Stories from Morocco, or Remembering My Encounter with the Muslim Faith

With all that’s been said about Islam lately, I thought I’d take a moment to republish something I wrote after returning from my time as a Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco. This is a slightly edited version of a talk I gave to local churches and a local rotary club in Tennessee:

Act 1. Arrival.

When I first arrived in Morocco, we were taken by bus to the beach town of Mehdya where we stayed for the first week as part of our training. I remember being incredibly nervous. I remember thinking, “How did you end up here? You’re living in a Muslim country now.” But for the first week, I was still incredibly sheltered, as all the Moroccans we encountered spoke fluent English.

Then, after a week of training, we were sent to a nearby beach town, called Kenitra, where we were tasked with the responsibility of buying our own telephones in Arabic and to simply have a walkabout experiencing this new culture. There’s nothing quite as scary, let me tell you, as walking around a strange world that’s vastly different from your own and thinking, “Get used to this, because this is the world you live in now.” I will never forget walking around in the medina of Kenitra – the streets that smelled of cinnamon and ginger and cumin filling the air. The street was bustling and busy and loud, men shouting prices in Arabic, everyone staring at you obviously curious why this white person was walking around the street in their country and what in the world did he want? I am embarrassed to say that some of my first thoughts were driven by the media’s only focus on Islam: terrorism. My first thoughts walking the streets of Morocco were not, “Wow, what a beautiful country,” though I wasn’t far from that. My first thoughts pertained entirely to my safety. I was nervous, awkward. I checked over my shoulder constantly. I thought things like, “It would be so easy to take us Peace Corps folk out with a car bomb or a suicide bomb. Or a gun or a knife.”

It took me a long time to break myself of these concerns. After I moved to Sefrou, a larger town in the Middle Atlas, I would walk to my Arabic class each morning, a thirty-minute walk across town alone. Now, I’ve traveled the world before. Been through all of Europe. Seen most of Israel. Even seen a lot of America. But I’d never really done it alone. So, it was normal, even wise, to be conscious of your safety. But to expect a terrorist to come around the corner – something about that tendency bothered me. And it really started bothering me after I met Fatima.

Peace Corps asks that volunteers, during the first few months of their service, live with a host family to help improve language and cultural integration. So, my first few months of life in Morocco were spent with Fatima, Mohamed, Youssef, Marouane, and Khalil. One woman, five men. And let me tell you, Fatima ran a tight ship and nobody questioned her authority. It occurs to me that it’s worth saying at this point that no matter what culture, no matter how patriarchal, Fatima had figured out that women really are in charge, and her way of managing “her boys” (including me) challenged all my assumptions about the way gender roles play out in Islam.

Perhaps what was more impressive were Fatima’s first words to me when she met me. They are the only English she knows: “Hello. I love you. And you are my son.” What was more impressive was the way Fatima – and really her whole family – didn’t just say those words to be words, to make me feel more comfortable. They lived them out in everyday life. When I got sick, Fatima sat by my bedside and brought me warm milk (why she thought warm milk was supposed to make me do anything other than vomit, I’ll never understand, but I know she was trying). Each night after I got back from Arabic class, Fatima sat with me while she made buttons for a djellaba, and we reviewed what I had learned, practicing our language together just trying to make sense of what the other person was saying.

The more time I spent in Morocco, the more people I started meeting who were like Fatima. And the more I met people like that, the more I started to question this terrorist motif we have in America that makes the word “terrorist” synonymous with “Muslim.” I’m well aware that “the plural of anecdote is not data;” but our lives are merely a myriad of anecdotes, and within them are often the powerful stories that need to be told.

Act II. Driss and Hassan.

That leads me to my second act. One of my jobs as a volunteer was to teach English. Now, it’s worth saying that not a lot of people in Morocco speak English. Yes, in recent years, English has become more important to know, but people pick it up there the same way many of us pick up Spanish and “know” words like “burrito” and “taco.” But we don’t really know any Spanish, a lot of us. This is changing in America the same way it’s changing in Morocco that people become bilingual (or in their case, tri-lingual), because both here and there, we’re starting to realize that picking up a second (or third or fourth) language is absolutely one of the most valuable things you can do for yourself.

As part of teaching English, I was able to get to know several English teachers in my community. One of them, Driss Layaadi, became a dear friend over my two years. Now, perhaps what is most interesting about Driss is just how much he loves English. I’ve met English teachers in America who didn’t love English the way Driss loved English. And I say this without the slightest tinge of exaggeration when I say that Driss was more fluent in English than I am, even though he found this impossible to believe. And I can say this with some certainty because he would occasionally have me read his papers or approach me with spelling or vocabulary or grammar questions I could not answer without an English book and a dictionary to help me. I can say this because he would use words like “devastated” or “post-colonialism” or “modernity.” Needless to say, Driss was an incredibly smart man living in the desert when he should’ve been in the university.

I think, in hindsight, it was the fact that Driss was fluent in English that made it possible to have such a meaningful friendship with him. When your Arabic is at third-grade level, it’s hard to attain a very meaningful friendship with someone your own age unless they speak English. Driss let me cross the barrier in an open and comfortable way to the point that even though he was Muslim and I wasn’t, we could openly discuss religion and politics and could even disagree with one another in a civil and loving way, something I’ve learned is apparently nearly impossible for people to do these days in our sad world of social media Facebook arguments about guns or whatever.

One day, I was walking down the street, and this kid – nice kid – walks up to me and says, “Hey, so are you Muslim?” I gave my typical response, which was either “No, I’m a Christian, but I fast and I pray” or, “I have my religion, and you have yours, and that’s that.” Or, sometimes when the conversation moved in the conversion territory, “No, I will not convert to Islam, because if I did, my mother would cry. But I respect all religions.”

So, one day, I’m walking down the street, and this kid starts in with those questions, and I was giving my usual stock responses, and the kid said, “Well, you know, you’re going to burn forever if you don’t convert. Your prophet was a liar.” [I should add that this kid didn’t mean this harshly. He was never anything but nice to me. And whenever this happened, and it did happen sometimes, people were usually blunt but simultaneously caring and loving. My unwillingness to convert didn’t change our relationship. I mention that because that’s different from my experience in America when people have tried to convert me to their own denomination in the Bible belt. My relationship with those people was not the same afterward. It was as if they were more interested in being right or in “gaining a crown in heaven” than they were earnestly concerned with my salvation. I’m one of those people who believes you should preach the gospel at all times and, to paraphrase a quote misattributed to St. Francis of Assisi, never use words when actions are better. For Moroccans, they just off-handedly made those remarks because they felt like they should, because they really did care, and when I wasn’t willing to convert, they didn’t love me any less.

So, back to Driss. Naturally, I told Driss about this kid who had tried to convert me. His response: “That’s just incredulous. I want to tell you something. Most people here don’t realize this, but many of us know that our Prophet Mohammed freed a Christian slave and later married and loved her. She had been a gift to him from one of the Christian churches in Byzantine.” [I do want to make a side-note that after Driss told me this story, I looked it up. Maria, indeed, was a Christian concubine sent to Mohamed who bore one of Mohamed’s sons, Ibrahim. It seemed from what I could tell that whether Maria was freed or given similar respect as Mohamed’s other wives was hotly debated by scholars. But on some level, that didn’t really matter: Driss believed the story he was telling me and it was part of the narrative that drove him to be the person he was – a person who loved people of all faiths.] His point was this: those silly kids you met don’t know what they’re talking about. As Muslims, we’re supposed to love our neighbors just like Christians are supposed to love theirs. Driss went on, for example, to explain to me that it is illegal to convert anyone in Morocco; that Mohamed had a deep respect for Jesus, who is born of a virgin and is the Judge during the end-times in the Qu’ran; and perhaps most importantly, that jihad is not a physical holy war as it’s made out to be by extremists or the modern media. Rather, jihad is term that translates to mean “struggle” or “difficulty” and is more closely related to the idea that each one of us deals with our own personal struggles that we constantly face, and if we hope to seek heaven, we’ll persevere in our inner struggle. This might sound familiar to you if you know your Bible: God “wrestles” with Jacob at the Ford of Jabbok in Genesis renaming Jacob to signify that he has “striven” with God. Israel, like Jihad, is term that really implies “perseverence with God.”

This point of view was reinforced not long after my conversation with Driss when my boss, Hassan Qarabach, came over one afternoon with a repairman to help me fix my broken refrigerator. [I should add, it was my third broken fridge, and never again in my life will I have anything but a top-notch fridge if I can help it.] As the man started working on my fridge, he started asking me all these questions, “Are you going to fast during Ramadan?”

“Yes, I fasted during Ramadan for all thirty days,” I told him.

“Do you pray or go to mosque?”

“I pray, but I don’t go to mosque, because I’m Christian.”

“But if you pray and you fast, why not become Muslim. It’s very important to convert.”

“Shut up,” my boss interjected finally, “Why don’t you convert to Christianity instead of trying to get him to convert to Islam. Shut up and do your job.”

On multiple occasions, when someone was trying to convert me, this happened. A man like Hassan came forward and saved the day, a man I should say I regard as both well-educated and highly devout. Come to think of it, the more devout and more educated people I met were almost always more welcoming and kind and eschewed all forms of religious harassment. In fact, one of my last train rides in the country, I sat next to a man named Hicham who wore the Islamic robe, had a long, black beard and was studying to be an Imam. He called me his “brother” as a Christian, and a few weeks later emailed me a link to scholarships you can get if you’re interested in inter-religious dialogue.

These were the people I was scared of those first few days. I confess, on September 11th, I was a high school senior. I was angry. I was ready to go to war. To the images of Muslims abroad burning the American flag rejoicing in the streets the day the towers fell, I angrily said to my Calculus teacher, “They may rejoice today, but tomorrow, we’ll obliterate them.” She looked at me and nodded her head in full agreement. We were all Islamophobes on 9/12.

But something wasn’t right. These people I kept meeting in Morocco again and again loved America. They weren’t about to wave a flag and burn it. They did not support, even slightly, what had happened to us a dozen years ago. By and large, they were the opposite of everything I expected. I expected anti-American sentiment. I was met with hospitality and love and mint tea and couscous. I was given invitations, practically begged to spend the night. The love extended me put the Christians I know to shame in their ability to show love. I was told again and again how much I was appreciated.

So, where were the terrorists? I think it’s when we’re ignorant about our own faith (let alone others) that we’re more likely to cling to stories that aren’t true. To replace the truth with those lies. Midway through my service, I read about a sociologist who interviewed several “retired” terrorists. He had actually focused on a group of Moroccan terrorists who were originally from the town of Tetuouan and who had attacked several trains in Spain. He found in his studies that most of the people who come to extremist forms of Islam are not particularly religious before they join the movement. They are, instead, usually poor, uneducated, and desperate. They will look to anyone who can give them hope. So, if somebody comes along and says, “Hey, I know you may have to die for this cause, but you’ll get your virgins in heaven,” or whatever, well, if you’ve got no money, no education to think otherwise, and no hope, the guy may have just put something on your table that might give you reason for living. Or for dying. We see this with people who turn to violence right here in our own country constantly: when you lack education, opportunity, and outlook, violence isn’t all that far away from anger.

This particular sociologist further demonstrated his point when he interviewed nearby school children in Tetuouan asking them who their heroes were. Four answers consistently came up: a Moroccan player for the Barcelona soccer team, Arnold Schwarzenegger (as the Terminator movie had just been released), Barack Obama, and Osama bin Laden, the latter two tying as “heroes” for Moroccan youth. Now, how could that be? A world-famous terrorist and a man who was the leader of the free world, complete opposites, tying among Moroccan youth for their “heroes.” The sociologist had a simple explanation: people will listen to anyone who gives them hope, regardless of religion or politics or any other factors. Thus, while Islam plays a role in forming the thoughts of terrorists, say, the same way Christianity may have some weird role in forming the thoughts of Westboro Baptist Church, neither Islam nor Christianity could be fully responsible for the actions of those groups.

So, where was I left? Did anti-American sentiment exist in Morocco? Well, yes. I knew of one twelve-year old, for example, who was named Osama – great kid, I hear, really funny – but judging by the way his father acted, it would not be a surprise for me to find out who little Osama was named after. But anti-American sentiment is not to be confused with terrorism. We can’t go around equating someone who doesn’t like America’s policies with terrorism any more than we can equate a radio show host who makes a racist statement with the KKK. They aren’t the same thing. And we have to be careful about making those big leaps. I kept telling myself that over and over, that I couldn’t jump to thinking that just because someone might not like my government’s choices didn’t mean they didn’t like me. Or Americans, generally. Nor did it mean that they automatically supported what had happened on September 11 or in Libya. Do I think there were some folks who did? Sure. And Osama’s father might have been one of them. But little Osama was not. Little Osama was someone who just wanted to play or perhaps to learn English from a Peace Corps Volunteer – who was probably a joy to be around, like any Moroccan or American kid.

And at the heart of what I’ve learned is this: there are bad apples in every country and every religion. But one bad apple don’t spoil the whole bunch . . . girl. And in fact, most bad apples aren’t even in the apple family. Some are oranges masquerading as apples. And some might be crab apples, but that’s still a long ways from Golden Delicious.

Act III. Hamza.

Hamza

This is Hamza Mahjoubi, my eighteen year old host brother. In this picture, I think Hamza is seventeen, just a year or so away from graduating high school and following in his older brother – Omar’s – footsteps of going to college in Fes. He is the nicest kid I have ever met.

One day, he saw me at his school in one of the teacher’s cars and rushed up kissing my cheek excited – the standard way of Moroccan greetings, like the French. I had a friend with me, and Hamza didn’t hesitate to invite both of us to lunch that very day. I always loved how this high school kid who probably needed to be more focused on his high school Calculus or who probably had plenty of better things, more interesting things to do than hang out with an American who could barely speak his language nevertheless went out of his way a number of times to make sure I was comfortable and happy, to check in on me. To be welcoming. One night when it was way past bedtime, we all stood around dancing for a full hour to music I was playing, and I don’t think I ever saw Hamza happier. When I told him I wasn’t going to convert to Islam, that was fine with him. He needed me to be his friend far more than he needed me to be his religion. Politics and religion may be important on some level, but they shouldn’t be tools of harm that get in the way of family or friendship.

And that’s how most Muslims are: they’re really . . . a lot like us. They’re just family people. They don’t hate Americans; most don’t even hate the American government, though maybe they should. They don’t want to fight. They just want to live their lives in peace.

One week after I left Morocco, as I was crossing the Atlantic by boat in fact, I got a phone call from a friend telling me that Hamza had died. Bleeding in his kidneys. The farther I got from the Kingdom I had come to love, the harder it was to actually picture Hamza no longer there. When I left, he was still alive, and everything I left behind stays in my memory just like it was, untouched, unharmed, un-aged. Could I imagine some awful medical complication, something I know he could’ve avoided had he the medical care we have in the First World, stealing his life? No. I refuse to let that happen so easily. Hamza may be physically gone, but he’ll go with me everywhere I go, everywhere I take him, because for the rest of my life, whenever I hear someone make a comparison between Islam and terrorism, I’ll think of Hamza. A good, innocent kid stolen not by the evils of a few people who have warped a religion for their own purposes but stolen by a poor health care system. I’ll think of how different our world could be if all our energies were focused just a tiny bit more on improving education and roads and health care and rights for women and children and eyesight for the visually-impaired and friendships – friendships with people who are incredibly different from you, friendships with people you might once have thought were enemies but a little openness and kindness taught you otherwise.

Oh, to be a Hedgehog or a Fox?

I’ve had Dietrich Bonhoeffer on my mind a lot lately. If you’re not sure who that is, Bonhoeffer was a Christian theologian who at the cost of his life had the courage to speak out against injustices of the Third Reich. He was eventually accused by the Nazis of his participation in a plot to assassinate the Führer.

Bonhoeffer really throws a kink into how I understand what it means to be a Christian. Here was a guy who had every reason to denounce the religion altogether. In his context, Christianity had become a silent supporter of the Nazi Party. So, there’s obvious heroism in Bonhoeffer’s willingness to speak openly against the Nazis, but what I find perhaps more shocking and heroic about Bonhoeffer (looking back from my 21st century context) is that he remained Christian, that he never allowed the culture to determine what Christianity meant to him.

I’m not sure we live in a world that affords us that courage anymore. Culture overpowers us. If we don’t like the culture of something, we run from it rather than confront or change it. We attempt to divorce ourselves (and others) from that identity and take on something new. Bonhoeffer confronted Nazi Christians; we run away from Christianity over homophobia and bigotry. Lately, I’ve caught myself doing just that – trying to distance myself (through language) from “Christians” I don’t like. In the midst of Obama saying that “ISIL is not Islamic,” I’ve agreed: ISIL is no more a part of Islam than West Boro Baptist, or the KKK, is Christian. But then there’s Dietrich Bonhoeffer whose life seems to say otherwise. That is, it makes it a lot harder to say that “ISIL is not Islamic” simply because they’re extremists. In a way, Bonhoeffer was an extremist, too, just the kind of extremist we happen to agree with today.

My working theory up until now has been that as one’s ideology approaches an extreme on any given ideological scale, the likelihood increases that he or she ceases to adhere to their claimed ideology to instead favor a new set of principles altogether. Seems logical enough, right? But the kink in the theory is that it relies entirely on cultural perception. Who defines ‘extremism’? Who defines the “norms”? Some of the most renowned religious figures throughout history might well be “extremists,” or at the very least counter-cultural enough that they questioned the norms of their religion and traditions. Kinda like Jesus.

So, does it all just boil down to self-identity? I am who I say I am and, for each of us, that’s final? We may choose to say “ISIL is Islamic,” because they say so, but judging by their actions it seems that they’re just really, really bad at being Muslim. Or, perhaps the KKK is Christian – simply because they claim to be. They’re just really terrible Christians (in the opinion of many). To say as much is a commentary on their actions – the how, not on their identity – the what. To put that another way, if we were to separate the how from the what, we’d be saying that a person’s “true” identity is not really our judgment call. Or that we can judge a person’s actions based on the evidence of harm but cannot judge their inner reasoning or their heart. To make that argument is ultimately to say that a person’s identity is left to themselves – or to God or to Allah. But I don’t find that satisfactory. I want to believe we can strip people of the labels (and, thereby, the power) they claim lest we devolve into some kind of Sheilaism, or new age relativism. But who am I to strip anyone of their label? What a shame it was those who silenced Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Or those who tried to silence Martin Luther King, Jr. It’s easy to say we want to strip people of their identity when the people we’re talking about are beheading innocents. But what happens when we’re the ones doing the beheadings?

And yet, ironically, Bonhoeffer had no qualms calling Hitler the antichrist, because to him, that’s how Hitler lived. Perhaps because of his encounter with social justice movements of American Christianity, the young theologian didn’t separate the inner identity (faith or “the what”) from the action (practice or “the how”) the way some of us might today. On this note, one author writes:

…as an undergraduate, Bonhoeffer joined a university fraternity, the Hedgehogs. The Jewish philosopher Isaiah Berlin divided the world, intellectually, between the ‘Fox’ and the ‘Hedgehog.’ While the Fox’s worldview draws upon a diversity of ideas and experiences, the Hedgehog claims to know one big, supremely important thing. Theologically, Bonhoeffer may have had the Fox’s broadmindedness, but in his highest convictions, he was a Hedgehog. His one big thing was that Christianity is not merely a matter of what one believes, but of how one lives.”

And that seems to be my dilemma here. It’s said that “πόλλ’ οἶδ’ ἀλώπηξ, ἀλλ’ ἐχῖνος ἓν μέγα (the fox knows many little things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing),” and those are the two worlds I juggle. Am I to be the Fox proclaiming, “To each his own,” the way our postmodern world beckons us or the Hedgehog melding faith and works with a set proclamation that “right is right,” and “I know it when I see it“?

The truth is, I fear, even if I could find some way to be a fox, I’d probably be a hedgehog about it.

It’s not that “ISIL is not Islamic;” it’s that ISIL shouldn’t be called ISIL at all

There’s a lot of buzz right now in the social media world surrounding Obama’s statement that “ISIL is not Islamic.” If they’re called the “Islamic State,” the argument goes, doesn’t that make them “Islamic”? But that logic seems a bit absurd. Is West Boro Baptist Church a church? Is it Baptist? Baptists are, generally-speaking, Christians. Are the members of West Boro Christian? After all, they’re technically using the same holy book as Christians. And they are steeped in much of the same language Evangelical Christians use. But most Christians would distance themselves from a “church” that protests at military funerals. Some might even argue that Christians don’t share the same holy text with West Boro, since the passages that are most important to West Boro focus solely on wrath and vengeance. It’s as if they’re working with a different “canon within a canon” that everyone else is using.

Of course, if we decide that West Boro is Christian, just an extremist version of Christianity, it’s worth pointing out that West Boro isn’t cutting off anyone’s heads or surrounding anyone’s towns until they starve. If they were, would they still be Christian extremists? At what point does an extremist view of an ideology become a separate ideology altogether? Moreover, who decides when that line has been crossed? To confess an ideology in name only, while simultaneously doing the opposite of what most people come to expect from that ideology, seems a good reason to call it something else.

And in fact, if I have a beef with Obama saying “ISIL is not Islamic,” the beef is that we shouldn’t allow “ISIL” to call themselves “the Islamic State” in the first place. I’ve written about this before when pointing out the dangers of letting extremist groups like the “Taliban,” or the “students,” or the “Shabaab,” or “the youth,” hijack language without a fight that counters their use of that language. George Bush was actually good at this when he employed terms like “evildoers.” So, why not call them something else – something that more accurately depicts what they’re doing? We’ve gone from “ISIS” to “ISIL” to “IS” anyway and all in deference to what the extremists are choosing to call themselves.

And just as we have the power to call them what we want to call them, I think it’s worth noting whose responsibility it is to deal with them. That is, while I reject the notion that West Boro Baptist is a Christian church, it’s very much a Christian problem. And an American problem. Because those are the cultural contexts that birthed West Boro. If a child in a family does something terrible, the family has two choices: either disown the child or bring the child into line. In the case of West Boro, I’d argue they’re already disowned in that most Christians would not associate themselves as being “brothers and sisters” to the members of West Boro unless those members indicated a desire to change their ideology. So, too, if a group is extremist enough, sometimes you have to go beyond merely disowning them in name and find a way to remove them from society or from harming others, as well. Similarly, the “Islamic State” is, to me, both an Islamic problem and a Western problem. Because those are the cultures that birthed this form of extremism. To say “ISIL is not Islamic,” is the clarification – in case anyone needed it – that they have been disowned. Now comes the harder task of removing them from society so they can harm no more. And maybe it’s best to begin this task by disempowering them from the very language they might use to describe themselves, especially when that language is the opposite of who they really are.

Language as Culture

For most places in the world, you can tell what culture someone’s a product of by the language he or she uses. On a grand scale, that’s really basic and makes plenty of sense. A native Arabic speaker, for example, is probably Muslim, whereas a native speaker of Mandarin has probably been immersed in the culture of China. I realize there’s plenty of exceptions to those rules, especially in America where we’re a hodgepodge of cultures. But as a general rule, the language that we speak speaks volumes about our cultural knowledge. Even on a smaller scale, and this gets to the heart of my point, people in the corporate world use words like “digitization” or “globalization” or “Six Sigma,” whatever that is. People who are part of governmental agencies are fluent in a long list of acronyms like USAID, NGO, NSA, RPCV, etc. So, it’s not just the culture of a country. Organizations, institutions, religions all have their own language, and if you know and engage the language fluently, then it stands to reason that your identity is related to whatever that culture might be.

If all of that sounds a little too common sensical, I figured I’d lay out the problem: There are certain languages that I know but choose not to speak because I don’t want to be associated with that culture. Christianese, for example, engages in a language of Evangelical Christian culture. You won’t catch me saying something like, “Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior?” or “Let’s get the prayer warriors together.” And yet, the fact that I know the language as well as I do, on some level at least, suggests that the Evangelical cultural identity is one that I understand and will never fully shed. Even if I was never completely immersed in that culture as someone who came from a more liberal church, it’s part of growing up in the Bible belt. Like a comedian who pokes fun at something, you are (at least somewhat) what you critique. Or put another way, if a Moroccan who speaks fluent Arabic moves to France, wears French clothes, and only speaks in French, are they still a Moroccan? Of course, and they always will be.

One of my favorite stories from college came from a professor who was making fun of new age religious folks. He told a story of a young man – a Westerner – who traveled to meet the Dalai Lama desperate to figure out what to do to achieve enlightenment. When the youth finally met His Holiness, he explained, “I meditate and meditate but nothing ever happens. What am I doing wrong?” The Dalai Lama looked at him, chuckled in his usual “everything is funny” sort of way and said, “You want to achieve enlightenment? Go home and be a Christian.” I both love and hate that story. I love it because it says something true to me about how we are what we’re raised to be and will always carry that with us no matter where we go. I hate it for the exact same reason. Some languages we need to shed, forget, or ignore no matter how much a part of us it is. And yet, at the same time, it raises important theological questions for me –

Who decides what language is appropriate or what identity it carries? What magic box does that derive from? Remember several years ago when everyone wore the “WWJD” – “What would Jesus do?” – bracelets? That’s a good example of someone jumping on a decent marketing idea without ever actually theologically-engaging what they were doing. What would Jesus do? Probably not wear this stupid bracelet. In our modern era where everything is driven by competition, capitalism, and money (the modern triune god), I guess I’m far more skeptical of religious language, because I don’t trust the culture – a culture often obsessed with being relevant for the sake of increasing membership. Maybe there was a time where the language was more honest, searched out, tested, and maybe even during that time, I’d just as easily have questioned or eschewed that language and the culture it entailed.

But to push back on this notion that we are the language we engage, try as they might have, no one decided at the Council of Nicaea what being a Christian was. Did they issue creeds that had a lasting impact? Sure. But to say that what it means to be Christian has been remotely uniform since 325 CE would be incredibly naive. In fact, to say that being Christian means the same thing in 2014 that it meant in 1914 is just as untrue. There’s not some magic box or succinct, clear language that provides one answer throughout history for what it means to be a part of any religion, because there hasn’t been one language or one culture driving the narrative or how it was told. To me, on some level at least, that means that the language I choose to use to describe myself, the culture I engage in or maybe even create from scratch, is wholly mine. That’s not to discredit tradition; it’s to value that we’re just as capable of making our own traditions out of the ones we’ve been handed by our forefathers and foremothers. So, while I value tradition and the power of it, I believe each one of us are just as capable of deciding what our language means and how we should carry it into the future. But that doesn’t happen without community, without challenging one another on what we mean, or without creatively looking both backward and forward at the same time. Because we want our language tomorrow to be better than the language we used today.

From Chrislam to Boddichrislamew, or Just Get Along Already, Dangit

A week or two ago, in a Facebook conversation with a pastor who questioned whether the Pope should have allowed Muslim prayers at the Vatican, I offhandedly remarked the little-known fact that, in Islam, Jesus is a prophet who returns at the end-times to sit as the Judge of humankind. My goal was simple: just show that Christians and Muslims may have some common ground, even if just a little. In the name of peace, searching out common ground is crucial as our society grows increasingly more pluralistic. I didn’t really think that was a very heretical thing to suggest, but it unleashed a firestorm where a complete stranger (not the pastor) began quoting scriptures about false prophets, condemning those who were not Christians to hell, and referred to anyone who advocated peace between any religions as pushing something she called “Chrislam.”

There’s a hundred things I could’ve picked apart in that conversation, but the one that I can’t stop churning over in my head is this notion that I’m Chrislamic. What the stranger didn’t know is that I can speak Arabic (although I can’t read the Qur’an yet, and the version of Arabic I know is the Moroccan dialect), that I lived in a Muslim Kingdom for two years, and that I do have a heartfelt love for people of all religions (and, dare I say, those without any). But I have a special heart for Muslims in particular because my interaction with them was, by and large, incredibly positive. Most Moroccans I met as a Peace Corps volunteer put hospitality in the American south to shame. How many Americans do you know who, every time they see you, invite you to lunch? And dinner? And spending the night? Or who just randomly give you gifts when you’re a complete stranger? It didn’t take much time living in Morocco to discover that the American media’s trope suggesting Muslims are terrorists is patently false.

So, I guess in a sense, I am Chrislamic. Although, since Judaism begot Christianity and heavily influenced Islam, maybe I’m Chrislamew. Or since I also love Buddhism, maybe I’m Boddichrislamew. Or maybe this new terminology is just a silly attempt to disempower anyone who doesn’t adhere to an incredibly strict, wooden translation of the Biblical text. In either case, I thought I’d take a brief, closer look at the term “Chrislam:”

From the best I can tell, Chrislam is actually a syncretistic religion that began in Nigeria in the 1980s, a place where Christianity and Islam have often meshed (and not always well). So, too, Chrislam seems to refer to a fictional religion in an Arthur C. Clarke science fiction piece. But when I was told I was adhering to the tenets of Chrislam, I don’t think it had anything to do with Nigeria or a sci-fi novel. Instead, she was referring to a kind of “New World Order,” where at the end times, fundamentalists believe all religions will mesh into one. You can’t make this stuff up (actually, on second thought, you can, and they have, because there’s not really a scriptural basis for any of this unless something, like, the Left Behind series is your “scripture”).

But let’s play what if: What if, indeed, the world’s religions meshed into one. On some level, that sounds great to me. I’ve met and adored some Buddhist-Christians, but because Buddhism is more a “practice” or a way of life than it is a religion, it’s a lot easier for those two to “mesh” together than it is for two religions that say fundamentally different things about their chief prophets. Simply put, while Jesus is greatly esteemed in Islam, he is neither the final prophet (that would be Mohammed, peace be upon him), nor is he divine. I’m not sure how the Nigerians who proposed Chrislam dealt with that basic (if not the most basic) tenet of Christianity, and in that sense, being Chrislamic is absurd. But when I was called an adherent of Chrislam, the critique wasn’t about my beliefs. The stranger didn’t know what it is I do or don’t believe. Her critique came in the midst of my praising an action: Christans and Muslims and Jews praying together. That raises an important question: if people of different faiths pray together or discuss their similarities and differences, are they advocating a “New World Order,” where all religions mesh together to become one? Or, more simply, are they just praying together and having a conversation? The answer seems obvious to me.

There’s more context to this that’s important, however, namely that the Muslims and Jews who were praying together at the Vatican were Palestinians and Israelis who, politically-speaking, haven’t been able to do much historically other than fight. In the realm of political science, there’s this incredibly unfortunate picture of that conflict that paints the conflict’s history and future as one that’s purely a political issue. It’s a fight about land and the history of that land. For Pope Francis to ask Palestinians and Israelis to come together in prayer was to recognize something that’s gone amiss in nearly every single attempt to find peace: that religion and religious differences, are in fact, a crucial part of the inability to find peace. Mind you, that’s an incredibly oversimplified picture of an incredibly complex history from the perspective of one guy’s snooty opinion, but what harm could possibly come from asking people to listen to each other’s prayers or to pray for peace or to ask that G-d, Christ, and Allah guides these three religions toward a helpful resolution?

And it’s not that G-d, Christ, and Allah is going to magically speak from the heavens and proclaim, “Thou shalt get along.” It’s that in listening to one another’s prayers, that in praying together, one would hope they might hear each other in an earnest voice they haven’t heard before – one that lets go of the perspectives people tend to cling to in order to acknowledge other perspectives are just as relevant and meaningful. Or to put that another way, it’s when we listen to each other’s earnestness that we are mostly likely to be moved by our own. In that sense, I welcome being told I adhere to Chrislam or Boddichrislamew or whatever promotes we listen to one another’s differences and work together with each other’s similarities. Rather than waiting for G-d, Christ, and Allah to sort that out later, let’s do what we can now and live with the hope that we can do something.

Because It’s the End… Until It’s Not

If I could categorize my life down into relationships and work and education and just sorta divide it all up, it would be easy to think of the last several years as having been a series of beginnings and ends – the ‘Wabash years’ or the ‘camp years’ or the ‘Peace Corps adventures,’ and so many of those two- to four-year chunks of time would feel completed. Something about the way my brain functions seems to draw me into compartmentalizing life to try to make the most sense out of it as I can. But maybe it’s not that clean-cut with such clear endings.

I remember finishing college and thinking, “Well, that’s it. I’m done with Wabash.” But in so many ways, Wabash was never really done with me. The things I learned there carried into my Vanderbilt education and went with me to Morocco. And, speaking of Morocco, there’s the Peace Corps. There was something incredibly final about leaving, as the boat pulled away from the Port of Casablanca. You could say, I don’t live in Morocco anymore. That chapter of my life is closed. Except it’s not. The third goal of the Peace Corps is lifelong: “To help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.” That’s why I started blogging, and it’s why I’ve talked in churches and classrooms about Morocco and about Islam. It’s been crucial to me to get this message out that says, “Hey, I lived with these folks; they aren’t terrorists. They’re incredibly wonderful, incredibly hospitable, and I consider them family.” In a period of transition right now, I can’t say where that adventure leads me, but when the boat pulled away from Casablanca, I now know that wasn’t the end of that experience. I mean, the fact that I still dream in Arabic speaks volumes, after all.

When I got back from Morocco, one of the things I thought I was done with was organized religion. For too long, I’d either watched religious people hurt one another or even been one of the folks causing the hurt. It was easy to typecast religious people as manipulative, controlling hypocrites, cause a lot of the time, they were, and so I said I was done, that it was time to distance myself from it for good. And that’s who I was; it was who I needed to be in the midst of that grief. But in coming to realize that life is process, not outcome, I’ve come to see that, sometimes, we’re done… until we’re not anymore.

I’m not done with Wabash or camp or Peace Corps or organized religion. Those things are embedded into who I am and always will be. We may sometimes have moments where, for our own sakes, we have to distance ourselves from the people or the institutions that made us who we are, but we’re never really done with them. We’re “in the soup” with them, so to speak, constantly working through and negotiating how our past is going to navigate our present.

Time

One of my Facebook friends shared a picture this morning (above) that shows two images of time – how we perceive time as a linear movement of cause-and-effect vs. what time actually is, an intertwined collection of causes and results that lead to other causes and results. That first image is what we like to believe because we really do want to hold to this notion that we can categorize our lives with beginnings and ends. That’s the easy way to make sense of it. But in reality, one thing just leads to another which leads to another, and there’s no reason to think we won’t eventually be brought full circle. That image of time may be chaotic and crazy, but there’s something refreshing about it. And it’s worth remembering in those moments when we think and claim we’re done, with anything, that we never really are.

Jackson’s Bad Rap in Crime

About a month before I left to go to Morocco as a Peace Corps volunteer in 2010, a family friend had remarked, “Well, is that safe? I mean, with all those Muslims there and all. Will you be safe?” Though even at the time, I thought it was a bit of a ridiculous question, I won’t pretend like there wasn’t some part of me in the back of my head going, “Well, I mean, is it safe? You don’t really know much of anything about this country.” What I did know about Muslims was, as I’ve said before, “driven by the media’s only focus on Islam: terrorism.” Even with an education where I’d studied Islam in dialogue with other religions, I still found it difficult to shed the images I’d been sold about this religious group.

Eventually, I did shed that fear. Through my host mother, Fatima, whose first words and the only English she knew was, “I love you; you are my son;” through Hamza and Omar who danced with me late into the night or welcomed me to meals; through Driss whose English was arguably better than mine and who loved a spirited debate over mint tea; slowly, I was able to realize that not only did I have nothing to fear but, in fact, I had plenty to love about Morocco, about my Muslim brothers and sisters. I even felt safe enough to travel alone thirteen hours across the country multiple times and through just about all kinds of weather, day or night. Mind you, I probably shouldn’t have felt safe doing all of that. A certain one-eyed taxi driver, in fact, insisted on going over 120 km/hour in a sandstorm with zero visibility, and I’m still pretty sure either that or using butane gas to cook was probably the least safe thing I ever did in Morocco or maybe my whole life.

But now that I’m back home in Jackson, Tennessee, safe and sound in America and in a community I care about, that question from the family friend strikes me as especially odd and even off-putting. Was I safe in Morocco in a Muslim community where I was welcomed with intense hospitality? I certainly felt so. But are you safe in Jackson?

Recently, an article published by a California real-estate company listed Jackson as the third most dangerous “small city” in the nation. That went viral on Facebook and Twitter within the Jackson community and prompted the Jackson Sun to seek comment from both the Mayor’s office and from the Chamber of Commerce. Their response, by and large, was essentially to ask who is some California company to tell us how things look in Jackson (you can almost hear them exclaiming in Southern Drawl, “Calaforna!?”)? Both offices questioned the credibility of the report suggesting that the statistics were somehow overstated.

For fun, I decided to do a bit of a comparison and just see how the numbers spoke for themselves. I thought about comparing Jackson to Mos Eisley, but eveybody knows you’ll never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy. So, instead, take a Moroccan city like Fes. Admittedly, it’s much bigger than Jackson at a population of just over a million. But Fes only had 37 homicides in 2013, compared with 11 for Jackson. That may not sound like many for either city, but it’s a rate of .17 per 1000 for Jackson versus .04 per 1000 for Fes. Fes is looking a lot safer per capita, as did all Moroccan cities I looked at. In fact, for Fes’s homicide rate to equal Jackson’s, you’d have to see 175 murders instead of 37. That would require of Fes a 79% increase in murders from one year to the next.

So, this isn’t looking too good for Jackson. But let’s look even closer at some of Jackson’s statistics: if you live in Jackson, you have a 1 in 68 chance of being a victim of violent crime. Compare that with 1 in 155 statewide and in 1 in 110 in New York City. That’s right, you’re more likely to be a victim of violence in Jackson than you are in the Big Apple. Not only New York, though. In fact, 96% of cities in the nation are safer per capita than Jackson is.

The thing is, Mayor Gist and the Chamber may well be right to suggest that the statistics are overstated. There are a lot of complex factors that contribute to crime rate, after all, and they’re certainly right to point out things like the Hub City’s location smack between Memphis and Nashville or directly on one of the busiest Interstates in the country (I would add that Jackson’s unemployment rate is at 9.6% compared with 7.3% nationwide; or that Jackson is filled with an even mix of white and blue collar professionals who are primarily “young, single, and upwardly mobile”). So, too, while the amount of violent crime in Morocco is significantly lower than Jackson or even all of America, I shouldn’t suggest that Morocco doesn’t come with its own set of issues. There’s far more likely to be a terrorist attack in Morocco than there is for one to happen in Jackson (although, if you considered gang violence as a form of terrorism, you might argue terrorism is a Jackson issue). And there’s a significant risk to females and foreigners, such that traveling at night across the Atlas Mountains would certainly be ill-advised, as it would be anywhere. Every city, every country, comes with its own set of complex factors that contribute to the problem of violent crime, and each of those places must come up with their own, unique solutions to those problems.

And yet, even if the statistics are overstated, Jackson has a very serious crime problem that neither the Mayor’s office nor the Chamber of Commerce nor local churches nor local citizens should ever be making excuses about or too quickly dismissing. Where are the people calling for and suggesting real solutions? Or, as someone who isn’t quite sure what the solutions might be, at least a real discussion, a conversation about how churches, citizens, the Chamber, or the Mayor’s office might take to task the crime before us lest it become the norm? As I see it, the Mayor and the Chamber are in the business of maintaining a positive perception, which is important to drawing companies and tourists to the area. But suggesting that Jackson’s crime rates are “normal for cities this size” in order to maintain that perception is risky business at the least. We live in a world where what social and news media tells us is all too easily the gospel truth when it’s backed up by our experiences or our preconceived notions. Yet, no more should we sell the perception of Jackson as a safe place than we should a Muslim country as one that’s filled with terrorists when in reality both have problems that need solutions beyond painting a pretty picture.