The (bus) signs of the times

A group wanted to advertise. They went to the Chicago Transit Authority and bought some ads. The ads began to appear on buses. None of this was in itself unusual.

What was unusual, indeed jolting, was the content of the ads. As Manya Brachear reported in a Nov. 15 Chicago Tribune article:

The controversial ads unveiled on the back of 10 CTA buses Wednesday [Nov. 14] read, “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man.” They conclude with the words, “Support Copts. Defeat Jihad,” referring to friction between Muslims and Coptic Christians in Egypt.

Within hours of the buses’ first runs, messages appeared on Facebook and Twitter denouncing the campaign. Many said that degrading a spiritual tenet of Islam — one that refers to a Muslim’s personal quest to become a better person — amounts to hate speech.

Defeat jihad. Oppose the savages.

The ads were contracted for four weeks. They are sponsored by something called the American Freedom Defense Initiative. When New York and Washington, D.C. rejected the ads as too offensive for their public transit systems, AFDI sued on First Amendment grounds and won. Chicago felt bound by this legal precedent, according to the Tribune.

I have only seen the signs on Facebook; I typically ride the El and not the buses. But what I saw was sufficient to keep me devoted to the El for the expected four-week duration. As it is, I already get agitated over the endless succession of ads for Zipcar and for-profit massage schools.

Beyond that, the situation is making me reflect anew on something else, the U.S. bishops’ “religious freedom” campaign that took up so much of this year. To me, these bus ads, which I personally consider hate speech, have really put the bishops into unflattering perspective.

As many of us remember, the bishops went on and on about how marriage equality and the HHS-required coverage of birth control presaged an era of totalitarianism on the march. To oppose these items at the ballot box was to defend religious freedom, and to defend religious freedom was the great drama of this American hour. There was a whole “Fortnight for Freedom” devoted to it.

Meanwhile, the administration offered to shift birth control costs directly onto the insurance companies when religious employers frowned. Sexually active Catholics were already using birth control by a runaway majority. Most American Catholics supported gay rights. The “Fortnight” never captured the imagination the way the “Nuns On The Bus” did. And, at the finale, the Catholic vote tipped toward the President. The relationship between rhetoric and reality remained surreal to the end: we just didn’t feel as un-free as we were told we were.

My parish had signs on its lawn during October, asking passersby to “Vote For Religious Freedom.” Immediately after the election, I took a walk around the neighborhood and found that one sign had disappeared and the other was run over in the street, smudged with fall leaves, abandoned to the whistling mists and winds of the November midnight. It seemed eerily appropriate. “Religious freedom” was a term so inopportunely bruited about that much of its power had drained away.

We need to remember that power, that real power. So step back. Imagine.

Imagine you are the first or second generation of your family on these shores. Imagine not being able to assume you can walk down a few streets, or drive a few miles, and readily find a house of worship. Imagine not being able to assume that, if people ask you what your religion is and you tell them, that they will more or less understand.

Imagine that you likely, though by no means certainly, stand out because of your skin color or perhaps because of items of your clothing. Imagine that you, for more than a decade now, have been popularly associated with wars and rumors of wars.

Now stand and wait for the bus. Realize, as you are boarding and paying the fare, that the bus has a big ad on it. See how the ad bears the words “savage” and “jihad.” Know that what these words really mean is “you.”

And realize after all this that the struggle to live one’s faith, to live it unburdened by either fear or apology, is indeed meaningfully raging in America. But realize also that the heart of this struggle is not where they told you it was. Realize that we need to reclaim the language of religious freedom, that others depend on us to reclaim it.

A Muslim Woman in the Pews

As a college student I often slipped into the refuge of the campus’s large Mission church for a few moments of quiet during the middle of the school day. After entering the sanctuary through the rear doors on one particular occasion, I saw a Muslim woman in hijab sitting in one of the distant pews near the front altar. “That’s great,” I thought to myself, “I am glad that people of all faiths feel welcome in the space.”  Although it was a Catholic university, it was not uncommon to encounter students of various faith traditions, especially Muslim students. Furthermore, the school’s location in California’s Silicon Valley meant that the communities around the school were rich with religious diversity.  Perhaps this was a local community member who slipped in the Mission on a mid-day walk.

As I walked further into the church, however, I realized that this was not a veiled Muslim woman, but rather a rosary-praying Catholic wearing a mantilla, a type of veiling worn by the women of my faith during the pre-Vatican II era when the institution required us to cover our heads. While my initial assumption about the faith of this woman made sense in context–veiled Muslim students heavily out-weighed the mantilla-wearing Catholic population at the university–I was embarrassed. My reaction suddenly seemed incredibly shallow.   Continue reading

Attributes of God

I want to cross myself during the basmalla. Bismillah ir-Rahman ir-Raheem. In the name of God, most Gracious, most Merciful.  It is not an attempt to discredit Islam.  But no, no – I think I discovered the trinity there, during the basmalla.  Bismillah ir-Rahman ir-Raheem.

The greatest sin in Islam is shirk, which is attributing partners to God.  Shirk can be anything that puts something on the same level as God.  Shirk can be anything from money to the trinity to Jesus Christ as the Only Begotten Son of God.  How can the basmalla be Trinitarian….o.k. it’s not Trinitarian in the traditional Christian sense of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit.  So put that out of your minds now!  I mean that the Trinity is only One God, too — in the way that Islam is — despite the tricky way that Christianity puts it into pieces.  And I discover the God I grew up with, One God, in the basmalla.

A lot I know about Islam boils down to acting on intention.  It is important to take time to make the intention and not rush through the prayer.  The sign of the cross, in the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, is about intention.

How can you do Islam when Islam and Christianity have differing views on Jesus? And what about the trinity?

My idea of the trinity was instilled in me by priests.  I remember priests telling me that Jesus is close to God like all of us are close to God.  Jesus is God like all of you are God.  In a sense, it means that all humans are divine.  That’s a tricky thing to say, especially in the context of Islam.  The priests didn’t mean that all humans are God, just that all humans have the Divine spark within us.

I didn’t grow up praying directly to Jesus and seeing Jesus as a savior.  If anything, I grew up on Mary.  The priests I knew didn’t talk about Jesus as God’s Only Son, as if it’s like the Rabbi’s son in Fiddler on the Roof – there is only one Rabbi and he has only one son. I didn’t grow up with the trinity being three different Gods.  God doesn’t beget, nor is God begotten.  There isn’t a Mrs. God that God had sex with to make Jesus.  Jesus isn’t God’s only son.  We’re all creatures of God.

Bismillah ir-Rahman ir-Raheem.

Many Christians see the trinity they way I heard it summed up by an Eastern Orthodox theologian; Jesus and the Holy Spirit are the left hand and the right hand of God.

To put it in line with Islamic theology, the Trinity are the attributes of God that fold into the Essence.  I don’t mean that Jesus himself is an attribute, but that Jesus’ divinity is like al-wajid (The Finder).  Jesus’ attributes are like something existing before time, something transplanted into Jesus.  Something transplanted into all of us, which we can all aspire to. Jesus’ attributes are kind of like fana (death before death); the kind of closeness to the Essence of God many of us try to procure.  This metaphysical closeness of Jesus to God, the bida (innovation) involved in Jesus’ fana. This energy is involved in that kind of swooning to God; the closeness of the Divine Proximity to Jesus; and the closeness of the Essence of God to us if we open ourselves up.

This idea of trinity was not instilled in me by Muslims, but at Church – by the priest telling us to look around and see God within the hearts of the believers.  “Jesus isn’t in Church, Jesus is in everyone you meet,” he would say.  Jesus is not God any more than any of us are God.  I want to cross myself at the basmalla because Most Gracious, Most Merciful are attributes of God, much like the Christian trinity.  It all blends into one God.  Jesus’ fana and the Holy Spirit are just attributes of God.  Bismillah ir-Rahman ir-Raheem.

Merciful Father….

“You know the movie starring Anonio Banderas — The Thirteenth Warrior?  It’s a complete gore-fest,” my teacher says.  “But in between the gore Antonio gets down on his knees and says ‘Merciful Father….'”

“He’s Catholic, right?”  I say. My teacher puts his hand up.

“No, he’s Muslim.  So Antonio says this prayer:

I have squandered my days with plans of many things.
This was not among them. But at this moment, I beg only, to live the next few minutes well. For all we ought to have thought and have not thought… All we ought to have said and have not said. All we ought to have done and have not done. I pray thee, God for forgiveness.”

And he’s not Catholic?  That’s so Catholic!” I say.

“Dude, Muslims ask forgiveness for sins of omission and commission all the time.”

And I feel like I discovered la ilaha illa allah Muhammadar rasul Allah inside that church with the red stained glass shining on the statue of St. Therese.

Discounting the complete orientalism of the movie, of course.

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Keeping Catholicism

Recently, I was editing a memoir by a woman who had been raised a religious Christian but married a Muslim and converted to Islam as an adult. Embedded deep into her conversion story was the pain she’d suffered at the hands of her Church, which had shunned her family in a time of need. Although disillusioned with Christianity, her longing for God remained. When she fell in love with a Muslim, she saw that same thirst for God in his own faith, and they joined their faiths and their lives.

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