Saturday, April 02, 2011

Ugly Americanism

On Friday, the news reported that seven workers of the United Nations were killed in Afghanistan when a group of angry extremist Muslims reacted to news that Terry Jones had burned a Qur'an on March 21st after a phony trial that charged the sacred text of Muslims for being guilty of genocide and other atrocities. The punishment was left up to his crazy band of fundamentalist Christian followers: firing squad, hanging, or burning. They chose burning, which they did inside the church that was made up to look like a courtroom. This was the same pastor who had threatened to burn the Qur'an last September 11th until he had a "change of heart" after many VIPs called on him to back off (this list of distinguished people included the President of the United States, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, General Petraeus, and if I'm not mistaken, even the Pope).

I don't recall the news ever reporting what caused him to back off. Maybe it was death threats or a financial incentives. But apparently, that urge was not extinguished. He finally had to scratch that itch. The picture above is not the pastor Terry Jones, who looks like a holdover of the 19th century. I have no idea who that guy is, as I found it in a Google Image search. If the hateful person in the picture comes across this blog and sees his picture, well, good. You're the poster boy for "ugly Americanism." Congrats! You deserve it for your ignorance.

This incident caused several debates on a few friends Facebook walls. As expected, the pot-smoking philosopher church member returned to the same rants he argued last September when the debates were going on various Facebook walls. While I do agree that a fully self-actualized human being would not react to another person's provocation, how many humans on this planet are that mentally and spiritually advanced to rise above it all? We live in the real world, with imperfect people and violent people and irrational people. Knowing what we know, the question becomes, why would anyone do such a thing knowing full well what the likely response will be? It doesn't take a genius to figure out that burning the most sacred text of the Muslim faith would incite violence somewhere in the world. There are, after all, 1.5 BILLION Muslims!! The pastor knew exactly what he was doing and why he was doing it. It sickens me that people think he is a man of God. His actions prove that he knows nothing about God or Jesus. He's a fraud trying to make a name for himself in the worst possible way.

On another Facebook wall, I was stunned that a guy I served with on the USS Orion (who is a major atheist activist) was defending the preacher man. Imagine that strange turn of events!!! A die hard atheist was defending the right of a fundamentalist Christian preacher to burn the Qur'an as part of his First Amendment free speech rights. He had also supported the recent Supreme Court decision regarding the right of the Westboro Baptist Church to protest military funerals. For me, I've always been a big supporter of the First Amendment. As a writer, why wouldn't I be? However, I also know the history and what was taught in my political science classes. The purpose behind the First Amendment was to protect individuals and the press from government censorship and possible reprisals. Before that Amendment was passed, there was a history in other countries where writers could be imprisoned or killed for criticizing the leader of the country. The First Amendment liberated us from that tyranny. As it should. The Amendment proves that our government is far stronger than all the words that have been published criticizing various politicians and policies over the centuries. This made our country better.

The First Amendment was not designed to protect pornography or hate speech, though it does because of our strongly ingrained culture of free speech rights at all cost. Even attempts to pass a flag burning amendment, making such an act illegal, has been defeated each time Republicans bring it up for a vote. To many, the sight of a burning American flag raises thoughts of violence. For me, it doesn't. Its just a piece of cloth to me. Pretty and sacred in some contexts, but not my "idol" that is above being made into a provocative image in a protest. On the Supreme Court ruling, I would have restricted the right of protestors at military funerals. Its no loss to a person's freedom if they can't protest at a funeral. Decency applies here. Families have a right to hold a funeral for a loved one without the ugliness of protestors present. The Westboro Baptist Church can protest anytime they want, and they do. I just wouldn't grant them the right to protest at funerals, because I believe that sacred spaces should be respected. But, such exceptions are considered "a slippery slope" that could lead to more exceptions down the line. However, who are we kidding? The Supreme Court ruled in Bush v. Gore in 2000 that the ruling in that case only applied for that specific time and place. It was to have no precedence in future situations. Why can one Supreme Court ruling have a special exception, but not another case? Hypocrites!

In my lengthy debates with these atheists who side with the right of Terry Jones to burn a Qur'an, I realized the consistency in how they argue and why I don't have a natural affinity for atheists. They are dismissive of all religions and anything that has a "sacred" label attached. They don't care that such an act would be offensive to a large group of people and how there are real consequences to such actions. Certainly, those who have committed the murder deserve to be caught and punished. There's no argument there. The murders can't use the excuse that a man burning a book in America "made" them kill. I'm not arguing that point.

The point I kept reiterating to these dense atheists is that JUST BECAUSE WE HAVE THE RIGHT TO DO WHATEVER WE WANT, DOESN'T MEAN WE SHOULD!!! This is where our worldview clashes because an atheist is all about EGO. As I learned from the church member atheist, its all about self. No one has the right to infringe on his rights. He is sovereign. Yet we don't live in isolation. Driving a car means you are buying gasoline that came from the Middle East, where we have troops deployed to safeguard the refineries and sailors to safeguard the shipping lanes. Driving on the roads means that you're benefiting from government planning and all those construction road workers who laid asphalt in the hot summer months. We are connected in a world growing smaller and smaller. We are also not ignorant, so we know that there are huge cultural differences between the ideas that Arabs in the Middle East have about society versus how we view society. In the Middle East, only Israel has a democracy. The others are autocratic regimes headed by rulers and dictators who have held power for decades and ruled with an iron fist. Religion and culture are intertwined. They don't have the freedom of speech that we do. They might be allowed to burn the U.S. flag and shout "Death to America!" but they'd be arrested and tortured if they burned their own country's flag and shouted "Death..." to whoever their leader is.

Because our society is further advanced than all of the countries of the Middle East, we bear a greater responsibility towards understanding. We have to be the bigger people, making efforts to reach out in peace and showing respect for their culture and beliefs. Atheists don't want to do this because they HATE religion. ALL RELIGION. In their minds, anyone who has a spiritual view of the world is delusional and they often say so (such as one of my best friend's brother who can be counted on to make the occasional anti-spiritual remark on my Facebook wall). They don't care if Muslims are insulted and react in anger, because in their minds, "its just a damn book" that doesn't mean anything. WRONG! Doesn't mean anything to them! Out of all the religions out there, Muslims seem to take their religion more seriously than any other religion does. They also happen to be in their "Middle Ages" and Christianity went through that same period of theocratic oppression. I believe that religions, like people and countries, also have their evolutionary process. Buddhism has 500 years on Christianity, which seems to explain why it is far more tolerant and peaceful than Christianity. If Islam is viewed as a violent religion, its because they haven't gone through their own Age of Enlightenment the way western Christian societies did in Europe in the 1700-1800s. Give Islam time to evolve into a more peaceful religion when Muslims begin to question the restrictions and dogmas of their faith. But it is not up to us, Christians or atheists to change Islam. We have no stake in this religion.

One frustration I had in the debate with atheists is that I could not get them to understand the implication of this idea: Just because you have the right to do something does not mean that you should do it. Part of being a spiritually mature person is understanding how your actions affect other people. Its is juvenile to push people's buttons deliberately in order to provoke a response. People do this all the time with each other. Some view it as fun to rile people up, because they get a sense of power or satisfaction from doing so. But is this the right thing to do? If you knew in advance that your burning of a book that Muslims held sacred would likely incite radical Muslims to retaliate violently on convenient scapegoats, are you culpable or complicit? I would think in a spiritual sense, yes you are. What is authentic spirituality if not for every action produces equal reactions, and first we create the experience before we experience the creation? Actions have spiritual consequences because that is the Law of Karma. But of course, atheists don't believe in such concepts. To an atheist, this life is all we have, so it pays to be selfish and not consider how our actions affect other people, because at the end of our lives, its over. That's it. We have no karmic debt to pay, nor life review to endure.

Its dishonest to claim that burning the Qur'an would be without consequence. Muslims have a concept called "jihad" which requires Muslims to defend Allah from blasphemy by infidels. This may be a joke to us, but its a real concept to Muslims who grew up with it. And since it is often difficult for people to see past their own religious biases, one of the most common things I've heard people say when one makes a statement that some consider "blasphemy" in Christianity is that God will send lightning bolts to strike the blasphemer down. Whether this is said in jest or seriousness depends on the person, but the concept is understood in our culture. When Christians call themselves "God-fearing", they are expressing a view that fearing God's wrath is no laughing matter. So, if we can't see the similarities between the Muslim's serious devotion to Allah and the Christian's sense of being "God-fearing", then the situation truly is hopeless.

As I tried to explain to the atheists, showing respect to another person who has a different belief system than us is not a sign of weakness. It actually goes a long way. I know this for a fact because my life bears testimony to it. As a young man in Europe, I disarmed so many European or Arab or African's expectation of what an American is. One of my greatest joys in life is being the first American any foreigner will meet because I know that I will leave them with the most positive impression of what an American is. I show an interest in their culture, customs, religion, language, or history. I'm respectful of their traditions. In Morocco, I sat on my left hand during an entire meal so I wouldn't accidentally use it. When I mentioned this in the debate, the obnoxious atheist said that I was submitting to the Arabs and I should have ate with my left hand and when people stared, to tell them "Mind your own fucking business!" Yikes!!! No wonder why people hate atheists so much. They truly are a hopelessly egotistical and selfish lot. Well, not all of them...just the ones arguing on Facebook!

I tried telling them that in my mom's Thai culture, the top of the head is considered sacred (our divine connection to God is connected from the crown of our head) so it is very rude to touch someone's hair and especially the top of the head. One must also make sure that they are never taller than any Buddha statue in whatever room they happen to see such a statue. Also, the bottom of the feet is considered dirty (very common in the old world, which is why that Iraqi journalist threw his shoes at President Bush--it was meant to be the worst insult) so it is considered rude if you happen to show someone the bottom of your feet. We don't have these customs in the U.S., so it would appear silly to us that people get upset if someone violates these cultural customs. Yet we have our own customs that others might find odd but we don't question (such as not wearing white pants after Labour Day in the South).

My plea for being respectful of Muslims fell on deaf ears. In the mind of atheists, they are right because American freedom of speech overpowers any other cultural custom. However, it is no loss of freedom to subvert your own ego and meet a person of a different culture more than halfway by being respectful of their customs. This is how you gain friends and allies. Its a reason why I get along better with foreigners than I do with my fellow Americans. This has been the way all my life. I know what its like to be viewed as an outsider or a "threat" to societal norms (due to racial diversity in a predominantly black and white America). One of my favourite foreign experiences was the three hours I had spent in Alexandria, Egypt. A guide had attached himself to me, to help me shop. He took me from store to store, based on what I wanted to buy. My list impressed the Egyptians that I bought from. I wanted to buy sandals, a robe, a headdress, and a prayer carpet (I still have the headdress and prayer carpet). After I made my purchases, the Egyptian asked if I was Muslim. I said "no", which must have baffled him as to why I wanted one. I just did. I use it sometimes when I feel a special prayer is necessary. Who knows how he came away from that experience. Perhaps he told his family and friends about this crazy young American guy who bought all the Arab stuff. I wasn't flaunting my American culture, I was interested in what they had to offer.

My point is that we have nothing to lose by reaching out to one another, respecting what the other holds sacred, even if we don't share their view. As long as the belief doesn't violate people (such as female genital mutilation or stoning people to death), we have much to learn from one another. We can't do that if we are fanning the flames of hatred by doing things we know that will provoke a violent response somewhere in the world. Giving a paranoid schizophrenic a gun and egging him on is the same thing. You might not have pulled the trigger, but you incited it so you bear some responsibility. Let's transcend this craziness and be bigger than we are. That's the only way our world is going to change...when enough people decide to transcend our base, egotistical need to manipulate other people for whatever ulterior purposes. Transcendence leads to wisdom.

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