Contested memories of Muhammad, the contested US-Afghan War, and the Detroit-bound atrocity
by Rabbi Arthur Waskow
I planned to send out today a letter about an extraordinary book I’ve been reading, Memories of Muhammad by Omid Safi, a progressive Muslim, published by HarperOne, the broadest trade publisher of intelligent books on religion.
And I will! - But how can I do that today of all days without addressing the attempted bombing of an airliner approaching Detroit, by a professed Muslim evidently acting in the name of Islam? ?
I intended to describe how Omid Safi looks unblinking at the passages of Quran that seem to encourage anger and even violence against Christians and Jews, as well as unfolding the over-all vision of Muhammad’s life as dedicated to human harmony in affirmation of the One God under varied names.
I intended to share with you how Safi shows that different Muslims carry into our own generation different “memories of Muhammad,” different interpretations of his life that influence the different Muslim communities even today. Even the complexities that the Sunni Muslims whom the US defines as enemies because they support the Pakistani Taliban are the bitter enemies of the Shiite leaders of Iran whom the US also defines as enemies.
And I intended to explore the meanings to Muslims and to all of us of Muharram, the lunar month that Muslims are celebrating right now, the “New Year month” of Muslim tradition, which commemorates the deparure of Muhammad, peace be upon him, from Mecca under threat from the city’s power elite, and his regrouping in Medina. From defeat, transformation. A theme surely known to Jews and Muslims in the dark/light festivals of Hanukkah and Christmas.
And I intended to explore the meanings of the holy day of Ashura (“tenth”), the tenth day of Muharram as Yom Kippur is the tenth day of the Jewish new year month of Tishri. Ashura has become the focus of the passionate Shiite commitment to social justice, and its origins are well described in Memories of Muhammad. This year it coincides with the end of “shiva,” the seven days of mourning for the just deceased great Shiite scholar who had become a bitter critic of the Iranian government and whose death has energized the Iranian street opposition.
I will come back to all these. But how can anyone address these concerns today without also addressing the atrocious attempt at a suicide bombing aboard an airliner approaching Detroit?
So let me share my response to that news, with a warning: it is filled with irony, even what some might call sarcasm. What ran through my mind was this:
Oh, thank goodness our troops in Afghanistan are making sure that no ultra-furious terrorists are attacking American airliners in the name of Islam!
Oh. The alleged terrorist is not an Afghan? How strange! He’s not even a Pakistani? Even stranger!
He’s the son of a wealthy and influential Nigerian family? Uhh.
How come the US Army is not bombing Lagos and occupying Nigeria? They even have lots of oil there, and insurgents who are demanding the oil profits be used for local economic development instead of going into super-rich American pockets and very rich Nigerian pockets. What could be a better reason for US Army intervention?
But who would the US Army be protecting? The very same rich Nigerian families who profit from the oil and whose kid (just one, so far as we know) is so infuriated by—- what??! - as to try to kill 300 people on an air flight to Detroit?
Oh yes. According to the US officials, this guy says he was trained in Yemen? Yemen? How come the US Army isn’t occupying Yemen? Oh, I see, we did bomb the hell out of (or into) a Yemeni town just a few days ago, allegedly in the hope of killing Al Qaeda operatives, but according to Yemenis on the scene, killing a lot of women and children. Maybe also some Al Qaeda operatives, and unfortunately those women and kids are just collateral damage.
Except maybe to Muslims all around the world and even some other people, they don’t quite seem like “collateral damage.” They may even seem like real live flesh-and-blood human beings.
And maybe some tiny proportion of those Muslims not only feel humiliation, not only feel rage, not only feel despair, but boil over into atrocious actions. Into mass murder and attempted mass murder.
Muslims who include an American major and a rich Nigerian kid (OK , 23-year-old enraged young man), and various British-born folks of Pakistani background. — Maybe to those folks, the Yemeni children and the Afghans and Pakistanis who died because they were going to a wedding and got killed from the sky by an American “drone” Predator who thought (if machines can think) they were going to a terrorist get-together, did not seem like “collateral damage” but like real live flesh-and-blood human beings.
Targeted by a majority-Christian nation headed by a devout Christian President who carefully explained upon receiving the Nobel Prize for Peace that his heroes were Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi but he was operating according to (Christian) “just-war” theory and that attacking Afghanistan was crucial to defending the US from terrorists who had originally come from Saudi Arabia and were trained in Hamburg (Germany) and in Florida (USA) and whose original leadership no longer operated inside Afghanistan but now in Pakistan, or maybe Yemen, or maybe Somalia.
Is anybody asking, Why did that American major become so consumed with rage as to murder his comrades? Why did a rich Nigerian kid become so consumed by rage as to try to kill 300 people on an American plane?
Is anybody asking, Does the US occupation force in Afghanistan prevent such atrocities, or multiply the number of people who want to try them?
Is anybody asking, Do we need a whole new approach to terrorism?
There is a saying that one definition of insanity is doing the same thing again and again with outcomes you don’t like, and doing the same thing still again while expecting something different to happen.
I will come back to Muhammad, Muharram, Ashura, and Omid Safi - but first I think I need to let my kishkes, my innards, settle from my frustration about the US approach to Afghanistan . And Pakistan. And Iraq. And Iran. And Yemen. And Palestine.
I hope I’ve used up the irony, the sarcasm. I too don’t want to get caught in my own repetition of the same old response, again and again, even if it isn’t working.
Tomorrow a deeper look.
Shalom, salaam —peace!