Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Coca Cola jihad Classic


Make sure your words are sweet because you might have to eat them is a little saying that comes to mind as I finish up this piece (lol). I have been wracking my brains on this one for weeks at this point, really struggling, trying to find a balance in looking at Islam. So, if you think I'm on the right track here or if you think I'm missing something, feel free to respond....perhaps I should take comfort in the fact that many others are asking similar questions. I just ask that you keep in mind that my blog is intended as reflective and constructive, a means of dialogue, and is not directed at individuals. I welcome your thoughts....

I grew up in the 80's. Well, more specifically my memories of growing up would span from the mid to late seventies through the early nineties. I started school at the age of 5 in 79' and started high school in 1989, so I'm generation X. It's hard to believe it's been that long; I was in such a hurry to grow up and now I'm wondering where the time went. Maybe I should check some of what I recall here on that note (haha) but be patient with me on this one. I'd like to walk you through a few memories of mine and I'm going to pull together a few thoughts toward the end.

First in my series of recollections, I can remember walking to the candy store as a little kid and what it was to fill myself with what I would now call junk, right before lunch, before I ever had a thought of diabetes or cavities or being overweight, which unfortunately in my case has been a life long struggle. So though I'm reformed now in my middle age and scarcely touch soda or fizzy candy or peppermints anymore, I can still remember what candy stores looked like not that long ago. I can remember the shelves filled with candy cigarettes and licorice and lollipops and paper candy which I think actually tasted like paper but I think I liked it because they called it candy haha. What's in a name, eh? I can remember that chips cost 35 cents and that pop or candy bars were 40 cents a piece and how I could ask my father for a quarter and he would take out his wallet which was on a long chain and hand me exactly one shiny quarter. "Is that all you need" he would ask gently and I would assure him that it was before I ran to the bus station just around the corner at the age of 4 to fill a little paper bag with penny and 5 cent candy.

I remember also the old Coca Cola pop bottles and how you had to be careful so as not to drop one on your toe, but also knowing that if you were smart you could return it for a refund, which would mean more money for candy. I remember when Coke was just Coke; it wasn't complicated. No one thought about it all that much, but that was about to change as some would recall, when they did something unprecedented, Coke became Coke, and they told us it was new! Do you remember that? There must have been a terrible outcry because they soon changed it back, saying that Coca Cola would now be called Coca Cola Classic to comfort their classy customers but they would keep the new taste too because some insisted they liked the new better. I remember hearing all this on the news at the time. Everyone would be happy, new and old, they were quick to tell us.

That was 1985. Fast forward a few decades; I'm now married, middle-aged and overweight, and I rarely give my kids pop. I tell them that sugar makes you chubby and puts holes in your teeth. They repeat this back to me which assures me that they're getting the message, though I'm not as strict as some where sugar is concerned. I'm somewhere in the middle on most things but I don't want my kids to struggle with being overweight as I have. It is surprising to me though, when I get to thinking about it to find myself at an age where I'm realizing I'm not the kid anymore. I didn't see it coming, honestly, but I'm now old enough to suddenly realize that the points of reference that I grew up with will not be the same touch points that my kids will remember.

I can remember when computers were new, when commodore 64's appeared in my elementary school seemingly out of nowhere. Let me think, that would have been 85'-86' or so. I was in grade 6 in rural Nova Scotia and was so scared to touch them for fear they might blow up. My kids have no such fear, they've been using a mouse to play little cat and mouse games since they were 4. I remember when microwaves, VCR's (what's that you may ask), phones that moved around so much you could never find them were all new. The other day I was looking at a picture book with my two year old and found myself wondering if he recognized that big black box with legs that was a fixture in the center of the living room when I was growing up. Can you guess what it was called? So, it's easy for me to believe that the same sort of thing happens and has happened with previous generations and in other cultures, things are changing more and more, especially since the industrial revolution, when everything began to move at fast train speed.

While keeping those thoughts in mind, a few years ago now, I remember my husband commenting to me that I am very Protestant in how I think. I was a bit surprised at the time and had never realized that until he mentioned it, having been raised in a cultural Catholic family. It's those early years that leave such an impression on us. I remember going to the Cathedral in the little town where I was raised (before the age of 9 when we moved to the country) and being awestruck by the stain glass windows and the painted ceilings, the pictures of Jesus with his shepherding stick and his little lambs. I remember the pillars that lead forward toward the suffering Jesus on the lonely cross, the centrepiece on the alter. I remember even as an infant if you can believe it, trying to lift my head to see where that glorious (organ) sound was coming from, the balcony behind the last pew with the voices that carried forward to where the people were sitting. But as much as those early years and the memories of my first communion in my long dress and my first confession with my first penance left an impression on me, it was later at a Protestant summer camp that I was really challenged to think about what I believe. It was there that my faith became personal and intense and very real. So, my husband is probably right when he says I think like a Protestant, having there learned to read the Bible and get back to the sources to understand the roots of my Christian faith. 

Which brings me to the last stop in my string of recollections. I remember the morning of 9/11, waking up on that beautiful late summer day, thinking "this is my day off baby" and going upstairs to where my then, older landlady was sitting and eating breakfast. I thought she'd lost it and was speaking in metaphors through her soft Jamaican accent when she told me that America was burning. But there on the television, to quickly confirm what she was saying was the proof. I would be glued to a screen in a stupor that entire day, trying to make sense of what I saw in front of me. Like a lot of other people, I had never really given much thought to Islam. It was just another religion that differed from my own. But in the years that have followed 9/11, I have continued to try to make sense of the clash of civilizations that we see before us. But what would a Protestant do, keeping in mind my husband's observation about how I think, in trying to understand Islam? What do you think I did? Yes of course, I went back to the sources. I began reading the Koran and I did what any student of history would do. I began to read and contemplate Islamic history.  

Let me just pause for a moment here and tell you something about myself before continuing. I've learned over the years to take things with a grain of salt. There's always more to learn and so I try to keep a beginner's mind. I try to be open to something I may not have seen, or may not have understood well enough, but having said that, when I read the Koran, I don't see moderate Islam, I see radical Islam. When I look at Islamic history, when I look at the life of Muhammad and the decades and centuries that followed the teachings of Muhammad and his influence, I realize that the Crusades didn't come out of nowhere as is commonly assumed. They were a late reaction to an insurgency that had been ongoing for centuries, largely unprovoked. I have no interest in defending everything that happened during the Crusades, please know that, but to gain a better understanding of why they happened we must also look at a history that is largely ignored, the rise of Islam and the four centuries that lead up to 1096 during which two thirds of the then Christian world was lost. Nobody mentions that, do they?

So, what we are seeing is not new. What is relatively new is the western world's dominance on the world stage, so much so that we've been able to forget the reality of what it must have been like to live during the rebuilding of the western world after the fall of Rome and how if it had not been for Charles Martel heroically stopping the Arab invaders in France, western history may have looked very different. And that is why 9/11 was a shock to most of us, in our affluence and our relatively new dominance, we'd forgotten our history, replaced by a guilt complex that may be deserved, but in my humble opinion says more about our Judeo-Christian collective conscience than it changes the norms of human history, conquest and defeat. So honestly, if I was going to look at Muhammad alongside Napoleon or Attila the Hun or Alexander the Great I would have to say that I agree, he was a great leader, surely he was. But I don't judge Muhammad alongside historic military leaders, I judge him alongside Jesus because that's the line he claimed to be in, correct? Muhammad claimed to be more than a military leader, much more. He claimed to be the greatest of prophets and on an Islamic worldview he is revered as the ideal man.

And here's where I sigh and pause in my own thoughts because as much as I struggle as a Christian because the Crusades, which I believe were defensive wars, largely unsuccessful defensive wars at that, are thrown at us again and again as an example of where we too went wrong...and I have to agree, there were wrongs committed during the crusades. But notice my reluctance to denounce the Crusades outright as is often done because every ounce of my common sense tells me that the Crusaders response, at least initially, was reasonable given the circumstances. Again, I think the Crusades were defensive in nature and I think we have forgotten that we were the underdogs at that time in history. We fail to understand this because we think of Christianity as powerful and western and we wonder what westerners were doing in Jerusalem, but Christianity was not limited to the western world as is presently assumed. The western church was responding to a cry for help from the Eastern Roman Empire that continued long after the fall of Rome in the west. So, in thinking about the Crusades, the human being in me asks, would we wait 400 years, or until two thirds of our territory was lost to respond to an invading power? Would we? I don't think we would, and that is why I think it is unreasonable when the Crusades are thrown at us again and again without a thought for that historic reality.

But having said that, I have often thought too, that perhaps the reason why Christians often end up looking so bad is because Jesus looks so good. In other words, it is not my common sense that calls me to a higher standard, it is rather the pages of the New Testament and the words of Jesus that command me to love my enemy, regardless of my circumstances. Crazy, isn't it, and yet there it is. That Jesus wasn't very practical (lol), thankfully, but the Crusades remain a deep stain on Christian history alongside the many other stains that have so negatively affected our witness of the Gospel. So in summary, were they a just war? I'm inclined to think so. Were atrocities committed, certainly there were, but that was not the objective. The objective was defensive. Were they disorganized, often. Were there hooligans along for the walk that did a lot of damage? Yes. Was the leadership itself inconsistent, I'm inclined to think so. Yes and yes again, but the thought that keeps coming back to me that won't let me go is that the Crusades were not consistent with the teachings of Jesus who called his followers to a higher standard, who taught that his kingdom is not of this world, that our battle is not with flesh and blood.

So, we haven't always lived up to it, that part is true, but the core difference I see between the teachings of Jesus and the teachings of Muhammad or the Koran is that Jesus did not advocate violence. As much and as often as I hear Muslims say that Islam is peaceful, I have a hard time squaring that claim with the example of the life of Muhammad and the historical record of early Islam. Am I missing something? Maybe I am, but it seems like more moderate Muslims stress the earlier Meccan verses of the Koran and less moderate Muslims emphasize the later verses and the example of Muhammad's later life. But who's to say who is right? I have racked my brain trying to think of what I am missing here but what I keep coming back to is this. What is to stop a Muslim from reading the verse of the sword (which according to some abrogates earlier more peaceful verses) and taking it at face value? If this is the command of Allah who only loves observant Muslims and this is also the example of the seal of the prophets...add to that the constant threats of hell and damnation that seem to be all through the Koran and the knowledge on the part of the Muslim that they are never sure of their salvation unless they die on the battlefield....hearing Allahu Akbar in the news alongside another bombing starts to make a lot of sense. But maybe I'm missing something. Context perhaps? Well (shrug), I find the Koran often lacks context itself, which only adds to the difficulty. (Sigh).

In wrestling with this piece I had an opportunity to speak with a Muslim leader who was clearly a wonderful person, I mean that, and I asked him honestly saying, "I don't see what you see when you talk about Muhammad." He responded that there is "a time for things, that some of those things may have been for that time, that we need to keep context in mind, and that I need to learn Arabic to properly understand the Koran," which makes me wonder how many Muslims are reading the Koran if 85% of Muslims are not Arabs. Interestingly, he also said that he saw Muhammad as "practical." 

I think he was practical too. I think he used diplomacy to amass his personal power base and when that didn't work he used force. In giving Muslims a chance to respond to that view of their history, a Muslim told me that Muhammad had tried to peacefully engage people for years before taking over Mecca. Okay, but that doesn't change the fact that Muhammad used force to build a "community," in the words of another Muslim. If I shut the doors to a meeting and don't let anyone out but on my terms, is that community? I don't know about you but I lived in a community for a time in my early twenties and I remember the founder telling us that we could leave at any time. He wanted us to know that, adding that a community can become a cult. And that's just it, that's what doesn't sit right with me about Islam: if there is no compulsion in religion as claimed, people should be free to come and go, and they're not. It's the Hotel California of world religions.

A related question concerning Muhammad's process of leadership and building his following, is when did Muhammad focus on getting his theology right? If someone were to say to me, Marg, you're wrong, I'd want to go back and check my sources, wouldn't you? Wouldn't anyone with integrity? So, when did Muhammad learn to read so he could read the Bible to be sure he was being consistent with the tradition from which he claimed origin? Instead, he went away and built an army, am I correct? I said that recently to a Muslim, got myself in trouble as you might expect and he basically responded that Muhammad was justified. He tried for years, and tried and tried, right? Okay, but how does that not assume that he was right in the first place, and how does that prove Muhammad's consistency with the Jewish and Christian traditions? 

Also, in affirming Muhammad's use of force, how does that not provide a basis for a radical Muslim to use force today based on their prophet's example? And that's what I see, radical Muslims who believe that they are justified in defending themselves or propagating their worldview. I think it is obvious that in some ways Muhammad must have been a very gifted military and political leader, very strategic, but that is not the test of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Might does not make right for it's own sake. Being consistent with the character of God and the teachings of that tradition are the test. And if that consistency is there, why now do Muslims find themselves needing to say that the Bible has been "corrupted" despite it's earlier date, and without sources I should add. Why also do Muslims so often find themselves in the position of having to defend Muhammad's actions and character? Interesting questions, are they not? So, as hard as this is to talk about, and as much as I have struggled in writing this, I simply don't see how a modern Muslim can unequivocally denounce violence without also denouncing Muhammad and his earliest followers and in so doing dismiss the foundations of their own beliefs. 

But it was just for that time! How do we know? Maybe it was just for that time, but how is that not interpretive? Why is it not equally viable to conclude based on Allah's own divine word and the Prophet's actions that violence is acceptable to defend and to protect and to bring in Allah's Kingdom? The fact remains that Muhammad was not just a religious figure but was a political and military figure as well. The lack of separation of politics and religion on an Islamic worldview and the open-ended style of the Koran itself lead me to believe that the bombings and the suicide missions that we are seeing around the world are not an aberration. I see no reason to think that they are being inconsistent with the teachings of Islam when the origins of Islam involved both political and military campaigns. In short, I think these are the "back to the sources" students of Islam. I think these are the people like myself, who desire to be true to their beginnings, true to the Koran, true to the later actions of their prophet. As much as I appreciate Muslims who are trying to reinterpret Islam in a modern light, what can I say, I can't ignore what is written on the page and the actions of Islam's greatest prophet. Despite the best intentions of many of Islam's followers, I am left with ambiguity and the lack of a central authority in Islam to dictate otherwise.

But that's not the average Muslim, Marg. I know that's not the average Muslim, dear friends. I know it's not 85 percent of Muslims, for the record. And that's why it is gut-wrenching, and that is why I've struggled so much in writing this. How do you say what you really think about Islam and yet be fair to the wonderful Muslims that I see all around me? How do you be honest, yet respectful? That's what I find myself wrestling with these days, the thing that me and Erasmus and Martin Luther have in common, when applied to Islam does not lend a pretty picture but I don't want to impose that view on the people I know that do not fit that picture either. So back to my opening analogy, in trying to find a balance here. I think that armed struggle is Coca Cola classic Islam, that's where I'm at with it, but I don't think the average Muslim is drinking Coca Cola classic if you follow my meaning. I think the average Muslim is drinking Coca Cola zero or diet or cherry or vanilla, anything but Coca Cola Classic. And who am I to say, "hey kid, you know that stuff you're drinking? That's not real Coca Cola." Having said that, if statistics such as these are accurate, it is certainly cause for concern. (Sigh).

I remember one day I was outside watching my little boy and a Catholic neighborhood friend of mine was out walking her dog and somehow we got talking and I remember her commenting "you know Marg, Islam is a lot like Christianity" and the Protestant in me wondered what on earth she was talking about, but having thought about it since then, I think I get it. If I go back far enough in my memory to when I was a little girl, I remember the traditional prayers on the traditional beads and the traditional holidays with the traditional sacraments, all without ever being taught to read the Bible, and I think she's right, Islam is a lot like Christianity, in a traditional sense, when you ignore the books in question. But I think that for a lot of Muslims around the world, that's the Islam they know, their culture and their traditions which are centuries removed from Muhammad and the conquests of early Islam. As much as the Protestant in me wants to dig and get to the truth of what the Koran teaches, I have to respect that for most Muslims around the world, the cultural traditions and practices are what they know. So, it makes sense that the average Muslim would be bewildered and offended that we would think it means something more than it does to them. Faith, prayers, fasting, pilgrimage, giving. Many of the same pillars that when I squint my eyes and look off -I remember...

In nearing end, when I think about the whole person, the Billion and some Muslims that are all individuals, I know I need to tread carefully. Religion interacts with culture, and religion is deeply personal. From what I have heard, Hinduism wasn't even called Hinduism, it was just everyday life in India until the British came along and gave it a name. And so it is true, religion interacts with culture and evolves alongside that culture and so Islam does not look the same in Asia or the west as it did in 7th century Arabia. But I don't want to stop there because I think the reality is that we are also being confronted with Coca Cola jihad classic, people who want to get back to their roots, Islam style, back to the example of the prophet and the early centuries of Islam. And so we're left with the question, how do we balance cultural Islam with the reality of a threat to our security that is very real and very foundational? And how do we balance respect for the individual Muslim and their personal experience, with a healthy dialogue and a healthy constructive criticism? 

Well, maybe that's where my memories of the 80's might again come in handy. I remember the last years of the cold war. I remember Sting asking if Russians love their children too, and being a child myself, I could never figure out if it was intended as critical of Russians or the west. But one thing is for sure, we didn't have a kind view of what lay behind the iron curtain, they were "Godless and cold." But is it not also a fair question to ask, would history have been different if we had never been able to question communism, or if communist countries themselves had never been given any room to eventually question communist theory and practice? Also, when we questioned communism, was that to put down everyone who lived under communism, who suffered under communism or was it simply to acknowledge the shortcomings and injustices of communist systems of government in those places? I fear that we are losing the ability to discern, what is criticism of an ideological system, and what is criticism of the individual person? Also, because we have this idea of Islam being a religion, and all religions are the same doncha' know, you can't criticize Islam (though no one seems to hesitate to question what I believe but that's a whole other discussion). The fact is, Islam is more than a religion. Islam is a way of life that "cannot be separated" in the words of a Muslim friend of mine, and so Islam is also a political and legal system when fully implemented. 

I see parallels between communism and Islam as political systems. Arguably, both are totalitarian governing systems when implemented. Both are arguably Christian heresies, promising heaven and putting you through hell to get there. I can say that because I know they think I'm a heretic too so I figure that makes us even (haha). Both see violence as a means to an end, in short. But much like I feel for people who suffered under communist regimes, I also greatly empathize with people, especially women and children, who are suffering under Islamic political states. Is that hate? Surely that is empathy! But it disturbs me greatly that our present culture does not allow for criticism of Islam, on grounds of having this vague assumption that all religions teach the same thing. What religion teaches is one question, whether there is room for separation of religion and state and minority rights is quite another. But we can't say that, can we? Without the freedom to criticize, how will anything change? How will female circumcision stop? How will the marriage of little girls stop? How will the public humiliation of women and the killing of apostates stop? How will the suffering of minorities in Islamic states stop?

So, in conclusion, this has been an intensely difficult piece to write.  I apologize if my words offend, but please know that I respect Muslims as people, very much so. This is not intended as a criticism of individuals, but rather as a criticism of an ideological system. In support of the individuals who I know are out there, who are suffering under Islamic governments or politically Sharia influenced states, and the people with fatwas on their heads for speaking out and the many many more who are afraid to speak out....let's continue this discussion. For the person also whose violence is toward a religious end, I want to talk to you, I want to get to know you, because I know you care about truth and I would like to challenge your historical assumptions about Jesus. I would like to challenge the Koran's view of Jesus and Christianity because I know that Jesus claimed more, promised more and showed us a better way. Love your enemies, bless and pray for those who persecute you, overcome evil with good, turn the other cheek and walk that extra mile. Jesus commands it. Jesus lived it. It's not ambiguous. Jesus left no room for ambiguity so put away the sword, Christian and Muslim. Finally, for the person out there who sees Islam as a religion of peace, and for those like me who are skeptical of such assertions or statements of faith, but love and desire to support Muslims as individuals...let's have a conversation and know that I respect your right to your own experience and your own perceptions. You tell me, and I'll tell you, and you can tell me again, -what's the real thing?

Thanks for listening,

M.A. Harvey

Related links:


The Rise of Islam:

Military career of Muhammad: 



Sira: Life of Muhammad

Koranic support for peace:

Koranic support for violence?


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