It seems fairly obvious that the debate over the Park51 community center has morphed into something far larger. It has transformed into an unacknowledged national referendum on the place of Islam within American society. Tensions are rising, and there have been a number of frightening incidents across the country aimed at, by all accounts, peaceful and integrated Muslim Americans. The recent punditry, activism, and protests seem to have awoken something ugly and uncontrollable within our body politic, and even demagogues like Sarah Palin are calling for cooler heads to prevail. As we ramp up to the anniversary of 9/11 this Saturday, with the protests (and counter-protests) in New York and the headline-grabbing Koran burning in Florida what should the Pagan response be to this turmoil? Can there even be a “Pagan response” when we are so diverse?
The Board of Trustees of the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions, which counts three Pagans as members, has issued a call for solidarity with the Muslim community (a call echoed by some individuals within the Pagan community). Starhawk thinks we should turn off our TVs and go out to meet our neighbors, while Alison Shaffer wants nothing to do with the protests or counter-protests, and instead wants to honor the Buddhists commemorating the dead on the Hudson River, while engaging with Muslim scripture and poetry at home.
“Here in Pittsburgh, I will be lighting a candle of my own, and reading the astounding poetry of the Qur’an (in English translation), as well as the poetry of those Sufi mystics who inspired me, when I was still only a teenager looking for answers, with visions of beauty, longing and connection that eventually led me to my Druid path. In this small way, I hope perhaps to begin the process of bridging the great gulf between acts of hatred, and acts of honor. I hope to affirm the sacred connections we share even with those who disagree with us or threaten us. I hope to participate, by doing my small part, in the transformation of our community not by trying to repress or intimidate those who lash out in fear and anger, but by learning how to reach out to them in fellowship and forgiveness.”
Perhaps the most eloquent response to the hate, fear, and anger comes from T. Thorn Coyle, who proposes that we counter hate with compassion for those who are truly in need.
This Saturday, a certain Terry Jones plans to burn copies of the Qur’an outside his Gainesville, FL church. People have been mailing books to him, to help with this cause. Meanwhile, the children in this photo, along with 20 million others in Pakistan, are displaced, hungry, and struggling. Which do I care about more? Terry Jones is seeking publicity – which I am giving him right now – so I’m going to use this publicity mongering to bring us back to sharp attention that we all have a chance to do some good to counteract hatred and ignorance. We can help some people who are in dire need.
This Saturday, to honor the memory of those who died in the toppling of the World Trade Centers in NYC, and further, to honor the memory of those who died on September 11, 1944 when Darmstadt, Germany was destroyed in preparation for the more famous Dresden bombing, I say let us organize to send whatever we can afford – be it prayers, energy, or money – to Pakistan. Let us feed the three to six million who have not yet received food or medical care. Let us not let the likes of Terry Jones win this day. In the name of all who are Compassionate and Merciful, let us not give up on humanity.
As mystically inclined Pagan, I am ever remembering my sense of connection with you, with this planet, with the stars, trees, and waters, and with God Herself – the Great Beyond, the Limitlessness, Ginnungagap, the Void, and the Existence. God Herself is comprised of every Hindu, Muslim, Jew, Christian, Bahai, Buddhist, Atheist, Heathen, Wiccan, Quaker, every jasper, every lamb, every grouper, every blade of wheat, every redwood, every crow. There are people who would argue with me about this. That is fine. As a polytheist and non-dualist, I can take these arguments as part and parcel of how things grow and evolve, of how we learn and change. I don’t need agreement from anyone. I do need to cultivate strength and mercy. I do need to generate the life energy that is the return to the great cosmic flow. I do need to connect, here on earth, to every particle that exists in past, present, and future. Right now, I need to connect with millions of people in Pakistan.
Thorn’s organization Solar Cross, will be donating to Doctors Without Borders to try to help get aid directly to people in need. For those who prefer a slightly more political response to the Koran burning, while still engaging in sending relief to Pakistan, Pagan priestess Morpheus Ravenna suggests making the donation in the name of Koran-burner Terry Jones.
Whether you are for or against the Park51 community center, even if you are ambivalent regarding the burning of the Koran, we can’t allow our civil society to deteriorate to a point where open persecution, violence, and acts of vandalism become tolerated. I’m as sympathetic to the criticisms against the dominant monotheisms as the next Pagan, but we can’t allow our rhetoric to empower, directly or indirectly, those who would use it as a mandate for discrimination and harassment. Arun Gandhi, the fifth grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, says that the wounds of 9/11 will never heal because we lack “genuine commitment to find common ground”, and do not allow for real healing to begin.
“For a wound to heal it needs proper medication and, above all, the wound needs to be rested. If we keep scratching and irritating the wound it will just go on festering. I have never looked at 9/11 as an isolated instance of some mad people ramming airplanes into the World Trade Center. It was the result of decades of exploitation and generations of bitterness between the Muslim and Christian worlds.”
Perhaps, as Pagans, what we can bring to this ancient tension between Christians and Muslims is to be outside of the “crusades” mentality of endless hostility and exploitation. To ignore the pundits and extremists on both sides and instead pursue a campaign of simple humanity, targeted charity, religious tolerance, and continual openness to dialog. We can avoid being swept up by the passions of either side and instead pursue our own agenda of growth and a new paradigm of interfaith relations. Not to forget the crimes and sins of either side, but to instead forge a new tomorrow where conflicts over simple belief is seen for the irrationality it is. We are small, and factions within Christianity and Islam ever-eager to engage in battle seem huge by comparison, but we must avoid the temptation to pursue their agendas, and instead work for the good a Pagan tomorrow could bring the world.
Jones said on CNN Thursday afternoon that instead of burning copies of the Quran on Saturday, he will fly to New York City to meet with Muslim leaders who had hoped to build a mosque near the site of Ground Zero. “If they were willing to move that we would consider that a sign from God,” Jones said. Jones worked out the meeting with the help of Imam Muhammad Musri of Islamic Society of Central Florida, who spoke in Gainesville after Jones. “I want to thank him and his church for making the decision today and to bring to a peaceful end what would have been a spectacle,” said Musri, who said he will accompany Jones on his trip to New York.
It should be noted that despite some initial reports, the backers of planned Park51 community center and mosque have not agreed to move their building at this time. It seems that Musri may have been making deals he couldn’t back up, so there’s every chance this will be back on again before Saturday. I would advise everyone to wait 24 hours and see how this settles out.