Attentiveness in Advent

Every year during Advent, the four-week season leading up to Christmas, Catholics hear passages from Scripture that remind us to be watchful and ready for the coming of Christ.   These passages explain that we are not only awaiting the celebration of Jesus’ birth, but also for his second coming at the end of time.

Advent wreath in Georgetown's Dahlgren Chapel

Gabriel tells Mary about the birth of her son.
Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God. (Luke 1)

John tells his critics that he is not the Messiah.
There is one among you whom you do not recognize, the one who is coming after me. (John 1)

And Jesus tells his disciples to prepare for his second coming at the end of time.
Watch, therefore; you do not know when the Lord of the house is coming. (Mark 13)

To be honest, every year during Advent I feel a bit bashed over the head with these constant reminders about Jesus’ coming.  ‘Ok, ok, I get it!’ I think after the third week. The message never seems all that surprising or relevant. We surely never forget to celebrate Jesus’ birth—even amid the red and green Christmas regalia—and the event of the second coming seems far away (and, in my mind, not quite as concrete as the way it’s described in Scripture.)

Thankfully, this year these concerns of mine were addressed by two Georgetown Jesuits, whose homilies on the Advent Scripture passages helped clarify what this season is all about.

These two events we hear about—Jesus’ first coming at Christmas and his second coming at the end of time—are at the ends of a very long timeline of history, a Jesuit said, and we are in the middle, distant from them.  What we really should be preparing ourselves for are the third, fourth, and fifth comings of Christ that happen in between.  The times when Jesus breaks into our lives in ordinary and unexpected ways.

As Christians, we believe in the Incarnation, the act of God taking on human form in the person of Jesus.  The Incarnation isn’t a singular event that happened two millennia ago, but rather a fundamental doctrine that tells us in quite simple terms about how we understand God: God wants to be with us, here and now, and reaches out to us through human experience. A belief in Jesus doesn’t ask us to remove ourselves from this world in order to be with God; it says that we can best achieve unity with God by engaging fully with our human reality.

The question is, do we notice Jesus’ third, fourth, fifth, and infinite comings, these expressions of the recurring Incarnation?

Unfortunately, the Jesuit said, we often don’t.  We’re too connected to our phones, music, and email.  And even when we put the technology away, our minds are running at 100 miles per hour, thinking ahead about the ways in which we can be as efficient as possible.  We don’t give ourselves time to reflect back on our days, to find the times in which Jesus has appeared to us.  During Advent then, we must be actively attentive to the Incarnation, to God’s countless attempts to push through the clutter of our lives.

Knowing that I’m guilty of this lack of attentiveness as much as the next person, I welcomed this challenge from the Jesuit.  It’s a challenge I have already been working on for much of my time at Georgetown: to slow down enough to notice Jesus in my life.

And, thankfully, I have begun to notice.

When a chaplain-in-residence passed me on campus several weeks back, he said, “Hey Jordan!” and gave me a quick fist bump. It was a simple, silly gesture, one that the chaplain probably forgot about two minutes later. But for me, it was a brief, yet powerful example of the way Jesus appears to me everyday.  With his short but enthusiastic hello, the chaplain reminded me of the great love God has for me, reflected through ordinary people and ordinary situations.

I recognized the significance of this small act because I wasn’t talking on my cell phone (as I often do when I walk) or mentally preoccupied with my next task.  By simply slowing down, I was also able to recognize that the jokes I shared with my friends, the music the choir sang at Mass, and the beautiful sunset that burst into view as I turned a corner in one of the most ugly parts of campus are all little third, fourth, and fifth comings of Christ.

Most if not all of the time, “finding Jesus” isn’t about having a mystical experience or undergoing a massive life change.  It’s about simply realizing that a hug from a mentor or a laugh with a friend is the mystery of Incarnation at work. 

It’s not always easy to realize, in the moment, that many of these everyday experiences are of God and from God.  It takes a moment of stepping back and reflecting.  In a homily later during Advent, another Georgetown Jesuit encouraged the congregation to reflect back on the ways Jesus has shown himself to us.  We closed our eyes.

Jesus “brings good tidings to the poor,” he said, quoting the day’s reading from Isaiah.  When you were down or depressed, how did others bring you up?  Recognize these moments, he said, and name Jesus as gift.

He continued: Jesus “heals the broken-hearted.” When you were broken-hearted or hurt, who helped you heal?  Jesus “proclaims liberty to the captives” and “releases the prisoners.”  When you were prisoner to your own habits or feelings of inadequacy, how did others free you from those things?  Be thankful for these moments, and name Jesus as gift.

When read in full, the Isaiah passage makes clear that the “good tidings” we hear from Jesus don’t come to us in abstract terms, but through the smiles and fist bumps of those around us. He says, “The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me … he has sent me to bring good tidings…” We, humans, are the way in which God reaches out to the world.

This reflective exercise allowed me to think back on the at once simple and profound ways that I experienced love from friends, family, and mentors during past semester. When one part of my life felt empty, they (often times unknowingly) would rush in fill it up that hole to the point of overflowing.  Their outpouring of support and love was Jesus—God Incarnate.  It was a gift, and I must constantly reflect back in gratefulness in order not to miss it.

As we move into the Christmas season and begin the new year, we need not look for God outside of the normalcy of our everyday lives.  Instead we just to be more attentive to what’s already around us.  We must remember what we celebrate on Christmas: Emmanuel—“God is with us.”

This quote was cited by the first Jesuit during his Advent homily.

9/11/11: A new American anniversary

In my most recent posts, I’ve discussed the terrorist attacks in Norway, offering quite a depressing analysis of their causes and implications, many of which are related to Islamophobia in America.  Fear of Muslims existed in the American psyche before September 11, 2001, but the terrorist attacks ten years ago only amplified and cemented those feelings for many Americans.

Despite the horrible backlash we’ve seen against Muslims in the wake of 9/11, I am quite optimistic about the future of America and its relationship with its Muslim community.  The United States, unlike Europe, has an identity rooted in diversity and faith, and re-embracing these values will allow us to fight back against the Islamophobic forces in our society.

Diversity

When immigrants began coming to America 400 years ago, they sought a place that would embrace their differentness.  When they established our country decades later, America’s founders intended to make our nation a place for diversity and the mixing of cultures.  Unlike those in Europe, our identity as Americans is defined by the fact that there is no one language, ethnic background, or religious affiliation that we all share.  Ironically, our unity stems from our differences.

Some Americans want new immigrants (like Latinos and Muslims) to ‘assimilate’ into American life and culture.  But is it possible to assimilate into diversity? Participation in our society doesn’t mean conforming to arbitrary standards that the often too powerful majority would like to set.  Rather, being an American means adding one’s unique history and perspective to the already-colorful American landscape.

If we look back on our history, most minority ethnic or religious groups have experienced discrimination and marginalization, especially during periods of economic uncertainty and war.  Catholics, Japanese, blacks, and Jews were perceived to be un-American and their racial, religious, or national heritage was seen as incompatible with being a loyal American.  Today, labeling members of these groups as un-American seems laughable—these people are irreplaceable contributors to American life.

Today, we see the marginalization of Muslims in the movement to ban sharia, attempts to block the construction of Islamic centers, and hate protests and crimes directed toward Muslims and their institutions.  But looking back at our history, we see that it is possible for us to outgrow our fear of the ‘other’ as we begin to see the important contributions that minority groups make to our society.

My hope in American progress and the eventual acceptance of the ‘other’ lies in stonework that was recently erected on the Washington Mall: the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial.  Fifty years ago, the persecution and marginalization of African-Americans was rampant and deemed appropriate by many Americans, and today, an African-American prophet is honored among the founders of our country and a black man leads our nation as president.

Faith

The United States is also fortunate to be a country rooted in religion.  In a recent Pew report, over 80% of Americans identified themselves with a particular religious tradition.  This is in contrast to the increasingly secularized Europe, where most citizens say that religion does not play an important role in their lives.  The levels of religiosity in America and Europe directly correlate to the regions’ level of acceptance of Muslims.  Religious people in America have something in common with Muslims—a belief in God and a devotion to their faith life—as opposed to Europeans who lack this point of commonality.  Thus, the marginalization and discrimination of Muslims has been far less in America than in Europe.

The founding fathers wanted America to be a place of vibrant and diverse religiosity, and explicitly included Islam in their vision for the country.  Thomas Jefferson praised the Virginia commonwealth for including religious protections for all people in its constitution, saying: “[the lawmakers] meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan [Muslim].”  Proud to own a copy of the Qur’an, Jefferson was the first president to hold a Ramadan iftar at the White House.  John Locke, George Washington, and others whose ideas shaped our nation were accepting of and welcoming to Muslims in England and America.

Building unity

Recognizing and embracing America’s unique claims on diversity and faith will help us respond to the Islamophobia plaguing our country.  Thanks to these two values, America has a chance to reverse anti-Muslim sentiment before it escalates to the level it has in Europe (where we see openly Islamophobic political parties, infringements on Muslims’ religious freedom, and violent attacks, culminating the terrorism committed by Anders Brevik in July.)

Gospel choir at the Islamic Center of Washington, D.C.

Yesterday, diversity and faith were brought together at the 9/11 Unity Walk in Washington.  Teenagers in yarmulkes, mothers in hijabs, small children, and little old ladies strode down Embassy Row, visiting houses of worship, asking questions, andsharing their experiences of faith in America.  We heard from religious leaders and interfaith activists like Tony Blair, Karen Armstrong, and Arun Gandhi, Mohandis Gandhi’s grandson.  A D.C. gospel choir sang on the steps of the mosque, nuns gave out cookies at the Vatican embassy, and the Islamic call to prayer was recited at the synagogue.

I was most struck by my experience at the Islamic center as I stood in a long line of girls and older women, waiting to enter the prayer room.  As a sign of respect, women must cover their arms, legs, and hair in the mosque (traditionally men dress conservatively as well,) and girls like me, who were clad in shorts and t-shirts for the hot weather, had to wait to be offered a long jellabiyya and colorful scarf before going in.

Many American women misunderstand Islamic covering and feel that it is demeaning, and knowing this I was overwhelmed almost to tears by the enthusiasm of these non-Muslim women, who chose to cover themselves to enter the mosque.  These women chose to challenge the deep assumptions Westerners have about Islam and women, and decided to be open-minded and curious, withholding judgment until they’d had the experience.  While it was clear that all the women were not fully comfortable with covering (myself included—and I cover quite often,) that didn’t stop them from participating or asking questions respectfully.

The line of women waiting for scarves.

This attitude of openness and respect imbued the walk, and I wish that more Americans could have seen this wonderful example of how we must engage with those who are different from us.

9/11/11: A new date to remember

September 11, 2001 marked the beginning of a decade of divisions—political, religious, and social.  It will remain on our calendars and in our hearts as a day of mourning for generations.

Now, September 11, 2011 offers us an opportunity to begin a new decade, one in which we choose to foster unity through an engagement with diversity and faith.  Let’s make sure we remember this new date, too, and hopefully in ten years, we’ll look back on September 11 not only with sadness, but also with joy.

Hear no evil, speak no evil, see no evil. Arun Gandhi, center.

The Oslo Opportunity, Part 3: ‘Counter-jihad’ crusaders

The terror attacks in Norway occurred on foreign soil, but they have a disturbing connection to our own country and those who perpetuate fear of Islam here.

To understand the link, we need to look no further than Anders Behring Breivik’s anti-Muslim 1,500 page manifesto, which cites a number of leaders active in the Islamophobia campaign in America and uses their ideology to shape his.  The New York Times did a great piece about anti-Muslim thought in the U.S. and its role in the attacks.

I’ve written before only briefly about some of the self-defined freedom-fighters in Breivik’s manifesto, so I’d like to provide a bit more information about them here.

55 citations: Robert Spencer

“Well this is the politically correct falsehood that is taught every where that Islam is a religion of peace that’s been hijacked.  Islam is actually unique among the religions of the world in having a developed doctrine, theology, and legal system that mandates

Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer

warfare against unbelievers.” 

One of the most influential Islamophobes in America, Spencer was cited 55 times and his blog was referenced 107 times.  Spencer runs the hate blog www.jihadwatch.com, co-founded the hate group Stop Islamization of America, and has authored many books including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam.  He frequently appears FOX News and the 700 Club, and his above quote can be heard here:

 

After it came out that Spencer was cited throughout Breivik’s manifesto, NBC Nightly News did this segment about American Islamophobes, particularly Spencer:

 

1 reference: Pamela Geller

“This mosque is offensive, humiliating, it’s demeaning to the 3,000 innocent victims that lost their lives.  Without Islam, this attack would never have happened.”

In his manifesto, Breivik commented on Geller’s good character, in addition to referencing her blog 11 times.  Geller made a name for herself last summer as she led the campaign against the Park 51 Islamic Center in Manhattan.  Also a leader of Stop Islamization of America (there is also a European sister organization) and a frequent FOX contributor, she is planning an anti-Muslim protest on the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.  She constantly claims that she is not against Muslims, only against Islam, “the ideology that inspired these jihadist attacks.” See both quotes in this video.

 

Though I hate giving her site more hits, you should also check out her blog Atlas Shrugs.

15 citations: Walid Shoebat

“All Islamist organizations in America should be the number one enemy—all of them.” 

The Department of Justice has hired Walid Shoebat, a self-proclaimed former Muslim terrorist and Christian convert, to educate law enforcement about Islam.  He is also a

Walid Shoebat

frequent speaker at churches, universities, and on cable news shows. Recently, CNN exposed Shoebat as a bigot and fraud—there is no record of the terrorist attack he claims to have committed.

Shoebat’s tactic—claiming to be a former Muslim—is a smart one.  If people ask him how he knows Islam is evil, he can say, ‘Trust me! I know! I was Muslim’ and leave it at that.

As seen in the next video, he encourages law enforcement to consider all major Muslim institutions as enemies, including the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA, located in Plainfield, Indiana), all Muslim Student Associations (MSA), and the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR).

 

1 reference: Brigitte Gabriel

“Believe what the radicals are saying because it’s the radicals that matter.”

“I come from the Middle East, I was born and raised there, I walk into a grocery store in Arlington, Virginia and speak Arabic and hear what they’re saying and understand it. … So when I speak about certain things about the Middle East or the religion itself… I hope

Brigitte Gabriel

that you would give me enough credit to know that what I’m talking about in warning what’s coming to the United States will be at least considered as someone who comes from the Middle East and understands the culture and can read the Qur’an in Arabic … as much as Osama bin Laden can.” (The grammatical errors and run-ons are Gabriel’s quote.)

The leader of a group called ACT! For America, Gabriel claims to have grown up around hostile Muslims in Lebanon, giving her that “trust me” credential as well.  Also considered an ‘expert’ by the cable shows that features her, she claims that Muslims are trying to infiltrate the U.S. government.  Read a major New York Times article about her here, and watch the CNN interview in which she made the above comments.

 

Other American Islamophobes like Frank Gaffney, David Horowitz, and Daniel Pipes were also cited by Breivik.  All these anti-Muslim activists (most of whom lack any credentials to be speaking authoritatively about Islam) are not simply fringe figures, leading fringe thought groups.  Thanks to FOX News’ willingness to give these people a voice, their ideas have become more mainstream in the past year particularly.

It is frightening to think that the anti-Muslim ideology that drove Breivik to attack in Norway is growing up and being nurtured right here in America.

Only Breivik is responsible for his violent actions.  But people like Spencer, Geller, Shoebat, and Gabriel—those with a loud and powerful voices—cannot disregard their influence, especially when they are spewing hate and targeting a particular group.  These bloggers, writers, and talking-heads want influence, want to be heard.  So they cannot be surprised when someone takes their message and acts on it.  Though these anti-Muslim leaders don’t advocate violence and condemned it after the Norway attacks, they don’t provide an alternative method to combat the problem of Islamic fundamentalism they see.  And while they don’t condone Breivik’s methods, they sympathize with his message and mission.  (Doesn’t this posture sound a lot like the one they accuse Hamas-sympathizing Muslims of?)

As Dr. Marc Sageman, a former CIA officer and forensic psychiatrist said in the New York Times article I mentioned earlier, “rhetoric is not cost-free.”  We should have learned this after Gabby Giffords was shot last year, during a time in which political partisanship was at its peak in America.  Let’s hope these anti-Muslim leaders change their tone and rethink their words before we find ourselves cleaning up from a similar attack in the U.S.

Tomorrow, I’ll look at the conservative media’s hypocritical response to the attacks and Breivik’s claim that he’s Christian.

Happy holidays!

To all of my fellow Catholics, Happy Feast of St. Ignatius Loyola!

“Every good Christian ought to be more disposed to put a good interpretation on a neighbor’s statement than to condemn it.” –St. Ignatius

St. Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits

To all of my Muslim friends, Ramadan Karim!

“Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.” –Rumi, Muslim Sufi mystic

Muslim mystic and poet, Rumi

Once again, I thank the Jesuits and the Muslim community, who have taught me so much about loving my neighbor.

(Coming soon: a post on the Oslo terror attack and its implications)

Reflections on 9/11, Part 1

This weekend is a unique one.  Today, Muslims are celebrating Eid al-Fitr, the end of the holiest month in the Islamic calendar, Ramadan.  Tomorrow, Americans of all faiths will mourn the ninth anniversary of the attacks on New York and the Pentagon.

It seems quite ironic that these two days–arguably the most significant days for Muslims in America and around the world–fall on the same weekend.  Clearly, these days are important for different reasons.  Ramadan and Eid mark a time of self-sacrifice, community, friendship, and peace for Muslims, while the anniversary of September 11th marks a day of slaughter and the beginning of a trend of fear, suspicion, and division.  At a time during which Muslims are celebrating the vitality of their peaceful community, many in America are using Islam’s (distant but exaggerated) connection to the September 11 attacks to cast a shadow of fear and mistrust over the religion and its people.

The fact that this holiday and day of memorial fall on the same weekend–that they are connected and unable to be separated–is symbolic of the relationship between the Muslim community (here and abroad) and post-9/11 America.  One cannot be understood without the other.

The occurrence of these two events on the same weekend offers me the perfect opportunity to address many of my recent concerns about America’s response to Islam in the post-9/11 world.

I’ll break up my thoughts into three topics and post them over three days:

PAST: Today, on September 10th, I’ll discuss the U.S. reaction to 9/11 and the steady increase of Islamophobia over the past nine years.

PRESENT: Tomorrow, on September 11th, I’ll discuss this current moment of crisis in the relationship between Islam and post-9/11 America.  I’ll specifically make comments about the recent events like the Park 51 controversy, planned Qur’an burning, hate crimes, etc.

FUTURE: On Sunday, September 12th, I’ll talk about the actions that we as individuals and as a country must take in order to reverse this trend of Islamophobia, and I’ll offer a historical example after which we can model our actions now and in the future.

I urge you to share your views as well, or at least give yourself some time to think about these issues.

9/10: Looking at the past nine years

In my International Relations lecture last week, the professor asked my classmates and I to identify the event that first caused us to think about international relations–the event that made us realize there was a bigger world outside our city or country.  I, along with over half of the class, responded that September 11, 2001 was this event.

Though we didn’t realize it as 10-year-old fifth graders, the attacks would greatly change the spirit and culture of our country.  Before the attacks, Americans were confident about our country’s rising status and power in the world.  With the fall of the Soviets 10 years before and a booming economy, it seemed nothing could stand in our way.

On September 11th that changed.  It appeared that our way of life was being challenged by a mysterious and hostile entity.  The climate of confidence reversed completely, becoming one defined by fear.  Suspicion and judgement were tools we were urged by our government to use, or else we’d risk being attacked again.  A pall of xenophobia began to descend slowly over our country as foreigners and even citizens of Middle Eastern and South Asian heritage were questioned about their patriotism and motives.

This climate of fear prevented our country from having a much needed national discussion about the key question surrounding the attacks: Why did this happen? If this question had been grappled with–if knowledgeable scholars, journalists, activists, and civilians had been consulted–then the second important question, “What can we do to prevent this from happening again?” might have been answered in a way that didn’t result in two foreign wars that have only increased hostility toward the U.S.

One thing that didn’t change on 9/11 (something that desperately needed to change) was American ignorance, and our tendency to act on that ignorance.  Before 9/11 we were unaware the implications of our policy decisions in the Middle East and South Asia, and how often those military and political actions produced feelings of anti-American sentiment in the places we affected.  Today is no different; we act without real forethought and with little knowledge.  Except today our actions are not driven so much by confidence but by fear, which is a much more dangerous motivator.

Our fear prevents us from learning how to better conduct our foreign policy, but even more problematic is how it affects our daily interactions with and perceptions of our fellow Americans.  The fear that stemmed from 9/11 encourages us to continue living in ignorance–to not learn about and not reach out to those who may appear to fit the ethnic or religious profile of a “terrorist”. We cling to our old notions, or ones fed to us by prominent politicians who fear-monger in order to maintain or regain power.  The media simultaneously magnifies and mystifies issues surrounding Islam through its 24-hour coverage that somehow still fails to provide in-depth and balanced information.  This news coverage only reinforces our incorrect stereotypes.

This ignorance propped up by fear has allowed many Americans to believe that Islam the religion perpetrated 9/11.  Many are unable to make the distinction between those who hijacked religion in an attempt to justify a political cause with those who practice that religion in order to serve God and neighbor.  Because of their fear, they refuse to take a close look at Islam and subsequently come to false conclusions about this religion of 1.5 billion people.

9/11 offered us an important opportunity for expelling this ignorance and we failed to take advantage of it.  Instead we only allowed it to grow quietly and slowly.  It wasn’t right after 9/11 that I heard anti-Islamic remarks from acquaintances, received anti-Islamic emails from family friends, and heard broad generalizations and unfair associations spewed by politicians.  It was several years down the road that the Islamophobia began to make its way out of the woodwork (at least in my experience.) This trend of American Islamophobia has been rising over the past decade, but it moved quietly, subtly and slowly.  Only during the past summer has it exploded into full view, as politicians hope to bring out and harness this fear in order to regain power in the fall elections.

A national discussion about Islam in post-9/11 America has begun, but the dialogue seems to be increasing tensions rather than alleviating them.  And sadly this discussion is happening nine years too late.

Also, I’d like to wish “Eid Mubarak” to all of my Muslim friends, especially those here at Georgetown University.