Jihad on the D Train

Photo by REUTERS/Brendan Mcdermid

I’d like to say it’s been a quiet week in my hometown, as Garrison Keillor recites at the beginning of his monologues on public radio’s A Prairie Home Companion. But I’m never able to say that, because I’m not from Lake Wobegon. I’m a New Yorker by birth and by attitude, though not by residence over the past nearly three decades.

The commotion in recent days has been over an ad posted in subway stations that equates the Islamic principle of jihad with savagery. “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man,” says the ad, sponsored by a pro-Israel citizens group. “Support Israel. Defeat Jihad.”

Let’s skip over the part where I acknowledge that people have a right to express their opinions. And let’s skate over the place where I hold that civilized people try to build bridges of understanding between religious traditions. They don’t dynamite them.

What should be noted is that the ad is also theologically untrue. Maybe that’s beside the point, but it communicates that jihad is essentially a principle of bloodletting. That’s like saying the Trinity or the Chosen People are vile notions, because some fundamentalist Christians and right-wing Israeli settlers, respectively, are doing odious things in the name of those beliefs. I wouldn’t expect to look up and see that message on a cardboard poster while riding the D train into Brooklyn.

Jihad is usually taken to mean “holy war” in the West and, fair to say, in the violent precincts of Muslim extremism. But in the vast reaches of Islam, it refers primarily to a different kind of struggle—to improve our world and, first of all, ourselves.

Nearly a year after the atrocities of September 11, 2001, I had a conversation about this with University of Virginia religion scholar Abdulaziz Sachedina, who had just written a book titled The Islamic Roots of Democratic Pluralism. He pointed out that Mohammed spoke of an “inner jihad,” a struggle against one’s baser instincts. In fact, Mohammed called this the “greater jihad,” as distinct from the “lesser jihad” of struggle against external enemies.

Turns out that for those Muslims who don’t point their guns randomly at infidels (in other words, nearly all of them), jihad may have less to do with war than with reconciliation. “The ability to forgive requires a jihad against one’s anger and resentment in order to restore one’s spiritual station by participating in the divine attribute of forgiveness,” Sachedina wrote in his book.

To me it sounds a lot like the Augustinian notion of the inner self as a battleground, a clash of wills between our lower and higher selves.

Try fitting that message onto a subway poster. But I take some assurance in the live-and-let-live philosophy of New Yorkers, one of whom was quoted in a Reuters dispatch. “It’s not right, but it’s freedom of speech. To put it on a poster is just not right,” said a 29-year-old man as he strode through the Times Square station. “But it caught my attention and I support freedom of speech, so you got to live with it.”

Reuters said most subway riders passed by the ad in a tunnel there without even noticing it. That’s a bit assuring, too, though I also saw, in another item, a photo of a young woman in traditional Muslim headdress, staring at the ad. I can only imagine what she was feeling at that moment. …read more

We Interrupt this Culture War to Report …

A church burns in India

I don’t know if Mitt Romney really believes that 47 percent of all Americans will never have a sense of personal responsibility, will never “care for their lives.” How can anyone think such a thing let alone speechify about it? I also don’t know if he truly believes that one man in America is amassing the power of government to persecute its citizens just because they’re religious. But in an ad last month, the GOP nominee renewed this line of attack on Barack Obama. He and his surrogates have continued to argue, with a wary eye toward the administration’s birth-control mandate, that the president is waging a “war on religion.”

There’s certainly a culture war over religion, and it has apparently come to my quiet neighborhood in Andover, Mass. Walking back from town the other day, I noticed a blue and white sign on a front-porch railing that read: “Stand Up for Religious Freedom.” It’s part of a national campaign targeting this alleged jihad against people and institutions of faith.

I’ve known my neighbors to get up in arms about pressing matters such as parking restrictions and overgrown trees, but this was a bit of a surprise for me. The debate over religious freedom in America has been one of the oddly unexpected features of the 2012 elections. If it were a reality show, I’d be grateful to see a news bulletin break in: We interrupt this broadcast to report that there are people in the world who are actually suffering religious persecution, and not one of them lives in Andover, Mass., or any place like it.

John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter provided such a public service during a forum at Boston College this past April, titled “Is Religious Freedom Under Threat in America?” As the forum’s moderator, he interrupted the panel discussion—entirely about the domestic squabble—to point out that an estimated 150,000 Christians die each year in religious violence in places like Egypt, Nigeria, and India. “In the past hour, 17 Christians have been killed on this planet,” Allen reported, extrapolating from the average toll.

Allen committed the faux pas of talking about actual religious persecution abroad, when he and others on the panel were supposed to be speaking seriously about dubious religious persecution at home (and they did speak seriously and thoughtfully on the subject, from different perspectives).

I hesitate to add that I wrote an article about that forum for Boston College Magazine, and my paragraph on Allen’s intervention was edited out—for perfectly sound editorial reasons, I’m absolutely sure. But it’s just another indication of how the issue of religious freedom has been domesticated. In some hands it has become a political football.

More about this in a month—when thousands are expected to take personal responsibility and turn up in Washington for an October 20 “Stand Up for Religious Freedom” rally. Undoubtedly there will be some 47 percenters among them. …read more

College: An Employment Agency with Gothic Towers?

With this item, TheoPol resumes its weekly schedule.

Gasson Hall, Boston College

As the parent of a high-school junior who will be deep into the college search soon enough, I’ve been forced to reflect on the purposes of a college education. My philosophical conclusion is that college is fundamentally about two things: getting into the habit of lifelong learning, and forming or developing yourself as a person. My parental view is less untroubled. I grapple with the idea that college is really about spawning a career and, by the grace of the financial gods, eluding the demons of monstrous debt.

These perspectives are not naturally allied, and increasing numbers of middle-class families are acting on the latter assumption and making stark choices about college.

Last month, the gigantic student lender Sallie Mae issued its annual report, How America Pays for College. Among other sobering results, the study found that students are dropping out of the humanities right and left, stampeding toward degrees such as nursing that would appear to make them more employable. More than ever, families are eliminating college choices—for example, the high-priced liberal arts school that offers a well-rounded education—because of costs. And, for the first time in recent memory, more than half of all college students are living at home.

How are the thought leaders of the liberal arts responding to these realities? In the circles I travel in, some are doubling down on the message that a university is not an employment agency with gothic towers. On the contrary, students are there to discover their passions, to learn how to think and to serve others, according to many of the messengers.

One of the more colorful among them is Father Michael Himes, professor of theology at Boston College. Several times this past summer, he delivered the word to incoming students and their parents at Boston College’s freshmen orientations, one of which I attended in June, not officially as a parent but as a contributing writer for Boston College Magazine. Here’s part of my rendering of the Himes presentation:

After a preamble about how “robust conversation” defines a great university, Himes arrived at his core contention. A great university is not about finding a job or “adding a zero to a starting salary line” or even getting into graduate school, he said. “Don’t get me wrong,” Himes went on in his curiously blended accent, part Brooklyn and part Britain (having grown up in the borough, around relatives from abroad). “It’s terribly important. It’s just not what a university is good at. It’s not what it’s about.” He continued—“It’s about producing intellectuals.” These are people who are never completely satisfied with an answer to a big question and always keep probing. Their rallying cry is, as Himes put it, “Yes, but.”

At a place like Boston College, he said, students ask questions about human existence, about who they want to become, and how they can channel their passions and talents into service to the world. During the Q&A, a parent asked from his seat in a middle row what “we,” parents, should fear most about what lies ahead in college. Himes replied in an instant—“that at no time in the next four years will your student shock you and fill you with horror.” The response brought down the house, although a disproportionate share of the high-spirited clapping and cheering appeared to come from younger hands and voices.

Part of me wonders if this is an ivory tower version of Mitt Romney’s Thurston Howell-like advice to students: “Borrow money from your parents if you have to.” The variation might be—Worried about paying for college and earning a livelihood after you graduate? Become an intellectual! On its face, it’s a non-response.

But leaving aside “intellectual,” the case that Himes makes is not without its practical side. He’s shrewd enough to know that a narrow vocational training for jobs today might not help much tomorrow, and that young people, most of all, need to learn how to think, analyze, communicate, and problem-solve. Or at least that’s the belief of those who take the leap of liberal arts faith.

And then there’s the nagging question of being a person. College students need space and (dare I say) intellectual leisure to reflect on who they are, and what they have to offer to the world. I’m not sure if this could happen if they’re desperately seeking a career from day one. Not an easy question, but an important one, especially if you agree with Himes when he says: “Before you can do something, you have to be someone.” …read more