When fear & hatred go viral

Illegal aliens threaten, Muslims are murderers, we should be Very Afraid. Or perhaps, like the author of these points, just Very Tired.

A super-patriot message (re)circulating in cyberspace could serve as a blueprint for how to spread hatred and fear across the land. It purports to spread Republican virtues, having been written (with apologies to someone else’s earlier blog in the same style) by retired military/public servant Robert A. Hall. Originally floated in a blog dated February 19, 2009, it has recently been picked up and dusted off for recycling. This writer has gotten it three times; though I am not on a lot of right wing Favorites lists I try to listen and understand messages received from friends with whom I disagree.

Hall, now a resident of Illinois but not an admirer of its current native son President, apparently served honorably in the U.S. Marines and the Massachusetts state senate. This space hereby commends him for his public service, accepts his right to whatever political beliefs he chooses, and takes very strong exception to his blog. It is the incendiary passage below that needs to be refuted:

I’m  tired of  being told that Islam is a “Religion of Peace,” when every day I can  read dozens of stories of Muslim men killing their sisters,  wives and daughters for their family “honor”; of Muslims  rioting over some slight offense; of Muslims  murdering Christian and Jews because they aren’t  “believers”; of Muslims burning schools for girls; of Muslims stoning  teenage rape victims to death for “adultery”; of Muslims mutilating  the genitals of little girls; all in the name of Allah, because the  Qur’an and Shari’a law tells them  to.

I have not read the Qur’an, though I doubt that’s what it says. Iftekhar Hai has.  Co-founder and director of interfaith relations for United Muslims of America, Hai understands what the Qur’an has to say far better than do Hall or I. Here are a few clarifications — if only they could circulate as widely as is the above screed:

Whatever faith you are born in, you are in God’s image. The message is the same, but people keep adding on and that’s what messes things up. Diversity is part of Islamic belief.”

The Qur’an does not condone the killing of non-believers. Religious leaders cannot decide who is a non-believer. Islam is not exclusive, and extremists are wrong to judge others.”

As to the status of women in Muslim countries, Hai says inequality for women has no basis in the Qur’an, but is a cultural matter (as in the wearing of the burqa by women in Afghanistan. Only 18% of Muslims, he says, live in Arab countries, with the majority in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh; he is quick to point out women leaders in those countries and in Indonesia.

It seems superfluous, but still appropriate, to mention that Christians have done a lot of killing “in God’s name,” as have people of just about every other faith, and that assorted acts of mayhem and violence are caused every day under every conceivable banner.

Iftekhar Hai, like millions of his fellow Muslims here and abroad, is a man of peace. He serves on the board of the San Francisco Interfaith Council and works with other organizations such as United Religions Initiative to promote understanding, cooperation and peace among all faiths. Wouldn’t less fear and hatred, and more peace and understanding be a good idea at this point in world history?

If you happen to be in Omaha

This is going on in Omaha? Omaha Nebraska? Indeed.

No one should really be surprised. My friend Ward Schumaker, a gifted artist and not exactly your run-of-the-mill conformist, comes from Omaha. He and the similarly-describable Vivienne were visiting family there once when they up and married, sending word of the event with a notation in tiny print at the bottom that read ‘Forgive us.’ I think his mother was in her eighties when she started an innovative Midnight Basketball program to help keep Omaha kids off the streets. Innovation happens in Omaha.

This morning a notice arrived in my Inbox about an open position for an intern with Project Interfaith in Omaha. Project Interfaith is, as explained below the job description, a non-profit organization dedicated to growing understanding, respect and relationships among people of all faiths, beliefs and cultures. You might want to apply.

Project Interfaith, started in 2004, is one of the younger such groups around the country with these goals. (I would be in big trouble if I failed to single out the San Francisco Interfaith Council, on whose board I serve.) There’s even an organization of organizations, the North American Interfaith Network which covers organizations and agencies in Canada, Mexico and the U.S.  Some of the others might be looking for interns too, but don’t go there if you want to get rich, other than in spirit.

Is this news, even in Omaha? Probably not. But it is worth noting, at a time when the need for understanding and respect among people of different beliefs and cultures is at an all-time high.

Jewish Teenager’s Prayer Diverts a Plane

From The Philadelphia Jewish Voice
From The Philadelphia Jewish Voice

No one was surprised it happened, everybody remained calm and polite — including, apparently, the two teenagers when they were briefly handcuffed — all aboard were safe. Still it’s a little sad when a young airline passenger in prayer sets off alarm bells in our spacious American skies.

The 17-year-old observant Jewish passenger, seated next to his younger sister, was strapping a tefillin onto his wrist and his head, figuring to take advantage of the quiet time for ritual prayer. It was a small plane outbound from La Guardia Airport and about 25 minutes into a flight to Kentucky. The flight attendant on US Airways Express Flight 3079 last Thursday thought the tefillin looked ominously like wires or cables.

And in a time when in-flight thinking is colored by the brutal knowledge that passengers have hidden bombs in underwear or shoes, she told the officers in the cockpit. The pilot decided to divert the Kentucky-bound plane to Philadelphia. In less than 30 minutes it was on the ground, police officers were swarming through the passenger cabin, and the Transportation Security Administration was using terms like “disruptive passenger” and “suspicious passenger” to describe the boy. An hour or so after that, Lt. Frank Vanore, a spokesman for the Philadelphia police, had another explanation.

“It was unfamiliarity that caused this,” he said.

He said the flight crew had never seen tefillin, small leather boxes attached to leather straps that observant Jews wear during morning prayers. The flight crew “didn’t understand what it was,” he said, and the pilot “erred on the side of caution and decided to radio that in and to divert the flight.”

We can’t all recognize a tefillin, or appreciate head scarves, or somehow get comfortable with the accoutrements of unfamiliar religions. But this incident suggests we might need to try harder.

The young man and his sister, whose names were not released, are from White Plains, the authorities said. Rabbi Shmuel Greenberg of Young Israel of White Plains said that they were members of his congregation and that the young man was “a good boy, bright, intelligent, as docile as you can imagine.” Some observant Jews said they were not surprised that the ritual had attracted attention — or that people on the plane would have been unfamiliar with it. “When they see a passenger strapping yourself,” said Isaac Abraham, a Satmar who lives in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and campaigned for the Democratic nomination for a City Council seat last year, “you might as well strap yourself with hand grenades. They have no idea. He probably just figured, ‘I have nothing else to do on the plane, I might as well use this time to pray.’ Other people read. They watch a movie. He figured, ‘Let me grab the time.’ But the obvious reality of it is that when we see people carrying explosive material in their shoes and their pants and I am the passenger next to him and see someone strapping, I would panic too.”

And most of the rest of us would say the same. Maybe most of the rest of us, though, could take some time to check out interfaith groups such the International Association for Religious Freedom or United Religions Initiative, or local organizations such as the San Francisco Interfaith Council (local interfaith groups exist throughout the country), which offer a chance to learn about other faiths and get to know the mostly peace-loving people who follow other traditions. In all probability, there will be times ahead when some badly-misled person will shout “Allahu Akbar” before blowing himself or herself to smithereens, or some deranged person will commit violence (witness the killer of abortion Dr. George Tiller claiming his religious convictions justified the act) in the name of some abused diety. But a little interfaith understanding could go a long way in today’s super-suspicious world.

Rabbi Greenberg, the boy’s rabbi, had some advice for future flights.

“I would suggest, pray on the plane and put the tefillin on later on,” he said.

Jewish Teenager’s Tefillin Diverts a US Airways Flight – NYTimes.com.

World peace could happen

We could have world peace. If everyone would simply agree to begin the day — tomorrow would be a good time to start — with a group Ommmm, peace would follow.

Optimally, your group would be led by Sr. Chandru — although the Dalai Lama would do, and since he’s right here on YouTube he is accessible to an in-home group. Sr. Chandru is affiliated with the Brahma Kumaris, a lady who travels through life in white robes and a cloud of peace and serenity.  It tends to rub off, even if your personal aura is less than serene that day. This morning Sr. Chandru led a group of people of vastly differing faith traditions in a meditative Ommmm to begin a meeting of the San Francisco Interfaith Council. Peace reigned.

I know, I know, not everyone is in synch with the Brahma Kumaris. But then, not everyone is in synch with fundamentalist Christianity or mainstream Judaism or radical Islam, which is why we need to sit down to a group Ommmm. I do know the Brahma Kumaris are the only Hindu sect (I hope I’m getting this right, but they are also very forgiving) that has women priests, and they are an incredibly peaceful sort. BK Sr. Elizabeth has her own little peace cloud, and before she adopted it she was a lead singer in Beach Blanket Babylon, which is known for a lot of good things to almost anyone who’s ever heard of San Francisco — but calm and serenity are not among them.

Some of us are better candidates for serenity than others, but nobody could get up from an Ommmm and charge off to battle. Therefore, with all the charging off to battle that is currently destroying the planet, perhaps an Ommm-first policy is worth considering.

I can put you in touch with Sr. Chandru.

Gay rights, hate crimes & social justice

Can hate crimes be erased from the U.S.? Probably not. Will same-sex marriage some day become the law of the land? Probably, eventually, so.

A few blocks around the corner from the federal courthouse in San Francisco where the latest battle for marriage equality is beginning an ambitious effort to combat hate crimes through community action was also getting underway on Monday morning.

Not In Our Town (NIOT) is a national movement planning a full-scale web organizing campaign  launch on April 6. Its focus is on mobilizing citizens in response to hate crimes, but its ultimate goal is to help build communities where such crimes won’t happen. Strategies were unveiled for a group of civic and religious leaders in San Francisco as part of the pre-launch efforts.

Not In Our Town began with a PBS documentary about Billings, Montana citizens joining together to respond to a series of hate crimes in their town. The story struck a chord with audiences, and created a model that inspired viewers around the country to hold their own campaigns against intolerance. Now in its second decade, the Not In Our Town movement continues to grow. Media company nonprofit The Working Group, which produced the PBS documentary, is the force behind NIOT’s emerging web-based organizational campaign

In the audience at Monday’s meeting, which was held at the San Francisco Public Library, were San Francisco Interfaith Council Executive Director Michael Pappas, Assistant District Attorney Victor Hwang (whose specific concentration is on prosecution of hate crimes), Director of the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Services Mike Farrah and representatives of a host of community action programs such as AfroSolo — a visual and performing arts nonprofit working, among other things, to combat black-on-black crime. Plus a wide assortment of individuals from religious and community groups. The audience mix was, NIOT representatives said, typical of groups around the country from which community efforts have grown.

NIOT grassroots efforts have taken place in communities from Patchogue, NY to Ft. Collins, CO to Richmond, CA and dozens in between. If the interest shown in the San Francisco Library — while most eyes were on the courthouse around the corner — was any indication, an enthusiastic San Francisco NIOT group will join others for the April 6 launce.

Obama's speech: inspiring or incoherent?

“Evil does exist in the world,” President Obama said. We cannot negotiate away our problems with Al Qaeda. “War, in one form or another, appeared with the first man.” We must not, he said, compromise “the very ideals we fight to defend.” Plus, there was whole business of the ‘just’ war: as long as it’s in self-defense, is a last resort, and you try not to kill too many people, especially civilians. It was a strange Peace Prize speech.

Many of us who voted for him with such optimism and (too-)high expectations caught our breath at the news of the peace prize. And listened with some skepticism to his Nobel address. We wish the options were better. We still hope.

The speech, comments Michael Muskal of the Washington Post, was “part political science lesson, part sermon and part politics, designed to answer domestic and international critics,” But I think the commentary that best summed up the speech came from Joseph Bottum, editor of First Things and a guest on PBS NewsHour Thursday night. It was “incoherent,” Bottum said, repeatedly, while addressing the points listed above.

The good word incoherent is defined, in old-fashioned dictionaries, as “without logical connection,” “rambling in reason,” “without congruity of parts.” Maybe this has to happen, when one is trying to answer critics and please supporters and whatever else in the world one speech, in accepting a peace prize, is intended to do. But for our most articulate, thoughtful and presumably peace-loving president in decades, it was a little disappointing — even if I can’t imagine what he might have done differently.

At the regular breakfast meeting of the San Francisco Interfaith Council, a peaceful group if ever there was one, the primary topic that same day was homeless veterans. Guests spoke of services being created and expanded to help the ever-growing population of returning veterans who wind up on the streets. Several members of SFIC are among the group which has shown up every Thursday at noon, rain or shine, for many years outside the Federal Building, to stand silently for peace. Many of them are Quakers, but there are always people of other faiths, or no faith at all except in the possibility of peace. One of them commented, at the end of the breakfast meeting, that the best way to solve the problem of homeless veterans would be to have fewer veterans. Perhaps even no veterans at all. “War,” he said, “is a choice.” His remarks were absolutely coherent.

Perhaps, one of these days, there will be a Nobel Prize for peace that has been made. It would be a lovely follow-up for Mr. Obama to receive a second time.

Health Policy: Is Altruism Dead?

Recently in this space the me-first word was brought up. (It does not abbreviate well.) Might as well say it out loud: health reform could surely be sunk by the Me-Firsters, those who would put personal desires above the greater good, whether those desires are for better pharmaceutical or insurance industry bottom lines or for some corner of personal coverage, senior or otherwise, that might be sacrificed in the future.

I am not above having those desires. My husband and I actually have a tiny bit of stock in a drug company thanks to some mergers and buyouts I do not pretend to understand (I also don’t mess with the family stock portfolio) and thus a decline could cost household income we can ill afford. Plus, I would hate having the excellent care I get from Kaiser (thank you, Medicare) curtailed and would be seriously bummed if suddenly stuck with paying 100% of my post-cancer meds. But if that, or something equally draconian, is what it will take to get health coverage for my currently-uninsured friends, I would like to go on record as supporting whatever we must do to get access for all. This is not noble, just minimally humane.

There are noble people out there, however. They sign up for Teach for America, they volunteer in nursing homes and day care centers and hospice programs, put in long hours at food banks or take to the streets in other, similarly un-chic endeavors.

Re the current health reform brouhaha, there are also noble people, or at the very least altruistic people, all over the country; you just don’t hear a lot about them. On August 19, for example, President Obama urged supporters of health reform to “speak facts and truth” in what he said was a “contest between hope and fear,” and tried once again to refute some of the misrepresentations still widely circulating. His comments were themselves fairly widely circulated. But unless you happened to run across them in this space you would not have known they were made to 140,000 members of faith communities and/or supporters of community-organizing nonprofits. The people of Sojourners, Faith in Action, PICO and other groups that put together the 40 Days for Health Reform conference call are not in it for personal gain; they happen to believe everyone in this country should have access to health care. The next day, Nancy Pelosi held a press conference reiterating her determination to keep a public option in the final health bill. But again, unless you happened to see it here you would not have known the event was sponsored by the San Francisco Interfaith Council with a lot of help from its friends in the San Francisco Organizing Project.

When the religious right goes on a tear against abortion or end-of-life choice (or for that matter, when the religious left goes head-to-head with its ideologically-opposed brothers and sisters) it makes news. When community organizers stage high-profile protests, the same thing happens. What does not make news is the enormous effort made by people of good will just to promote the common good — most recently, health reform.

Some opponents of Obama and his reform bills even have an altruistic bone or two. The reportedly calm, if badly misinformed, Bob Collier, featured in a front page New York Times article August 25, allowed that “we’ve got to do something about those people who can’t get insurance.” He qualified that later: “There has to be a safety net there. But I don’t want that safety net to catch too many people.” Somehow, Mr. Collier wants to separate out the “truly needy” from the “lazy and irresponsible people who play the system” and wouldn’t we all. The Times said that Mr. Collier gets his information from Fox News, Rush Limbaugh and Matt Drudge, none of whom I see as particularly altruistic. I would surely welcome him to True/Slant.

But the people cited above, people in faith communities (including many I disagree with and some I can’t pronounce), progressive nonprofits, community organizing groups and others just roaming the streets being kind, these people seek access to health care for everyone without worrying about who deserves it and who does not. A great many of them worked hard to put Obama in office, and are now working hard for health reform for no reason other than it is the right thing to do for someone else. Might be unrealistic but they keep at it.

My money is still on those people.

Pelosi Sticks With Public Option

Speaker Nancy Pelosi at a gathering of interfaith leaders in San Francisco today (Justin Sullivan/Getty)
Speaker Nancy Pelosi at a gathering of interfaith leaders in San Francisco today (Justin Sullivan/Getty)

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi held a press conference in San Francisco this morning at which she reiterated her commitment to a public option in the health reform bill and expressed hope, though with somewhat  lowered optimism, for coverage of end-of-life conversations. She did get in a dig at opponents of the latter: In response to a question about whether voluntary reimbursement for discussion of end-of-life care would stay in the bill, Pelosi said, “You know, the language is almost exactly the same as what the Republicans put into the prescription drug bill.”

The press conference, hosted by the San Francisco Interfaith Council, was an apparent reinforcement of the Democrats’ strategy of  broadening health reform support among members of religious communities. With leaders from the San Francisco Bay Area Christian, Muslim and Jewish communities arrayed behind her, the Speaker made repeated references to health care for all being a moral issue. Responding to the above question, she said, “People of faith, people in healthcare” and others know that “it makes life better if a person has expressed his or her own wishes. The key to this is that it is voluntary; it serves the purpose of saying what is your wish, rather than someone else having to make a decision you might not want. I don’t know what will happen (to the provision); I surely hope it will stay in.”

Pelosi was unequivocal, however, in her response to questions about the public option and to one reporter’s comment that “some Democrats and liberals are frustrated because it seems you are caving in to the far right.” “Is that you?” she repeated, pointing to herself. “The public option is the best way to go. If anybody can come up with a better alternative we’ll consider it. But the President is not backing off. The co-op might work in some states and that’s fine.  There is no way I can pass a bill on health reform without the public option.”

Pelosi was equally emphatic about her intention to retain the 400% of poverty measurement. Hesitantly using the term “seniors,” she said that many people between the ages of 50 and 65 have lost jobs, or may be making just $30,000 to $40,000 per year, and cannot afford needed medical care or prescription drugs. “I believe we have to have the 400% of poverty for them.”

Would the Democrats accept a scaled-down version of health reform? Pelosi repeated her litany of what is needed: reduced costs, improved quality, expanded coverage, affordable care for all; “What are you going to give up? At the end of the day, this is what we must have. And we must have reform of the insurance industry.”

In the small, carefully selected audience assembled at St. James Episcopal Church where her children attended preschool, Pelosi was on her own turf and among friends.  And she was characteristically upbeat. “Have we lost control of the debate? I disagree. I have 218 votes, and expect to have more. I am optimistic, and the President is committed to change.”