear how a rigid, violent interpretation of Islam could be born in a climate of fear and insecurity. She writes that, “While [pre-war Afghanistan] was a poor and under-developed country, there was dignity, tolerance and a code of honour. Afghans were always highly religious, but their Islam, heavily influenced by Sufi culture, was moderate and tolerant of the “other”.” Yet a steady diet of war, deepening poverty, and exploitation can morph the shape of a communal faith from an arm of outreach to a fortress of refuge. Clinging to one’s faith as a defense against an enemy other can turn a religion that encourages tolerance and hospitality toward others into a pillar of identity that helps define oneself against others.

I believe this destructive use of religion as a defense in a time of insecurity fueled the hostile spirit of the mob when it focused its rage on Farkhunda on that terrible day. Unable to vent their frustrations against heavily-armed military occupiers or corrupt war lords, the men of the mob saw in Farkhunda a threat to Islam and all they held dear, not necessarily because of what Islam is, but because of the way Islam separates them from the enemy “other.” The role religion plays in forming our identities over and against others is insidious and often unconscious, but under certain conditions, it can be deadly.

The spirit of scapegoating violence can easily hijack any religion, for religion can easily be abused. When we claim to have possession of the “Truth,” we can easily be roused to judgment and condemnation over others. Lest we think Islam is unique in this terrible regard, we need not look far into Christian history to see the cross presiding over Crusades, pograms and lynch mobs. Any religion can be twisted against its own teachings of humility and compassion, just as the mob in their ignorance twisted Islam.

True Islam

Farkhunda, on the other hand, represented true Islam – true submission to God – when she put herself at risk to expose economic and spiritual exploitation masquerading under the guise of piety. Angered at those who would take advantage of pilgrims and worshippers, she spoke out, most likely knowing that jeopardizing a business would put her at risk (yet probably unaware of just how much of a risk she was in fact taking).

In speaking out against such exploitive and superstitious practices, Farkhunda was not only following her conscience and her understanding of God’s will. She was also following in the footsteps of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), who received the revelation of Islam when he searched out a place of solitude and refuge to pray on behalf of the poor. He saw the corruption and exploitation of the vulnerable and knew intuitively that the true source of life could not be the tribal gods invoked on behalf of the rich against the poor. In a world in which the strong and rich were thought to be favored against the poor and weak, the intuition that God cares the poor could only be born of exceeding compassion. This compassion prepared Muhammad’s heart for the revelation of Allah as the One, Most Gracious, Most Merciful, God of all humanity, rich and poor, weak and strong alike. And this compassion lies at the heart of true Islam.

Faith that bolsters our own identities against others is deadly. Faith that leads us beyond ourselves to the God of mercy and compassion is life-giving.

The tragic irony of Farkhunda’s death, then, is not simply that she was killed while upholding Islam by fellow Muslims who mistakingly thought they were defending the faith. It is also that in their rush to defend Islam and their identity as Muslims, they distorted the faith of Islam, submitting not to the will of the God, but to the principal of accusation, the satan.

The Shape of True Justice

Yet the challenge for those of us looking on from outside the borders of Afghanistan and Islam is not to define ourselves over and against the mob, falling prey to the same spirit of scapegoating and hostility, but to take responsibility for our own role in the violence. Just as the mob destroyed an innocent life in their defense of Islam, distorting their faith in the process, our tax dollars fund the destruction of innocent life in the names of security and freedom, perverting both beyond recognition. In both Farkhunda’s murder and the wars we fight, greed wears a mask of righteous virtue. Just as bystanders allowed the mob to run rampant, we too often stand silently by and allow injustices perpetrated by policies carried out in our name. Our violence feeds a spirit of mistrust and hostility that can erupt in tragedies like Farkhunda’s murder. Then we see barbarity in the “others” and further define ourselves against them. The cycle of violence churns on.

True justice would seek not the destruction but the repentance of the violent. Calling for executions, while understandable, would only further erode compassion where it is needed the most. Reparations should be made not only to Farkhunda’s family, but to the nation of Afghanistan torn apart by war and corruption. Our hands are all stained with blood, and the more we identify ourselves as good over and against the brutal, barbarous “others,” the bloodier they get. The members of the mob have much to learn about compassion and women’s dignity in Islam (a subject worth exploring in full but beyond the scope of this article). We, in turn, must learn that there is no such thing as a “humanitarian war,” acknowledge our destruction, and rededicate our time, talent and treasure from warmaking to peacemaking. For the sake of Farkhunda, for the sake of victims of violence everywhere, for the sake of ourselves and for God’s sake, we must all turn from our self-righteousness and submit to the will of the One who is Love, Most Compassionate, Most Merciful.








Top 10 Ways Mimetic Theory Can Help Create Interfaith Empathy – A Panel Discussion

adam empathy 2I was delighted to be invited to an international discussion about creating more empathy between people of different religions. The panel consisted of a Christian (that was me!), an atheist, and three Muslims.

(You can watch the video by scrolling down.)

The producer of the panel was Edwin Rusch, who is the founding director for the Center for Building a Culture of Empathy. Edwin’s goal is to create “a worldwide culture of empathy and compassion.” Through articles and videos, the website explores the arts, sciences, religion, and much more.

Sheima Salam Summer brought the panel together. I was introduced to Sheima about a year ago through our mutual friend, Lindsey Paris-Lopez. Lindsey suggested that I read Sheima’s book How to Be a Happy Muslims. As I state in the video, it’s a wonderful book that has taught me to be a happier Christian. I’m grateful for Sheima’s friendship, her book, and her blogging at

Our other panelists were my new Muslim friends Amal Damaj and Eric Abdulmonaim Merkt. Amal enjoys studying the Quran and discovering connections between some of its verses and modern research findings in science and sociology. Abdulmonaim is a Sufi Muslim. He has a master’s degree in religion and a degree in philosophy.

I brought René Girard and mimetic theory into the discussion. Although not always explicit, I soon discovered that the principles of mimetic theory were permeating our discussion. So, from the conversation, I decided to make a top 10 list of the ways that that mimetic theory can help foster empathy across our religious and atheist traditions:

  1. Girard’s mimetic theory, and the recent discovery of mirror neurons, help us better understand empathy as a natural process, but that there are positive and negative aspects to it. For example, in the same way we can imitate a smile, we can imitate a scowl.
  2. The Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition leads us to empathize in a positive way with the poor, weak, marginalized, and scapegoats of human culture.
  3. Atheism’s empathy comes from underlying values in our common humanity.
  4. Islam’s empathy is based on receiving the abundant mercy of God who has infinite empathy for creation.
  5. Christianity’s empathy is based on God in Jesus walking in human shoes/sandals. Since we recorded the discussion during Holy Week, I discussed Jesus empathizing with our pain and suffering on Good Friday.
  6. Empathy can help us overcome the scapegoat mechanism.
  7. To “know thy self” is to “know thy self” in relationship to others.
  8. The function of Satan the Accuser plays a similar role in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – to encourage us to mimic the satanic accusation against our scapegoats.
  9. We can avoid creating an identity “over-and-against” another group by creating an identity that is “with” another group.
  10. Creating interfaith empathy and an identity that is “with” another group can be fostered by bringing people together to work for a common good. This is a form of positive mimesis and empathy. Eboo Patel’s Interfaith Youth Core is a good example.

We talked about so much more! I’d love to know if this discussion stirred up any comments or questions for you about empathy in relation to mimetic theory or interfaith dialogue. Please leave your comments below!

My Journey Through The Wilderness With #Muslims4Lent


It is hard to know where to begin to express my humble gratitude to the members of the Muslim community who are showing their solidarity with observant Christians this Lenten season by participating in #Muslims4Lent.

Words will never do justice to the love, faithfulness, and compassion Muslims are showing by taking a stand for peace and interfaith bridge-building in the midst of a nation so often hostile to them. I don’t want to focus on this hostility right now, but it should be mentioned. Despite the strong interfaith friendships many Muslim Americans have, they are constantly subjected to negative portrayals in the media and treated with suspicion as many mosques are under government surveillance. Pundits demand that all Muslims apologize for the violent actions of a few but refuse to listen when they do. While individuals may (or may not) feel at home in their communities, this is no doubt a difficult time for the ummah. It would be easy in these divisive times to seek reinforcement from one’s own faith community by defining one’s self against others, but #Muslims4Lent are persuaded by their faith in God, respect for humanity, and desire for peace to reach out across boundaries of religion in love. It is an inspiring gesture, and I am deeply moved.


But what I really want to say is more personal than any of that. And it starts with a confession. For as genuinely touched, grateful and happy as I am that Muslims are seeking avenues of interfaith communion, I’m also, I’m ashamed to say, a bit jealous.

I mean, here I am, drinking the last of a soda I kept telling myself I would abstain from, with Lent barely a week old, reading hashtags of Muslims pledging to give up chocolate or junk food or even, yes, soda. I can’t help but think, “Dang! They do Lent better than I do!”

It’s so ridiculously petty, but there is a complicated history behind this jealousy. I don’t want to excuse it though; I want to banish it, like Satan from the wilderness. It is horrible how negative mimesis can infiltrate even the most beautiful things, like an interfaith solidarity movement, but that is the nature of mimetic rivalry. The temptation to jealousy, to letting self-doubt taint my admiration for others, is a struggle that I am slowly overcoming, and something about the Lenten season emboldens me to admit this vulnerability. After all, Lent is a time to honestly confront our weaknesses. But my jealousy is not simply due to the fact that I think Muslims (with the practices of scheduled prayer and fasting to help them develop physical and spiritual discipline) might demonstrate better self-control at abstaining from certain foods or drinks.

For the longest time, I wrestled with my own religious identity. I have already told the story of my conversion to Islam and my subsequent reaffirmation of my Christian faith. After falling out of Islamic practice and before reaffirming my Christian faith, I struggled in an uncomfortable “in-between” place, unable to affirm Islam as I had before, afraid to turn back to Christianity. I was once so terrified of getting God “wrong” that I was almost spiritually paralyzed. Now, my faith in Jesus continues to deepen as I learn and pray and grow. But something about seeing members of a faith to which I once belonged, practicing a part of the faith to which I now belong, without any anxiety, brings admiration that unfortunately teeters on jealousy. I see Muslims – who for me will always represent a part of my past — seeming to better live into the person I want to be now. They’re keeping Lent and practicing interfaith reconciliation better than I am! Perhaps the whole situation is reviving latent insecurities.


Writing about all of this, however, helps me confront those insecurities and wrestle a blessing from them, and already they’re fading away as their ridiculousness is exposed to the light of reason. I know, of course, that Muslims reaching out in solidarity with Christians can only enhance faith in the God we worship, a God of mercy and love who transcends the boundaries of our religious differences. This is particularly true for me when this movement inevitably reminds me of the love, support, and graciousness extended to me by my Muslim friends, especially my dear spiritual sister, Sheima. And that’s what I really want to talk about.

It is no exaggeration to say that without Sheima, I wouldn’t be who I am, and it is no exaggeration to say that without Islam, Sheima would not be who she is. It was Sheima who modeled Islam as a religion of peace and rational elegance and who welcomed me into the faith that became a haven from the doubts I had about the Trinity and the fears I had about atonement when I was a teenager. She introduced me to the calming, centering discipline of prayer and taught me the musical rhythms of Qur’anic Arabic that ring in my ears to this day. Because of her, I will always know the generous, merciful spirit of Islam and carry it in me, because Sheima is a part of me. I would not recognize myself without her.

We grew together not just in faith, but in life; in the moments that made up our days and years and seasons. I sought refuge in her home and probably spent as much time there during the second half of my high school career as I did in my own house. But in all we did, from studying together to laughing and joking around, we felt our bond enhanced by the faith we shared.

So when I knew, years later, that I would have to reveal to her my reaffirmation of the Christian faith, I was terrified. I didn’t want to hurt her or lose the bond we had forged. My mind concocted all manner of less-than-pleasant things she might say to me. And beyond her there was her family, a mother and grandparents and sisters I had considered my own in my early Muslim days, and a community that I did not want to disappoint. I didn’t want anything to change.

Of course, things did change. But I should have put much more faith in our friendship. When I dared to be honest about the things my years of partly-expressed doubts and long silences had already revealed, I found myself in Sheima’s loving embrace, reassured that we would continue to grow in friendship and faith, still learning from and sharing with one-another. There was pain and awkwardness, but Sheima still accepted me for who I was. And when I surrendered my fears to honesty, I realized that my anxieties had been distorting my image of my best friend. She proved far more loving than my fears, and now our relationship is one of relaxed honesty as well as deep connection.

In this way, it is a human reflection of the loving relationship we both share with the One God.

I don’t think Sheima is participating in #Muslims4Lent, but it doesn’t matter. She has shown solidarity with me as a Christian in other ways. One way is in being able to discuss theology and listen with an open mind even when we express beliefs that seem contradictory. But perhaps a deeper way is simply in being herself and letting me be mine, and letting our history make us stronger today instead of being an awkward reminder of who we no longer are. She has taught me not only about Islam, but about the grace of God by her ability to transform pain with love. The difference between the fears I had about being myself with her and the acceptance she has shown me is a shadow of the difference between the fear I had of getting God “wrong” and the embrace I increasingly feel as I receive God’s unconditional love.


Muslims4Lent has made me reflect on the similarities between Lent and Ramadan, and how the spiritual practice of daily prayer that conditions Muslims for fasting would also help Christians prepare for the sacrifices of Lent. In both the Ramadan fast and the Lenten renunciation of a particular pleasure, the goal is not the deprivation itself, but the empathy that comes from voluntarily abstaining from things which others are involuntarily forced to forego. Fasting illuminates the struggles of the hungry, fostering compassion and generosity. For practicing Muslims, daily prayer provides a security, vulnerability and discipline that keeps the heart, mind and body focused throughout the fast. Trust in God built through regular prayer builds a security that provides inner comfort and facilitates the ability to reach out in love. Reflecting on this and watching as Muslims observe Lent gently urges me not only to try harder to keep my Lenten commitments, but to resume the practice of the daily office, channeling my days of five daily prayers for strength and perseverance. And to not be ashamed when I inevitably fall out of practice, but calmly to try again.

Islam once again inspires and shows me how to be a better Christian. I am moved to not give up on giving up soda.


But much more importantly, I am blessed by #Muslims4Lent to be tested and reminded of the true meaning of Lent. In giving me the opportunity to confront my insecurities, #Muslims4Lent ultimately reminds me that Lent is far more than the individual sacrifices we make. We make these sacrifices to remind ourselves of our reliance on God and to increase our empathy for one-another, but the small things we do are only a part of a much larger process of turning ourselves around and opening our minds to the truth of God’s unconditional love. Confronting my feelings of inadequacy helps me remember that my identity is secure in God, just as it is for the Muslims who feel confident enough in their faith to share in the season of Lent. And it ultimately reminds me of the deeper blessings of fellowship I share with my Muslim friends, fellowship that continually strengthens and inspires me to be an instrument of God’s peace.

So a deep, heartfelt thank you to the #Muslims4Lent, Sheima, and all my Muslim friends. And above all, thanks be to the One God who holds us all in love and increases our love for one-another. Alhamdulillah.

For more on how Lent is about finding our identities secure in God, see Adam Ericksen’s lenten reflection.

Chapel Hill, Atheism, and the Worship of Violence

Deah Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Mohammad, and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha (via Twitter)

Deah Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Mohammad, and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha (via Twitter)

It’s been a few days since the tragic murder of three young Muslims in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. The lives of Deah Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Mohammad, and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha were cut short. They were murdered, shot in the head, by Craig Hicks.

Hicks is an avowed atheist. Prominently displayed on his Facebook page is a meme that claims,

Of course I want religion to go away. I don’t deny you your right to believe whatever you’d like; but I have the right to point out it’s ignorant and dangerous for as long as your baseless superstitions keep killing people.

“As long as your baseless superstitions keep killing people.” The tragic irony of that meme is palpable. You may be surprised to know that, as a Christian, I greatly appreciate atheism’s critique of religious violence. Religion should be critiqued whenever it is used as a justification for violence.

But atheism can be very religious in its violence. At its core, religious violence unites adherents in the faith that violence can solve our problems. In other words, many religious people don’t actually have faith in God; they have faith in violence.

Hicks reveals something crucially important about atheism. Do not be fooled by the term “atheism.” Like many religious people, many atheists have the same idolatrous faith in a violent god that justifies their violence.

The religion of violence creates a spirit of hatred and accusations. Notice how the blame game started very quickly after the horrendous murders. Religious people used Hicks as a justification to accuse atheists of violence. Atheists then doubled down and accused religion of “divinely sanctioned violence.” These mutual accusations against one another are themselves violent and only provide further evidence that each side worships at the throne of violence.

Blaming another for violence is a convenient way of projecting our own violent tendencies upon someone else. Religious people and atheists begin to mirror one another in our accusations: “We aren’t violent. We are the good guys. We are for peace. They are the violent ones. If we could just get rid of their violent belief system, the world would be a much better place.”

There is only one way out of the trap of the violent religion that unites us against one another. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn summed it up best when he said,

If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

The evil that cuts through their hearts is the evil that cuts through our hearts. Religious people and atheists can now unite in our condemnation of Hicks as an evil man. That’s far too easy. The fact is that Hicks is much more like us than we’d like to admit. He is a product of our cultural worship of hatred and violence.

And so, by condemning Hicks for violence, we condemn ourselves because the hatred and violence that runs through him also runs through us.

The solution to our cultural worship of violence is to stop blaming someone else for it and start taking responsibility for our own violent impulses.

The greatest problem facing the world today isn’t atheists or Christians or Muslims. Our greatest problem is the violence that infects us all. Religious violence, secular violence, economic violence, emotional violence, and spiritual violence threaten to destroy our communities. Why? Because we can’t control violence; violence controls us.

The best alternative to violence is nonviolence. The Qur’an’s nonviolent teachings should be highlighted in this conversation. For example, the Qur’an explains that “Good and evil cannot be equal. Repel evil with what is better and your enemy will become as close as an old and valued friend.”

If we want to blame anything, then blame violence. But let’s not primarily condemn the violence “out there.” Let’s take personal responsibility to stop worshiping at the throne of violence. Let’s take responsibility for the violence that exists within ourselves. And let’s start taking responsibility to repel evil with what is better by loving our neighbors, including those we call our enemies, as we love ourselves.

How Muhammad Responded to Insults: The Qur’an, Hell, and Charlie Hebdo

quranHow do we make sense of the senseless and tragic violence committed by militants at the headquarters of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, especially when that violence is committed in the name of Allah?

Suzanne Ross, my colleague at the Raven Foundation, calls the violence at Charlie Hebdo a sacred tragedy. Now, we generally associate “the sacred” with religions, but Suzanne clarifies that you don’t have to be religious to hold something sacred. In fact, whether we are religious or not, we all hold something sacred. That “something” is our identity. And, tragically, the sacredness of our identity – whether religious or secular – is usually formed in opposition to others. Referring to René Girard’s mimetic theory, Suzanne writes:

… the sacred is any belief that creates identity and cohesion within a group over and against outsiders. In other words, the sacred protects a community from its own violence by designating the proper enemies one can hate, ridicule, satirize, and kill without remorse. Indeed, to do so is a sacred duty.

We are all influenced by this sacred identity that unites “us” against “them.” Here we see that the sacred is connected to the violent principle of accusation and blame. As Suzanne explains, everyone thinks their violence is a good and sacred duty, while they accuse their enemy’s violence of being evil and profane.

In light of the tragedy at Charlie Hebdo, many Christians are accusing Islam of being fundamentally violent. In doing so, they unwittingly fall into the trap of creating a sacred identity that pits “us” against “them,” which only adds fuel to the fire of sacred violence. The good news is that the Qur’an warns us against this tendency, and it also provides an alternative way of forming identity.

In fact, the Qur’an has a very specific term for creating identity through violence and accusations: that way of creating identity is literally called hell.

This is how [hell] will really be: the inhabitants of the Fire will blame one another. (38:64)

In the Quran, hell is a way of life that creates identity through the sacred violence of blaming and accusing one another. These accusations are mimetic; that is, we instinctively imitate each other’s accusations until everyone is pointing fingers at each other. This creates a mimetic crisis throughout our culture. Actually, as we are seeing, the mimetic crisis is spreading throughout our world. Any time we engage in blame, accusations, and scapegoating we only drive ourselves deeper into the pit of hell.

The specific tragedy at Charlie Hebdo is indicative of the larger tragedy that the world faces: a crisis of forming identity in violent opposition to one another. At some point, someone had better stop the cycle of forming identity through opposition. We had better stop accusing one another or we will create a future of more hells on earth. And if we don’t find a solution soon, with increased weapons of mass destruction, we may not have a future.

Fortunately, Islam not only provides the warning of hell that critiques forming identity through sacred violence and accusations, but it also provides the alternative. “Good and evil cannot be equal,” says the Qur’an. “Repel evil with what is better, and your enemy will become as close as an old and valued friend” (41:34).

How does someone stop the mimetic cycle of accusation by repelling “evil with what is better”? Muhammad provides many nonviolent examples throughout his life, but one example has been shared frequently since the violence at Charlie Hebdo. Every day that Muhammad went to his mosque, he walked by an elderly woman’s home. When Muhammad walked by, she did something far more insulting than draw silly pictures of him. She threw her garbage on him. She, along with others in her community, created an identity in opposition to Muhammad, accusing him of ruining their culture. Muhammad not only challenged the polytheism of his day, but what made the woman and many others really angry was that he demanded that the rich care for the poor. Muhammad’s message of social justice was directly connected with his religious message of the oneness of God. Muhammad brought the radical message to his culture that God cares for the weak, the oppressed, and the marginalized. Like the prophets before him, this message of social justice made him a target for his enemies to unite against him in sacred violence and accusations.

But Muhammad refused to descend with the woman into the pit of hell. Instead of responding to her insults with mimetic violence, he repelled “evil with what is better.” Day after day, he patiently walked by her, until one day she stopped. Surprisingly, Muhammad didn’t think, “Oh good! That nasty woman stopped!” Instead, he was concerned about her well-being. He asked permission to visit her. When he entered her house, he discovered that she was very ill. He cared for her needs and helped her recover. Here’s the remarkable thing: when he was insulted, Muhammad repelled evil with what was better, and he and the woman became friends.

So, please, in the wake of violent tragedies, let’s not descend ourselves further into the pit of hell by blaming one another. Let’s not create identities through the sacred violence of accusation. Instead, let’s take Muhammad as an example. Let’s take responsibility to form identities by finding creative ways to “repel evil with what is better.” That’s our best hope for a more peaceful future.

(For a Muslim’s response that critiques violence, see “Why the Prophet Muhammad Would be Deeply Troubled by the Charlie Hebdo Attacks” by Ro Waseem at the blog “A Reformation of Muslim Thought.”)