I think all of us would like to take our yesterdays back, correct our missteps and, with the lucidity afforded by hindsight, retake the high ground. In fact, our nostalgia for what’s past defines the tragedy of our present, manifesting itself in the emergence in the last 50-years of two primary forces, political and religious, warring on the present in the guise of conservatism.
Ironically, their genesis began at about the same time, with the return of Ayatollah Khomeini to Iran (1979) and the political ascendancy of Britain’s Margaret Thatcher and America’s Ronald Reagan. Most revolutions soften, or give way to human inertia, or to inherent entropy that characterizes Natural Law as with the collapse of the Soviet hegemony and the transition of Mao’s China into a market economy.
In America, the vestiges of the past are prominent in the rise of Tea Party and neo-conservative Republicans advocating reduced government in a slashing of taxes, sealing our borders, deregulating the market place, and a bent toward imperialism in foreign policy. It too has a religious scent in its hostility to gays, embrace of creationism in the classroom, and strident opposition to abortion and death with dignity legislation. While it has no Sharia law it can impose, it finds its corollary in pursuing legislative edict. It hasn’t any qualms about imposing its views on others.
Thankfully, in most places, it can’t muster a majority, although evangelicals and catholics turned out in record numbers to oppose Obama (78% and 67% respectively) in last November’s election. Unfortunately, this faction has seized the reins of the party of Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt, driving its agenda, making it easy to forget that it was a Republican president, Richard Nixon, who founded the Occupational Safety & Health Administration, and the Food and Drug Administration. It’s conceivable that even Reagan couldn’t muster the Republican nomination were he running today.
As for conservative religion, militant Islam has replaced communism as the new global threat, with tension and violence often in play, not only in the Middle East, but universally: Africa (Nigeria, Mali, Egypt, Sudan, Somalia); Asia (Sri Lanka, Thailand, Philippines, Indonesia, India). Terrorism has been its weapon of choice, with bombings and assassinations even in Britain, France and the Netherlands.
As for my own America, I had placed my bet on our legacy of assimilation to keep us safe from the tribalism of places like Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq where it isn’t sufficient to make Jihad against the Infidel, but Sunni and Shiite must slaughter one another. I have been wrong, as scarcely a day passes that I don’t hear of immigrant Muslim youth conspiring violence here at home. While their numbers are few, their threat is palpable, as witness the Boston’s Patriot’s Day bombings and the Ft. Hood massacre by a member of our own armed forces.
But I’m also aware of media hype and its distorting perspective and its conflict with my own experience. I studied in France in 1985. My dearest friends, all of them, we’re Muslim. They came from Morocco, Jordan, Syria, Iraq, Iran and Palestine. They rejoiced in finding a rare American supporting the right of Palestinians to a homeland. “C’est historique,” one of them delightfully said.
Not once did the subject of religion intrude. Humanity and justice were our priorities, melting away creed and origin. I have memories here at home of Muslim immigrants in my classes. Again, the same: an abounding rapport and absence of religion’s strictures.
In short, Muslims, the vast majority, abhor the violence of a fundamentalist segment that does injury to Islam, “the religion of peace.” Let me offer the following:
As American Muslims and scholars of Islam, we wish to restate our conviction that peace and justice constitute the basic principles of the Muslim faith. We wish again to state unequivocally that neither the al-Qaeda organization nor Usama bin Laden represents Islam or reflects Muslim beliefs and practice. Rather, groups like al-Qaeda have misused and abused Islam in order to fit their own radical and indeed anti-Islamic agenda. Usama bin Laden and al-Qaeda’s actions are criminal, misguided and counter to the true teachings of Islam (Statement Rejecting Terrorism, 57 leaders of North American Islamic organizations, September 9, 2002),
The truth is that conservative politics and religion are forces latent with danger when employing divisive appeals to self-interest rather than the collective good or utilizing scape-goating, straw-men methodologies designed to manipulate and secure power. Such modalities, on the increase, mark a return to the volatile past with its animosities fostered by fear.
Politics should be about human community and addressing its needs; religion, about abandoning the barriers of distrust for the balm of love.
The earmarks of an unhealthy conservatism, whether political or religious, is one of parochial or ethnocentric interest, fueled by distrust and unthinking servility to the past, adumbrated by insecurity posed by change.
Sometimes I want to throw my arms up in despair. I muse on how better a world devoid of the heat of political and religious passions; but as a devotee of the Enlightenment with its predication on Reason as the future’s arbitrator of a better world, I retain faith we can do better to reduce the disparity between entrenched custom and social amelioration.
I also know that the way of progress is sometimes in feet, not miles, and that injustices like slavery weren’t conquered quickly. I believe there exists a resident Good in most people that will ultimately prevail.
In the interval, conserving those best values of the past while embracing the promise of the future’s kinder, more tolerant dispensation to humanity, is the proper synthesis for abounding peace and good will.