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Saturday, March 20, 2010

What is Interfaith Work for Peace and Justice in the Middle East for Me

Now that it has been over four years that I have become actively involved in interfaith work for peace and justice in the Middle East, something occurred to me about ten days ago that has prompted me to explain not only to those who may question others like me, but to also coalesce in my own mind my thoughts governing my activism.

First, let's turn to what many see as "religious strife" in the Middle East (which has spilled over to resentment of varying degrees towards the US) and so-called "Islamic terrorism", for when individuals question me and other's motives for their work, it is most often framed within this premise, the problem is the Muslims, they hate Jews and Christians. While "Islamic" extremism certainly does exist, one has to have a deeper understanding of it's goals, , which are to overturn what they sense has been colonialism, support of puppet governments beholden to the West who not only has been active in controlling and overthrowing their own
political aspirations long prior to the sharp rise in "Islamic" extremism (as in the case of Mossadeq's democratic election by the Iranian people, his subsequent nationalizing of their own oil resources and subsequent CIA sponsored coup), but also has raped their national resources for their own profits and most recently and glaringly illegally invaded and occupied Iraq. In short, one must understand what is the driving force behind the phenomena, and that each case is different per the actual circumstances.

Then of course there is the centerpiece of Middle Eastern resentment towards the West, most notably the United States, whose long support of Israel whose own "democratic" aspirations depended on expelling 750,000 Palestinians from their land which till this day they have been denied their right of return which is enshrined in the Declaration of Human Rights, " Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country."

In a nutshell, which does not even begin to give service to the political problems in the Middle East, to simplify it into "religious strife" is to not know that it is political power and where it lies that is at the core of the issue. Take Lebanon for instance which is a glaring example. Are the problems in Lebanon based on religious strife or are they based on political power? In simple terms they are quite obviously based on political power because Lebanon's constitution is centered on giving power to religious factions when those factions (demographic changes) after many years do not reflect a "democracy" based on the will of all the people:

Efforts to alter or abolish the confessional system of allocating power have been at the center of Lebanese politics for decades. Those religious groups most favored by the 1943 formula sought to preserve it, while those who saw themselves at a disadvantage sought either to revise it after updating key demographic data or to abolish it entirely. Nonetheless, many of the provisions of the national pact were codified in the 1989 Ta'if Agreement, perpetuating sectarianism as a key element of Lebanese political life.

Hezballah itself, designated a terrorist organization by the US, did not rise out of religious hatred of Jews or opposition to what some deem the "Christian West". (I feel silly even explaining this here) It rose out of the years long Israeli occupation of Southern Lebanon and the West's condoning of it. Is their true basis anti-Jewish/anti-Christian? No it is not. It is political based on power and their lack there of when Hezballah rose in reaction. Now they too take part in Lebanese politics while my own government continues to label them a "Islamic terrorist organization". A label which prevents the US from interacting with them in any manner diplomatically. That too shall someday change I predict.

Now, back to why I am writing this post. It is prompted by an email I recieved from someone calling herself my friend who is fully aware of my interfaith peace and justice work and the fact that I lived in the Middle East, was married (now amicably divorced from) a Muslim, have many Muslim friends from all walks of life and consider my former-in-laws my family still because of our loving relationship which has lasted so many years. This email she sent was prompted by the recent massacre in Nigeria by Muslims of Christians. Needless to say, just in January there was a larger massacre by Christians of Muslims and one of the largest Nigerian massacres occured in Yelwa in 2004 when 600 Muslims were killed. Do the past massacres of Muslims justify what was done just two weeks ago? Absolutely NOT. However, again, in the case of Nigeria, the core issue is not religion, it is power, as stated succinctly by Nigerian Archbishop Josiah Idawoo, "Every crisis is automatically interpretted as a religious crisis. But we all know that, scratch the surface, it's got nothing to do with religion. It's about power."

Now for the email which I recieved from a "friend" who herself was married to a Musim, lived in Egypt, did not have a pleasant outcome whatsoever, but who always spoke highly of her mother-in-law who she said treated her so wonderfully while she lived in Egypt. But first, let's define "bigotry". For ease I will turn to Wikipedia:

A bigot is a person obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices.

The correct use of the term requires the elements of obstinacy, irrationality, and animosity toward those of differing devotion.

The origin of the word bigot and bigoterie in English dates back to at least 1598, via Middle French, and started with the sense of "religious hypocrite". Forms of bigotry may have a related ideology or world views.

Now for the first email which was sent to me which was prompted by her reaction to the massacre in Nigeria:

Last night on the news they were talking about muslims who went on a rampage, and killed 500 christians which consisted mostly of women and children. I just got the tail end of the news report. But I am furious with this mind set of the muslims of kill kill kill. I am done with them. That was the last straw for me. I wash my hands of muslims completely. I do NOT care if there are 2 good ones out of a million. They can go to hell in a hand basket for all I care. They are uncivilized, cruel, and lack a heart and soul so screw them all. I will NOT see my people killed and just turn my back on them another moment in my life by giving them the benefit of the doubt. The price is far too high. Damn them all for not putting a stop to all this blood shed. They can rot in hell.
Now to try and get through my day without dwelling on that miserable culture/humans that should be none existent.

My emailed response to her:

Well, toss in Hindus too *******

Hate is hate no matter where it comes from, including oneself. My own government just forced a major American arms manufacturer to remove Bible quotations from the arms they produce that are used by our military. I guess I'll just say screw all Christians because our military is KILLING people with guns inscribed with quotes from the Bible.

In my own humble opinion, anyone using their own faith in ANY case to hate ALL others from a faith different from their own is not abiding by what the creator of all mankind wished for us, no matter how we worship him, don't worship him, because as the most benevolent, the all-knowing parent, "He" wishes more for his children to love eachother than to fight amongst themselves over what way they love him or don't, for he is ALL merciful, ALL kind, and calls upon each of us in our own lives to live kind lives ourselves. Outrage at specific actions is understandable, but to dismiss ALL members of a faith no matter if they are your neighbor leading a decent life, a doctor, a scientist, no matter what they do, if they are leading good lives MY God calls upon me to love them.

She then emailed me back with a LONG rant about blood-thirsty Muslims, that anyone who symapthized with them was as "evil as they are", that she had contacted three Muslims who she was still in contact with to tell them not to contact her anymore "UP and UNTIL I see them take a stand against these terrorists" on and on. For XXXX every single Muslim is somehow a terrorist or not doing the job they need to do to protect CHRISTIANS from them, because she is a CHRISTIAN woman. They should all be deported back to their countries of origin whether or not they have done anything wrong whatsoever. She is DONE with them, end of story. I responded to her with link after link of fatwas, statements, poetry, you name it, Muslims who have INDEED spoken out against what the West refers to as "Islamic terrorism" Since then, no more emails. The long rant which she sent me needless to say was quite upsetting and I felt was a personal attack on my own interfaith work and core values as a human being.

Now I will close with my own "story", that which led me on my path. Others who work interfaith peace and justice have their own moral or experiential reasons. This is mine.

In March 1975, I found myself, a 20 year old American, in Beirut, marrying into a Muslim family who now after an amicable divorce, I still lovingly call my own, not only because of the daughter our marriage produced, but because of the loving relationship which grew and still remains in my heart and connections which still exist based on my actual time with them (we still see eachother whenever possible as well) . It was only two weeks after my arrival there that the long Lebanese civil war broke out. I found myself in a family of women because my husband had left back to Saudi Arabia for work and to prepare our home for us.

It was surreal, it wasn't what I had bargained for when I left the United States to marry him. Even though I knew my new life was to be lived in the Middle East, I had not anticipated ending up in a war zone. During the days, for the most part, the city was open for business. But at night we would sit on the balcony, unable to sleep, and watch from afar (we were in Ramla Baida, a predominately Muslim area, directly on the beach across from Spinney's super-market) the rockets and bombs going off. This is not to say that we did not witness horrific things with our own eyes. One night Spinney's was bombed. Most of the residents of the apartment building immediately went to the basement. We did not however and chose to pull our mattresses into the inner hallway where we were safer. After a short while, my mother-in-law disappered back to her own bedroom. Out of fear I went to her saying "Yama, ta'ale, ta'ale" (Mom, come come) it's not safe in here"

She responded (sorry my Arabic has become quite rusty) "Only Allah knows our time Habibti, come, lay down next to me" which I did. Feeling even more safe next to her calming presence than in the protected hallway.

There were several more instances which we witnessed from our balcony, but the most frightening was one afternoon. A jeep sped into the parking lot of Spinney's with machine guns firing. Several people were mowed down before our eyes. The gun men were Maronite Christian, Falange. For as in the case of other countries not only in the Middle East but elsewhere, civil war and strife lies along religious lines, which has morphed into a political power struggle based on power, lack of power, prejudices, and "human reaction", either to maintain power, or exert when political power has been taken away.

It was however upon leaving Beirut for the first time in July that my own life was directly threatened as a Christian, and my family's life as Muslims. We were leaving to Bahrain suddenly because my mother-in-law's mother had died there. Leaving Beirut was not a simple task however. In order to reach the airport (which was intermittently opened and closed), one had to go through areas controlled by the differently religiously factioned militias. Our area was Muslim, but to reach the airport, we had to venture into the Falange militia controlled area. This meant crossing their checkpoint. Which is where our life-threatening experience occurred.

We were a car with five women, a six month old infant, and our male Muslim driver. I was the only Christian in the car, but needless to say I am American.

As we approached we were stopped. A teenaged Falange militia member approached our car and ordered our driver out of the car. At first there was conversation between the driver and the older militia members. But quickly it turned into something more sinister as voices raised. All this time, the teenager had his machine gun pointed in the car at us. The militia then demanded money from our driver. My mother-in-law reached into her purse and gave them all the money she had, several thousand dollars. The shouting was going on, the one gun pointed at us had become several. Our lives were in the hands of the Falange militia.

Then we were allowed to pass.

This is my story. My life was in jeopardy because of my Muslim family yet with them they were MY family. I would not have been spared, of this I am sure.

This is my experience which I call "The Car", a specific car in this case, yet we are all each and every one of us travelling in our own or different cars as circumstances throughout our lives place us. But there is a much larger "car" called humanity, of which we are all a part. My God tells me that we are here to protect eachother against bigotry which attacks our own brothers and sisters in humanity no matter what faith they belong to. My response to XXXXX reflected that.

This as I wrote is my own personal experience. Others who either directly become active in interfaith work themselves or are not activists may also hold the same unbigoted views. I was told to learn how to "discern" by my friend. Quite coincidentally just a couple of days after receiving these two unsettling emails a dear friend of mine called to invite me to a meeting group on discernment. He himself is a retired Methodist minister who for decades has been active in interfaith cooperation and peace and justice as have many people I have come to know and respect over the years. Have they not "discerned"? Yes they have, their God also has brought them to the same conclusion and their own choices. He just called again. I told him why his invitation to the group had come at such a point in time that meant so much to me and why. His response to me, "Robin, sometimes the term discernment can be used as a club by those who wish to attack you and all of us".

Yes indeed Bill, it can. It was used as a club. I have discerned, I have experienced, I have chosen. I have chosen the path of my God who tells me as I wrote in my response, "He" wishes more for his children to love eachother than to fight amongst themselves over what way they love him or don't, for he is ALL merciful, ALL kind, and calls upon each of us in our own lives to live kind lives ourselves"

In peace to all of my Muslim brothers and sisters, in peace to all my brothers and sisters of all faiths.

THE GOLDEN RULE: a call for unity

Matthew 5:9

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

"Sleepless in Gaza" First in the Series

On March 1st - this coming Monday-the premier episode of a 90 part series, "Sleepless in Gaza...and Jerusalem" will be launched on YouTube. It will be a video diary about four young Palestinian women, Muslim and Christian, two living in Gaza and two in Arab Jerusalem/West Bank. PINA TV Production camera crews will be covering Ashira Ramadan, a broadcast journalist based in Jerusalem; Ashira's friend in Gaza, the documentary film maker Nagham Mohanna; Donna Maria Mattas, a 17 year-old student at the Holy Family school in Gaza who dreams of growing up to be a journalist, and Ala' Khayo Mkari who works with Caritas in Jerusalem.
The intention of this series is neither rant nor rhetoric. It is rather an opportunity for all of us, who do not live in Gaza, occupied Arab Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank, to grasp how these four young Palestinian women live out their daily lives, precisely because their lives are stories we journalists were taught almost dismissively to think of as "human interest" and almost necessarily conflict driven.

How, as human beings, these four Palestinians can also experience moments of personal and community achievement, and the warmth of friends and family life that in real life is possible even in the most difficult circumstances of siege and occupation.

Each episode runs 26 minutes and will be shot in Jerusalem/West Bank and Gaza, edited and uploaded the same day. So you will find a new sequence six days a week at On Friday, we all rest.

A "Sleepless..." trailer should be up on YouTube by the time you receive this letter. We also have just set up "Sleepless in Gaza...and Jerusalem" on Facebook. It's got such a long URL that Facebookers should note-- just type in “Sleepless in Gaza...and Jerusalem” in the Facebook search and you will be home. We don't have our own domain website yet, but our partners PINA TV Productions' website will serve as such for the time being at (SOURCE)