Fear and courage: Ramadan, Islam, and the inner struggle

Let us kindle this flame for those we consider to be our enemies
And for those who consider us as theirs
Hatred grows in the darkness of unknowing
Under the shadow of suspicion
In the deep gloom of fear
May this flame bring light to such dark places
Burning away all that keeps us apart
And lighting the way to a new day of peace



The fundamental truth by Marge Piercy

The Christian right, Islamic Jihad,
the Jewish right bank settlers bringing the Messiah down, 
the Japanese sects who worship by bombing subways,
they all hate each other but more, they hate the mundane, ordinary people who love living more than dying in radiant glory,
who shuffle and sigh and make supper.
They need a planet of their own,
perhaps even a barren moon with artificial atmosphere,
where they will surely be nearer to their gods and their fiercest enemies, 
where they can kill to their heart’s peace
kill to the last standing man and leave the rest of us to be.
Not mystics to whom the holy comes in the core of struggle in a shimmer of blinding quiet, 
not scholars haggling out the inner meaning of gnarly ancient sentences. 
No, the holy comes to these zealots as a license to kill, 
for self doubt and humility have dried like mud under their marching feet.
They have far more in common with each other, these braggarts of hatred, 
the iron hearted in whose ear a voice spoke once and left them deaf.
Their faith is founded on death of others, and everyone is other to them, 
who Torah, Bible and Koran are splattered in letters of blood.


Red Brocade by Naomi Shihab Nye

The Arabs used to say,
When a stranger appears at your door,
feed him for three days before asking who he is,
where he’s come from, where he’s headed.
That way, he’ll have strength enough to answer.
Or, by then you’ll be such good friends you don’t care.
Let’s go back to that.
Rice? Pine nuts?
Here, take the red brocade pillow.
My child will serve water
to your horse.
No, I was not busy when you came!
I was not preparing to be busy.
That’s the armor everyone put on
to pretend they had a purpose
in the world.
I refuse to be claimed.
Your plate is waiting.
We will snip fresh mint
into your tea.

Message by Andy Pakula

Today is the second full day of the month of Ramadan. At this time, most of our Muslim friends and neighbours and relatives are fasting during daylight hours. They are called by their faith to do more for others during this time. They are called to give more and to pray more. As I understand it, Ramadan is a time set aside to enable people to refocus on what matters in life - a time where each person can become more nearly their best self. 

At this time, Muslims will wish one another a blessed Ramadan, saying Ramadan mubarak, or wish for a generous Ramadan - Ramadan Kareem.

But this Ramadan may be an especially troubled month for many Muslims. Already the target of substantial bias and hate crime, it is now going to be worse. On Monday night, a Muslim man blew himself up amid a crowd of people in Manchester. Nearly two dozen were killed and 116 injured. Many lives were lost and many more more lives were changed forever. 

We’ve been here before, of course. This one seemed perhaps more cruel and especially wicked because so many of the targets of the attack were children or young people. And the level of fear for everyone is amplified as we learn that the bomber was not acting alone - that he was part of a terrorist network - and that there he had accumulated large quantities of bomb-making supplies suggesting additional bombs may have been constructed. The threat level was raised. The military was called into action and troops appeared in key civilian locations.

A wide range of reactions ran and raged in our hearts and the hearts of others. Predictably, the actions of the few were blamed on the many. Violent words were uttered on the streets, the internet, and the airwaves. Anti-Muslim hate crimes have soared since the attack.

And it’s hardly a surprise. If I ask you to say the first word that comes to mind when I say ‘Islamic’, the word you think of is probably not peace or science or philosophy or architecture or art despite the fact that these are more characteristic of Islam than is violence.

But we are affected by the mood around us. What we read and hear connects Islamic and extremism, Muslim and terrorist. It encourages us to see Islam and Muslims as the enemy - as something to fear - as a people out to take over our country and to impose a foreign culture upon us.

And I know that most of you reject this characterisation. You know intellectually that this is a terribly distorted narrative. You know, certainly, that most Muslims are not terrorists. Of course.
You may not know that only a tiny fraction of Europe’s terror attacks have been committed by Muslims.  Most terrorism has been motivated by ethnic, nationalist, and separatist beliefs. Most terrorism is not religiously motivated. 

Most terrorism is not Muslim and it’s not even religious, so we have to understand that the tendency to equate Islam and terrorism is misleading at best.

And, the truth is that this falsehood is driven by something very basic in human nature. We are hardwired to fear difference. Anders Behring Breivik murdered 93 people in Oslo including dozens of teenagers because he hated rap music and muslims. Breivik was white and Christian and Norwegian. There was no outbreak of Norwegiaphobia. We didn’t start to fear sitting next to tall blonde people on public transportation or call over the flight attendant when we notice scandinavian languages being spoken by fellow passengers. 

When Timothy McVeigh blew up a US federal building in Oklahoma, there wasn’t a massive increase in hate crimes against white Christian guys with buzzcuts.

But Muslims - well, from the perspective of most Westerners - Muslims look different. They dress different. They act different. 

The innate switch that controls fear is flipped by difference. Our minds make it easy to associate difference and danger and then every new story reinforces the fear response and makes us see those people as ‘the other’ - as fundamentally different - and as a threat. 
So it is no wonder that immigration is seen by so many as a danger - why Trump was applauded by millions for vowing to keep Muslims out - why Marine Le Pen has such substantial support in France, and why right-wing movements are gaining strength throughout the west. It is part of why the UK is on a path to leave the EU. 

And we here are not immune to the different/danger connection. We are not wired so differently that we don’t have a tinge of fear and a hint of disgust when we encounter great difference. And we are not immune to categorising millions of people by the acts of a few - as long as those millions are different from us.

But we are not prisoners to the fear responses built into our minds. We also have the power to move beyond them - to use our conscious minds to overcome the primitive circuitry - to bring out our best selves.

This Ramadan, I want to invite you to consider the Muslim concept of Jihad. Jihad is a word that now evokes fear. It has become associated closely with terrorism - the terrorist fundamentalist Islamist Jihadis.

Jihad, as you likely know, is not terrorism. It is struggle. Jihad can mean and outer struggle - a struggle of anger and hostility - the kind of struggle we may engage in when we believe that some group of different others are a danger to us - and they come to believe the same about us. It is a struggle waged with nasty tweets and harassment and name-calling and hate crimes and missiles and bombs and immigration policy and even with choosing where to sit on a bus or train.

But Jihad can be an inner struggle - a spiritual struggle - a struggle between our own worst and best impulses.

In the face of fear - when we are confronted with danger - we can embark on either of these paths of jihad. The outer jihad is the easy one. It is the one that comes naturally. Get rid of them, outlaw them, deport them, put them in camps, or at least, force them to dress, speak, and act just like the rest of us.

The inner jihad is the far more difficult path. It requires us to move closer to what we fear. It is a path of understanding and even loving those we see as a danger to us and our way of life.
This inner path begins with the hard work of rehumanising those we have labeled as alien and as other. It begins with taking the risk of coming to know closely and deeply those we have been led to fear.

And it continues with being vulnerable enough to be known by those others - to expose that within us that is frightened. The path proceeds to learning to love beyond difference and beyond fear. The path takes us to a place of understanding and peace and justice. It is hard path - a path of pain and joy and laughter and tears. Love is not easy, but it is the only hope.
Let us embark on the path of inner jihad this Ramadan. Let us each look upon the stranger and see another flawed and sacred human being. Let us engage in the jihad of building love. 

When we see the stranger
And look on his ways with fear
When our suspicion grows
And hatred comes close to hand
Let us know that these others are not the enemy
The enemy is much closer
Much more insidious
Much harder to eradicate
Its name is fear
And knowing this can be its undoing
Let us journey toward understanding
Toward compassion
Toward justice
Toward love