A Day of Worship not Politics – This Service Crossed the Line

FEB 2, 2004 3:00 P.M. A Day of Worship not Politics: This Service Crossed the Line. by M. Zuhdi Jasser Mixed feelings with many questions. This is the only way to describe my feelings after attending the Valley-wide Muslim prayer service for our holiest day of the year on Sunday morning. Muslims around the world celebrated on Sunday the 10th day of the 12th lunar month of the Islamic calendar, honoring the day in which the Prophet Abraham came near to sacrificing his son at the command of God and instead sacrificed a ram. Each year over two million Muslims at this time also finish our faith’s most spiritual pilgrimage or ‘Hajj’ after two weeks of prayer and renewal in Medina and Mecca. Yesterday’s Muslim prayer service held at Sun Angel’s Stadium in Tempe and attended by some 5,000 Valley Muslims was the first time in our history that a sitting Arizona governor attended such a prayer service. Governor Napolitano certainly could not have been more gracious, respectful, and honoring of the diversity represented by the Muslim population in the Valley. In fact, after the sermon from an Arizona Imam, Omar Shaheen, selected by the Valley mosque leadership, the governor spoke before the Muslim crowd wearing a hijab or female head scarf out of respect to the customs of the Muslim faith during prayer. She continues to live up to the motto of her administration, “many lands, many people, many faiths, one Arizona.” Unfortunately I left the service with far more questions than I had when I arrived. Did my family and I get the spiritual guidance we came seeking in the spirit of the exemplary piety of the Prophet Abraham signified by the holiday? Or were we exploited by the politics of the day? Was I a victim of the opportunity in front of the media and the governor to make long overdue statements on Islam and peace followed by opportunistic opinions on foreign policy as I sat captively? Where was my Islamic faith’s deep spiritual message that when read through the Koran and the traditions of the Prophet free of politics energizes the core of my being? Was I a victim of mutual pandering between a well-intended governor and a well-intended Muslim leadership at the expense of my faith’s most holy day? Just because the political opportunity presents itself, does that make it mutually appropriate? The Imam actually spoke of the “ends never justifying the means.” Aside from my fear over to what “ends” he was referring, was that not in fact what the exploitation of the prayers for politics accomplishes in a very rare opportunity in front of the largest annual gathering of Muslims in the Valley? Why did many Muslims find this a natural and momentous development of recognition for the Muslim community, while I came away fearful for the continued fall down the slippery slope of the bridge across religion and politics for Muslims and for America? Only just a few days ago, I blogged here about Rep. Quelland’s exploitation of the opening prayer in the State House that crossed similar lines. Only that time the line crossed was political. Has the governor ever given a speech to the Christian faithful at Christmas Day services, Easter Day services or Jewish Yom Kippur services in the name of old fashioned pandering within their houses of worship as they seek renewal and atonement? Yet, why was this happening in a Muslim service? Why would the Muslim leadership not facilitate a separate, clearly political, gathering of Muslims (and call it a PAC) with the intention of political rallying rather? Why surprise worshipers who came to escape the stress of this world with religious cheers for an elected official? Our houses of worship are to be the house of God that frees our soul in the absence of politics, free from the political cheering and jeering whether conservative or liberal or Republican or Democrat. While the governor’s words were well received, and meaningful, another setting outside a place of worship would have been far more appropriate. As for Imam Shaheen’s words, he presented a good effort at trying to clearly define the peaceful nature of Islam, but in predictable fashion left it marred by the not-so-subtle exploitative messages about foreign policy rather than a Valley wide prayer on ‘Eid al-Adha’ (the Holiday of the Sacrifice). Last I checked, no one ever stopped an Imam like Shaheen from calling a separate press conference on another day and inviting politicians and interested Muslims to listen to him speak on Palestinian politics to an expecting group. While as a Muslim I felt acknowledged by the governor, I left yearning for the time I came to pray with my family in communal worship and to God for the sake of worship to allow my soul to breathe. Instead I seemed to have participated in a Muslim-governmental P.R. campaign. While yesterday signaled a landmark step forward in the acknowledgement of the Muslim population by our state’s leadership, the blurring of the line between religion and politics violates a core principle of Islamic spirituality and America. It left me wondering and with mixed feelings. Dr. Jasser’s original column can be found online at the Arizona Republic. —- —- — — — Chris Thomas responds: FEB 3, 2004 9:00 AM Janet’s Gracious Speech: Straining to Blur On Sunday, a Muslim day of celebration known as the Eid-ul-Adha, or Festival of Sacrifice, two things happened. One is that Iraqi terrorists killed 67 people by exploding two bombs during a party in the territory of our reliable Kurdish allies in northern Iraq. The second is that Gov. Janet Napolitano gave a “gracious and respectful” speech, while wearing a head scarf, to a Muslim congregation of 5,000 at Sun Angel Stadium. Naturally, my partisan Republican colleague Zuhdi Jasser ignores the former and criticizes the latter. He’s worried that the speech, while “well-intended,” represented a “blurring of the line between religion and politics.” Zuhdi, my friend, you’re working too hard to see the blurring. The Bush administration’s man in charge of finding Osama bin Laden and wooing moderate Muslims remains evangelical Gen. Jerry Boykin, who thinks your God is an “idol” that his God can beat the crap out of. Perhaps He can, but it’s ill-advised to gloat in these matters. The president calls for spending $1.5 billion of taxpayer money to reinforce the sanctity of Christian marriage. That’s the same administration that has never proposed a balanced budget, and that has vowed to amend the Constitution to enforce dominant social morality. Your prior posts suggest to me that you are a fiscally conservative civil libertarian who believes in religious diversity. So why are you stretching so hard to find fault with a smart, pragmatic, and open-minded governor, and to support a free-spending, moralist president? Chris Thomas’ response can also be found at the Arizona Republic at this link. — — — — FEB 3, 2004 “Our Governor Was Exploited: Politics should never have been part of the Prayer Service” – M. Zuhdi Jasser Chris, my friend, I appreciate your thoughts on my commentary regarding the governor and a Muslim holy day, but you missed the entire point of my comments. Let me articulate them more clearly. In fact, the real blame for exploitation of my faith’s holiest day of prayer on Sunday for political gains lies squarely on the organizers of the event who are the Valley Muslims in a position to bring her into such a spiritual gathering. The governor was certainly invited. I am sure she and her staff found significant problems either way in trying to accept or refuse the invitation. In my opinion, she was only a victim since she attended in what was a very ecumenical sense of bridge-building. Despite an invitation, my sense is that the governor would probably want to avoid giving a Christmas day address from the pulpit during Christmas Day mass or during Yom Kippur services. But that is only due to her familiarity with the Christian and Jewish traditions and understanding of the significance of those days theologically. During our Islamic services she was certainly relying upon the guidance she took from the Muslim organizers of the event, which, by the way, was only billed as a Muslim holy day prayer service. Most certainly Chris, the Muslims advising the governor are responsible, and the Muslim community needs to provide greater political diversity in its input into roles for the governor and the appropriate times and places for the governor’s bridge-building efforts. Your depiction of my criticism as partisan is completely fatuous, for it applies across the political spectrum and is ingrained in the principles of our founding fathers and the secular principles of the Abrahamic faiths. Chris, you conveniently ignore my criticism of Rep. Quelland here, and my prior suggestion to President Bush to fire General Boykin. Most importantly Chris, your juxtapositioning of comments on Iraqi terrorism on our sons and daughters in war within this discussion of Valley Muslims is beyond inappropriate, in fact, careless. And it reflects on your ignorance of the principles of Islam. You will find no stronger critic than me of the so-called “Islamic” terrorists that exploit religion for criminal activity and political gains. You will not find a more vocal critic than me of the hijacking of the Islamic religion by extremists who cowardly kill noncombatants and soldiers of war in cowardly anti-Islamic asymmetric warfare. I would hope that in the future you avoid the en vogue propagandistic techniques of attacking a whole religion or the opinion of an individual Muslim based upon the malignant actions of a fanatical minority. I do hope that some day, the advisors to the governor and others in our governmental and party leadership structure will become savvy enough on the religion of Islam to understand that at times their presence will be exploited by various political factions within a faith to participate in the name of political expediency in ways that may be quite contradictory to the spirituality of the faith and the separation of religion and politics. At my expense, Chris, you deflect the discussion into partisanship, when in fact I was taking a step forward which so many complain is never done by moderate Muslims in the public setting. There is no “working too hard to see the blurring” here. Somehow, Islam seems to be given different standards from the other faiths. I simply asked why? I do believe that if you ask the governor about the content of the sermon given prior to her speech, you will find some significant disapproval in the content and the presentation. Not only was the audience exploited in coming to what was billed only as a prayer service for “Eid al-Adha,” but ended up in a state rally of sorts from an unsuspecting audience. But she was also exploited as a governor in listening to a “political” sermon with which I am sure she would have had some political difficulties. Again, the point here is that the blind mixing of religion and politics will always create divisiveness most essentially within the soul – never-mind all of the partisan issues you raised. I, and perhaps, many other like-minded Muslims, while in no way holding the governor responsible, felt exploited on Sunday by those who brought her into this most holy Muslim prayer service. As a final comment, I want to express my deep feeling as a Muslim of gratefulness for all of the inclusive efforts of the governor in giving her valuable time and her most valuable words to the Muslim community. It is obvious that my criticism was not directed at her or at the gracefulness she has demonstrated. — — — — FEB 3, 2004 11:00 PM Chris Thomas responds: Pandering to Christians: All Faiths Suffer their fanatics Common wisdom holds that you shouldn’t talk about either politics or religion among polite company. My thoughtful colleague Zuhdi Jasser and I find ourselves in the unfortunate situation of debating both simultaneously. Unsurprisingly, it appears that we’ve both misunderstood each other. Rightly or wrongly, I interpreted my colleague’s initial post as a from-left-field criticism of Gov. Janet Napolitano for pandering to Muslim voters by giving a speech that was, by all accounts, gracious and inclusive. As best I could tell, Zuhdi felt offended by the blurring of religion and politics. My inarticulate response apparently convinced my colleague that I was demonizing Islam. I was, in fact, attempting to note the incongruity of a Muslim conservative finding fault with a centrist Democrat’s effort to reach out to a population that is under political attack, largely by evangelical conservatives. I hadn’t noticed a flood of opportunistic politicians jumping on the pro-Islam bandwagon. Since I apparently didn’t do a very good job last time, let me try again. First, any idiot – even me – recognizes that one should not condemn an entire faith based upon the worst behavior of those who claim to be adherents. As someone who has spent much time in the Middle East – and, yes, who has many Muslim friends – I would no more define Islam by the actions of al-Qaida than I would define Christianity by the actions of abortion clinic bomber Eric Rudolph. Having heard the call of the muezzin during both Ramadan and the Eid, I hope I’m more attuned than most white-bread Methodists to understand the power and grace of Islam. All religions, alas, have to answer occasionally for the “malignant actions of a fanatical minority.” Second, the politicization of religion is, as my colleague notes, notes a serious problem in American democracy. The least of our problems, however, is political cultivation of Muslims. The biggest problem is political pandering to my dominant religion, Christianity. Zuhdi, my friend, there is indeed a party that is attempting to exploit religion for political advantage. But those being exploited are evangelical Christians, not Muslims, and those doing the exploiting are more often than not your fellow Republicans. That’s the blurring line of separation between church and state that ought to concern both of us. A gracious speech by a kind-hearted centrist governor is the least of your worries. Chris’ response can be found online at the Arizona Republic at this link. — — — — — FEB 4, 2004 3:00 P.M. Zuhdi Jasser comments: Oxygen for Radical Islam’s Fire: Separating church and state denies fuel to the fanatics Chris, we have almost reached agreement. I appreciate your last comments. If there is to be an effective and lasting change, however, in the influence upon the Republican party of the Pat Robertson’s and Franklin Grahams, who are rabidly anti-Muslim, this is certainly most effectively done by moderate Republicans, despite the open arms of centrist Democrats. Any Democrat who is quick to rush to the salvation (sorry for the pun) of disenfranchised conservative Muslims, who generally share very few political ideologies with the left save civil liberty issues, seems somewhat opportunistic. While in this election cycle, it certainly appears the Muslim vote is heading for a grand fickle pendulum swing from the right in 2000 to the left in 2004. And while Republican handlers are not entirely innocent, the lack of political engagement by Muslims within the Republican party has allowed them to become dispensable. However, again, the blame here lies squarely upon conservative Muslim activists who have abandoned their party. They’ve done so without a grounding in conservative principles and without the strength to expose the Christian right from within the party for its own violation of the most central of conservative philosophies – “the smaller the government the better.” This is true whether in regards to taxation, sch
ol choice, or the legislating of morals. But the disenfranchisement of Muslims from the right was a topic I addressed in a prior blog. The subject for this debate remains reform among Muslims and the role of the discipline of the separation of religion and politics. Regardless of where my political stances are, for the purposes of this discussion, I am a moderate conservative Muslim (in terms of religion) who believes the U.S. Constitution and American principles of separation of religion and politics are consistent with the essence and the spirit of the faith I practice. The war on terror has many fronts and one of those which most continue to discuss as being essential is the reformation of Muslim activism and practice toward a direction which honors and highlights the separation of religion and politics. For, until that explicitly happens, and as long as mosques and organized Muslim faith-based organizations serve as venues of politics and governmental activism, they will serve as cover for radicals attempting to carry the torch of religion into the halls of politics and governmental policy. No one is arguing that some aspects of this discussion may apply to Christianity. I will leave that to the Christian faithful to straighten out for me. However, in the setting of the most holy Islamic day of the year, I am applying it strictly to Muslims. As you recall, since al-Qaida declared war on America in 1998, the biggest threat to the safety of Americans has been the targeting of civilians around the world by their ilk who exploit the religion of Islam for political gains. Thus, let us set aside partisan politics for a moment. You will see that from my perspective as an American Muslim, the issue of separation of religion and state in 2004 among Muslims is relatively novel in a mostly immigrant population. But while somewhat novel, it runs at the essence of allowing the free practice of my faith apart from the political coercion of others while also being vital to the war on terror. The blurring of the line between religion and politics is the oxygen for the fire of the Islamists that exploit the religion of Islam for political ends. There certainly may not be any Islamists among the Muslim population of the Valley. But, from where I sit as a concerned American, a faithful practicing Muslim, and a former U.S. Navy officer, eliminating havens for those who may be our enemies is a high priority. The facilitation of the strict separation of religion and politics among Muslims is not only a part of the faith, a faith with no clergy or hierarchy, but will be a step towards marginalization of the radicals. Dr. Jasser’s comments could be found online at this link at the Arizona Republic.

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