Monday, March 31, 2008

Converting the neo pagan: Can Muslims lead the way?

This story has been out a week and already gotten a lot of coverage in the blogs, but since we often talk about the nature of conversion at our meetings, I don't want anyone to miss it. Writer, Raymond Ibrahim is quite revealing about the nature of Islam as it is experienced in Egypt today:
Though he is little known in the West, Coptic priest Zakaria Botros — named Islam’s “Public Enemy #1” by the Arabic newspaper, al-Insan al-Jadid — has been making waves in the Islamic world. Along with fellow missionaries — mostly Muslim converts — he appears frequently on the Arabic channel al-Hayat (i.e., “Life TV”). There, he addresses controversial topics of theological significance — free from the censorship imposed by Islamic authorities or self-imposed through fear of the zealous mobs who fulminated against the infamous cartoons of Mohammed. Botros’s excurses on little-known but embarrassing aspects of Islamic law and tradition have become a thorn in the side of Islamic leaders throughout the Middle East.

Botros is an unusual figure on screen: robed, with a huge cross around his neck, he sits with both the Koran and the Bible in easy reach. Egypt’s Copts — members of one of the oldest Christian communities in the Middle East — have in many respects come to personify the demeaning Islamic institution of “dhimmitude” (which demands submissiveness from non-Muslims, in accordance with Koran 9:29). But the fiery Botros does not submit, and minces no words. He has famously made of Islam “ten demands,” whose radical nature he uses to highlight Islam’s own radical demands on non-Muslims.

The result? Mass conversions to Christianity — if clandestine ones... Indeed, Islamic cleric Ahmad al-Qatani stated on al-Jazeera TV a while back that some six million Muslims convert to Christianity annually, many of them persuaded by Botros’s public ministry. More recently, al-Jazeera noted Life TV’s “unprecedented evangelical raid” on the Muslim world. Several factors account for the Botros phenomenon.

First, the new media — particularly satellite TV and the Internet (the main conduits for Life TV) — have made it possible for questions about Islam to be made public without fear of reprisal. It is unprecedented to hear Muslims from around the Islamic world — even from Saudi Arabia, where imported Bibles are confiscated and burned — call into the show to argue with Botros and his colleagues, and sometimes, to accept Christ.
Botros’s mastery of classical Arabic not only allows him to reach a broader audience, it enables him to delve deeply into the voluminous Arabic literature — much of it untapped by Western writers who rely on translations — and so report to the average Muslim on the discrepancies and affronts to moral common sense found within this vast corpus.

A third reason for Botros’s success is that his polemical technique has proven irrefutable. Each of his episodes has a theme — from the pressing to the esoteric — often expressed as a question (e.g., “Is jihad an obligation for all Muslims?”; “Are women inferior to men in Islam?”; “Did Mohammed say that adulterous female monkeys should be stoned?” “Is drinking the urine of prophets salutary according to sharia?”). To answer the question, Botros meticulously quotes — always careful to give sources and reference numbers — from authoritative Islamic texts on the subject, starting from the Koran; then from the canonical sayings of the prophet — the Hadith; and finally from the words of prominent Muslim theologians past and present — the illustrious ulema.

Typically, Botros’s presentation of the Islamic material is sufficiently detailed that the controversial topic is shown to be an airtight aspect of Islam. Yet, however convincing his proofs, Botros does not flatly conclude that, say, universal jihad or female inferiority are basic tenets of Islam. He treats the question as still open — and humbly invites the ulema, the revered articulators of sharia law, to respond and show the error in his methodology. He does demand, however, that their response be based on “al-dalil we al-burhan,” — “evidence and proof,” one of his frequent refrains — not shout-downs or sophistry.

More often than not, the response from the ulema is deafening silence — which has only made Botros and Life TV more enticing to Muslim viewers. The ulema who have publicly addressed Botros’s conclusions often find themselves forced to agree with him — which has led to some amusing (and embarrassing) moments on live Arabic TV.

Botros spent three years bringing to broad public attention a scandalous — and authentic — hadith stating that women should “breastfeed” strange men with whom they must spend any amount of time. A leading hadith scholar, Abd al-Muhdi, was confronted with this issue on the live talk show of popular Arabic host Hala Sirhan. Opting to be truthful, al-Muhdi confirmed that going through the motions of breastfeeding adult males is, according to sharia, a legitimate way of making married women “forbidden” to the men with whom they are forced into contact — the logic being that, by being “breastfed,” the men become like “sons” to the women and therefore can no longer have sexual designs on them.

To make matters worse, Ezzat Atiyya, head of the Hadith department at al-Azhar University — Sunni Islam’s most authoritative institution — went so far as to issue a fatwa legitimatizing “Rida’ al-Kibir” (sharia’s term for “breastfeeding the adult”), which prompted such outrage in the Islamic world that it was subsequently recanted.

Botros played the key role in exposing this obscure and embarrassing issue and forcing the ulema to respond. Another guest on Hala Sirhan’s show, Abd al-Fatah, slyly indicated that the entire controversy was instigated by Botros: “I know you all [fellow panelists] watch that channel and that priest and that none of you [pointing at Abd al-Muhdi] can ever respond to him, since he always documents his sources!”

Incapable of rebutting Botros, the only strategy left to the ulema (aside from a rumored $5-million bounty on his head) is to ignore him. When his name is brought up, they dismiss him as a troublemaking liar who is backed by — who else? — international “Jewry.” They could easily refute his points, they insist, but will not deign to do so. That strategy may satisfy some Muslims, but others are demanding straightforward responses from the ulema.
But the ultimate reason for Botros’s success is that — unlike his Western counterparts who criticize Islam from a political standpoint — his primary interest is the salvation of souls. He often begins and concludes his programs by stating that he loves all Muslims as fellow humans and wants to steer them away from falsehood to Truth. To that end, he doesn’t just expose troubling aspects of Islam. Before concluding every program, he quotes pertinent biblical verses and invites all his viewers to come to Christ.

Botros’s motive is not to incite the West against Islam, promote “Israeli interests,” or “demonize” Muslims, but to draw Muslims away from the dead legalism of sharia to the spirituality of Christianity. Many Western critics fail to appreciate that, to disempower radical Islam, something theocentric and spiritually satisfying — not secularism, democracy, capitalism, materialism, feminism, etc. — must be offered in its place. The truths of one religion can only be challenged and supplanted by the truths of another. And so Father Zakaria Botros has been fighting fire with fire.
Now I think it likely that the Covenant Zone bloggers will have few occasions to attempt conversion of Muslims. What about the yet dominant religion in our own neck of the woods? Last week, the Vancouver Sun had an article that is telling on what a good number of Vancouverites consider the epitome of the sacred: no, not the traditional symbols of Christianity, but a good piece of real estate with a good view:
A controversial piece of public art depicting an inverted church will soon be removed from Harbour Green Park.
The sculpture, by world-renowned artist Dennis Oppenheim, has generated "mixed reviews" since its installation, said Vancouver park board arts coordinator Jill Weaving.

Device to Root Out Evil was first stuck, spire-down, in the ground as part of the Vancouver Biennale in 2005.

Although an offer was made to donate the piece to the city on a long-term loan, Weaving said Wednesday: "We're recommending it come out in part because of the mixed public responses."

That includes, she said, concern from area residents that the seven-metre-high piece blocks view corridors and takes too much of a small patch of green space.
These would be view corridors for some of the million-dollar condos in Vancouver's Coal Harbour.

"Some people have also contacted us to say that they feel the subject matter isn't appropriate," said Weaving.
Vancouver Biennale chairwoman Michaela Frosch said the Oppenheim piece is "a very important work because of the magnitude of the artist's reputation worldwide."
Frosch, who said the Biennale is very pleased with their partnership with the park board, also said that the removal of Device to Root Out Evil is in keeping with their agreement with the board.

"It was an 18-month deal," she said. "Pieces would then be removed to make room for the next Biennale."

Extenuating circumstances, including last year's civic strike, extended the sculpture's stay at the foot of Bute Street beyond the original plan of 18 months.
Currently there is a proposal to make Echoes by Michel Goulet - a series of stainless-steel chairs planted in the sand at Sunset Beach - another piece from the 2005 Biennale, a permanent fixture in Vancouver.

Device to Root Out Evil was purchased from Oppenheim by Vancouver's Benefic Foundation for $300,000 in 2006. The foundation subsequently offered it to the city on long-term loan.
Permanent or long-term installation on park property, said Weaving, must be "subject to public process where site-specifics such as view corridors are taken into consideration, as well as community response."

The park board will hear opinions from the public about the removal of Device to Root Out Evil, and about extending the stay of some Biennale pieces through 2015 at their meeting Monday night.
That's tonight, by the way, in case you want to get out and point out that the so-called "device to root out evil" is an upside down church, a postmodern pseudo-irony, seemingly ignorant that it is Christianity above all other religions, including the esthetic cult of the modern artist, that goes farthest in discounting apotropaic (casting out evil) gestures and objects. Christianity normalizes human evil, as a question of original sin: that's to say, as an anthropological question. And it tends to teach that more primitive sacrificial gestures and violence have reached their conclusion in, and been unveiled by, the crucifixion.

Anyway, what is really at stake in our cultural war between those who hold view corridors sacred and those who take the model of Christ, that God who is almost human, and secular, in nature? (I've got nothing in principle against good views. I don't think people should live in dark holes, but you have to know Vancouver to know how seriously, above many other things, view corridors are taken.)

Ultimately, what may be at issue is who gets to convert the pre-modern masses of humanity that still dominate, demographically, this world. The neo-pagan nature and consumerism crowd? or the modern people who also happen to be Christians? What will bring order and relative peace to the world?

Let us consider the words of Dr. Mabuse, at Kraalspace
Creeping Sharia Watch: Muslims should be seen and not heard

That seems to be the opinion of The [Ottawa] Citizen's religion writer, Jennifer Green, in this post on her blog (it was also printed in this morning's Citizen).
The Vatican has always had a sublime talent for getting its message across without saying a word. So what is Pope Benedict really communicating by baptizing a Muslim convert who mouthed off about his former faith?
Excuse me? Mouthed off? MOUTHED OFF???

Let's try that sentiment again, transposed into a higher key:
So what is President Reagan really communicating by insituting a special day to honour Martin Luther King, Jr., a black leader who mouthed off about civil rights?
Or maybe
So what is Stephen Harper really communicating by urging China to "use restraint" in dealing with Tibetan monks who mouthed off about oppression in their homeland?
Just what is GREEN "really communicating" by her mealy-mouthed complaint that the Pope of Rome, IN ROME, should watch his step when carrying out his duties to his own flock?

Let me try to answer her question: He's communicating that we Catholics are VERY HAPPY that another person has become a Catholic. We are CELEBRATING. We think it is a GOOD THING to be a Christian.

This insinuation that if a person absolutely HAS TO convert from Islam to Christianity, he should at least do it in a shamefaced, hole-in-a-corner way, and keep it as secret as possible because otherwise the dogs will start snarling and baring their teeth, is offensive and outrageous. It's as offensive as insisting that a woman with a violent, jealous ex-husband should have to keep her remarriage a secret.
The majority of Vancouverites probably see no need to convert the angry millions with only one foot in the global economy - those who feel the new economic demands and hence cultural pressures, but without yet sufficient material and spiritual relief - other than to provide them, soon enough, good condos with nice view corridors. But the Pope's convert, Mr. Magdi Allam, is rather more insistent on the centrality of conversion to our present global struggles:
My conversion to Catholicism is the touching down of a gradual and profound interior meditation from which I could not pull myself away, given that for five years I have been confined to a life under guard, with permanent surveillance at home and a police escort for my every movement, because of death threats and death sentences from Islamic extremists and terrorists, both those in and outside of Italy ...

I asked myself how it was possible that those who, like me, sincerely and boldly called for a "moderate Islam", assuming the responsibility of exposing themselves in the first person in denouncing Islamic extremism and terrorism, ended up being sentenced to death in the name of Islam on the basis of the Koran. I was forced to see that, beyond the contingency of the phenomenon of Islamic extremism and terrorism that has appeared on a global level, the root of evil is inherent in an Islam that is physiologically violent and historically conflictive.
One might question whether in trying to turn Muslims away from the violence in their midst, it is useful or pragmatic to insist that their faith is inherently violent. Ultimately, it is accepting the universality of human evil that is the key to the kind of conversion Allam has undergone:
The miracle of the Resurrection of Christ has reverberated through my soul, liberating it from the darkness of a tendency where hate and intolerance in before the "other", condemning it uncritically as an "enemy", and ascending to love and respect for one's "neighbor", who is always and in any case a person; thus my mind has been released from the obscurantism of an ideology which legitimates lying and dissimulation, the violent death that leads to homicide and suicide, blind submission and tyranny - permitting me to adhere to the authentic religion of Truth, of Life, and freedom. Upon my first Easter as a Christian I have not only discovered Jesus, but I have discovered for the first time the true and only God, which is the God of Faith and Reason...
The columnist "Spengler" notes:
Magdi Allam presents an existential threat to Muslim life, whereas other prominent dissidents, for example Ayaan Hirsi Ali, offer only an annoyance. Much as I admire Hirsi Ali, she will persuade few Muslims to reconsider their religion. She came to the world's attention in 2004 after a Muslim terrorist murdered Theo van Gogh, with whom she had produced a brief film protesting the treatment of women under Islam. As an outspoken critic of Islam, Hirsi Ali has lived under constant threat, and I have deplored the failure of Western governments to accord her adequate protection. Yet the spiritual emptiness of a libertine and cynic like Theo van Gogh can only repel Muslims. Muslims suffer from a stultifying spiritual emptiness, depicted most poignantly by the Syrian Arab poet Adonis (see Are the Arabs already extinct?, Asia Times Online, May 8, 2007). Muslim traditional society cannot withstand the depredations of globalized culture, and radical Islam arises from a despairing nostalgia for the disappearing past. Why would Muslims trade the spiritual vacuum of Islam for the spiritual sewer of Dutch hedonism? The souls of Muslims are in agony. The blandishments of the decadent West offer them nothing but shame and deracination. Magdi Allam agrees with his former co-religionists in repudiating the degraded culture of the modern West, and offers them something quite different: a religion founded upon love.
It is not very insightful to simply write off the modern West as decadent and degraded, however lacking many are in the finer arts and higher aspects of culture and faith. This post is already too long to get into that argument now. Suffice it to say that in making the individual sacred and giving him or her access to all the good and bad of consumer society, things and signs to use in telling the story of one's life and making of each life a sacred model for others to bounce off in building their own story, consumerist modernity too has its ways of recognizing the sinfulness and redemptive possibilities of all people. Consumer society is an important process for keeping order, for deferring potentially violent desires, whatever its many downsides and weaknesses, and it has emerged when other seemingly "higher" forms of order failed.

Still, it is certainly unwise to jettison the religion or high culture questions as we embrace consumer society. Bear this in mind as we decide whether our quest for transcendence will end with a good view corridor and an annoying denial that the Islam question need rock the world, or even with a willing acceptance that it be simply hidden from view, as Western elites and media are presently doing with the Fitna crisis, using nasty political correctness in an attempt to hide a film.

If the modern secular Westerner tries to end his quest for transcendence with a smart-assed rejection of all religious culture, he will be living in denial of what we, as humans are. Religion is the original form of anthropological thinking about human origins. Thinking religiously is one thing; it works for some, but not all condo dwellers; but thinking seriously about religion shouldn't be optional. Without the latter, the Vancouver condo dweller won't really be able to understand what our worship of nature is all about, and any sense of transcendence will be fleeting.

It is the beauty of our struggle with and within Islam that it returns us to the most fundamental questions of our shared humanity, as Magdi Allam sees. And in taking the fate of all involved seriously, we will appreciate the centrality of conversion, or of living with a regard for a living and shared human history, endlessly open to new revelations into the nature of our shared humanity. A regard for an open-ended history is the only way to limit our desire to find transcendence by sacrificing churches or people to nature or to false gods who demand violent war against the non-believer, in order to hurry-up the end of history.

I've linked the following video (in three parts) before. It may not give a representative idea of the dhimmi Coptic life in Egypt, I don't know. But it at least shows how bad dhimmi life can get. And yet you will see among the scenes of this documentary, an Egyptian convert from Islam to Christianity. She is willing to accept the worldly hell faced by the convert in Egypt. It should force us, once again, to reconsider what we love.

Egypt. Treatment of Christians (1-3)


Charles Henry said...

Well I won't be forgetting the stories and images in these videos any time soon.

What horror.

And yet, what stirring examples of individual courage.

There's just nothing like the power of faith. Nothing.

That wasn't fun to watch, by any means, but it was still amazing inspiration.
Thank you.

Vancouver Visitor said...

Yikes! Wasting all that money and time on one boring, useless, and ugly piece of junk. Vancouverites deserve better. Why can't someone think of something truly creative like this, for example?

truepeers said...

Thanks for the link, VV: it seems our tastes are similar. Your guy is a student of one of my favorite artists, over in Barcelona. What Vancouver has done to its skyline the last twenty years, with one after another of these almost identical glass condo towers, is a shame.

Dag said...

A committed Christopher Wren aficionado, I still have my gaudy tastes in toilets.