22 August 2010

Welcome Harlequin

The latest "follower" of this blog is "Harlequin" who blogs about being a muslim convert, among other topics. (He or she may have been here a while, I don't check the followers list all that often and have not made it visible on the front page lately.)

Islam has jumped into the national consciousness with the various wars of Israel with its neighbors (many of them wars of aggression against Israel), with the 1979 Iranian revolution, and most recently in connection to 9-11, the Iraq War and the Afghan war.

But, Islam has mostly appeared on the American radar screen from a foreign policy perspective. Unlike France, Germany, Britain, and some of other European peers, the United States has experienced only modest waves of immigration by Muslims, and outside the wave of black Muslim conversion to Islam that is most popularly associated with Malcolm X, conversion to Islam by non-immigrant Americans has mostly been a silent phenomena connected with marriages to Muslims by non-Muslims. The isolated cases of individuals converting to Islam in other contexts has mostly made headlines only after convert's fervor has entangled the individuals with militant groups as in the case of Jose Padilla, and several other individuals since then.

For the most part, American Muslims have chosen to take a low profile, a bit like that of American Germans in the 1940s and 1950s, rather than confronting their communities with the fact that they are there and should be acknowledged.

This strategy has been good for personal survival and the American heartland is full of red brick suburban Mosques serving communities interesting in living undisturbed apolitical lives and fitting in. It has costs as a strategy too. The best way to break down stereotypes and secure social acceptance and an acceptance of your humanity is by leveraging the "present company excluded" rule of civility. People who have met someone who is openly gay or openly atheist is less likely to bear an overall prejudice against them, and the same considerations apply to Muslims.

Still, the live quietly strategy has had its virtues. For all the persecution that Muslims can face in America, it beats having to worry about the market place car bombs of Iraq, the urban war zones of Lebanon, the night time genocidal raids of the Sahel, the poverty of Bangladesh, and the only marginally stable regimes of countries like Pakistan, Iran and Turkey where the prospect of military rule or an annulled election hovers around every political discussion.

The prospects that a Muslim family can work, pray, have healthy children, and live in relative peace in a community of like minded people of the same religion is better in the United States than it is much of the world.

And, while I am a secular humanist, I don't deny that religions exist and benefit their adherents. Malcolm X built his movement on the importance of self-reliance, discipline and clean living. He was militant, but honestly, his Islam influenced values probably had more in common with those of a typical modern Republican who is terrified of Islam and wants to go to war with it, than any other prominent African-American political leader in the last century. Personal freedom is great for those who manage to enjoy its indulgences without screwing up. But, restricting one's own personal freedom with religious mandates can greatly enhance the lives of those who otherwise might have carried away by temptations that lead to self-destruction.

At its best, the attitude of harsh punishment in this life for acts that harm others associated with Islamic law is supposed to scare people straight and make them respect the well being of others, not lead to many instances of such punishment being imposed. Historically, Islam burst onto the world scene and expanded rapidly because it embraced the intellectual contributions of a diverse array of subject peoples, not by improving rigidity. Also critical to Islam's early success was its ability to think about problems at a community level rather than an individual level and to mobilize communities to address their problems rather than simply letting them slide for want of anyone who could mobilize collective action. The core Islamic religious requirement that one make charitable contributions was one of the early examples, of many, that proved that mandatory financial contribution to the common good allows for positive development of communities.

This isn't to say that Islam, or any other religion, deserves a free pass. Generally positive ideas can be applied in stupid ways. For example, Islamic courts in Saudi Arabia are currently looking into ways to intentionally paralyze a man by damaging his spinal cord as retribution for the harm he did to another man in a knife fight. The aphorism that "an eye for eye leaves the whole world blind" comes quickly to mind in this situation. While I do not reject, as many human rights advocates do, the notion that corporal punishment can be a preferable alternative to the American approach of extended incarceration in some circumstances, it is desirable only when it can reduce the extent to which lives and potential are wasted; it makes no sense when it leads only to more terribly wasted lives and costs society more rather than less.

At any rate, this blog is a forum where I welcome the contributions of insights of those who can be half way rational and civil (and don't fill it with irrelevant spam), and I hope to offer my perspective to, and receive the insights from, readers like Harlequin. Please make liberal use of my tagging and the search function in the blog to find posts that are of interest to you (although some older archived posts are not tagged and aren't located by the search function either and can only be located with manual review of old post titles in the archive in the left sidebar).

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