The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.
— The Olympic Creed
Attributed to Pierre de Coubertin, the creed was inspired by a sermon given by the Bishop of Pennsylvania on the first Sunday of the London Olympic Games in 1908. During a religious service in St. Paul's Cathedral, the bishop delivered these words, "The important thing in these Olympiads is not to win, but to take part."
The creed has been displayed during the opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games ever since.
At the Inner-City Muslim Action Network in Chicago, Rami Nashashibi uses religion, art, and culture to fight for social justice.
Mr. Nashashibi sat down with radio host and producer Krista Tippett for the fourth installment of the Chautauqua Institution's lecture series based on the interfaith theme, “Krista Tippett and Friends Who Inspire, Commit, Act.” In their conversation, Ms. Tippett and Mr. Nashashibi discussed his personal faith journey to Islam and the work he does for social justice through his nonprofit organization, IMAN.
Mr. Nashashibi’s relationship with Islam resembles that of a convert, he said. Though born in Jordan, Mr. Nashashibi grew up all around the world and spent much of his early life living in Europe. The home he grew up in was not ideologically secular but areligious. Little focus was placed on the study or practice of Islam.
When he reached college-age, Mr. Nashashibi came to the Southwest Side of Chicago on a soccer scholarship. When he arrived, he was confronted with the reality of American life in a city rife with economic disparity and racial violence.
Mr. Nashashibi was horrified by the continued social segregation and inequality he witnessed. The early years of his time in Chicago coincided with America’s first Gulf War. While he still lived on the Southwest Side, he began to receive strange vibes from people in the community, at one point via a hateful note on his door.
He soon decided to move to another college campus on the North Side of the city. The campus he moved to was more racially diverse, and when he arrived, he actively engaged in fighting for social justice issues with the black and Latino communities.
“I became increasingly fascinated and drawn to the African-American narrative, and in the process of doing that, became more and more familiar with — and interacted with those from that narrative who encountered Islam. The African-American encounter with Islam is truly an American story, and it’s one that’s deeply anchored in the larger American narrative.”
Mr. Nashashibi said he soon became fascinated with the stories and people who had participated in movements, such as the Black Panthers and Black Nationalism. Many of the activists and former members of those organizations were devoutly Muslim. They often would ask why he lacked a stronger, more formalized faith, Mr. Nashashibi said.
Mr. Nashashibi would respond that he was agnostic and did not believe in organized religion. Early on in his activist career, he could not understand how the intellectual social justice activists he admired were also so reverently faithful to Islam, Mr. Nashashibi said.
“So for the first time, I really started to read the Quran only to refute these guys. And I remember seriously the first year just extracting verses from the Quran only to come back and say, ‘Do you really believe in this?’ ”
Soon a transformation began, and during the course of a few years, he began exploring the Qur'an and asking honest questions about the Muslim faith. He began to embrace the religion as a vehicle for social justice. At first, his relationship with Islam was based solely in the political and social context, but as he continued his exploration of the religion, he realized he was missing its greater spiritual aspect.
Eventually, he also turned to the faith for his spiritual needs. In the 1990s, Mr. Nashashibi began to work with Muslim youth from Chicago’s Southwest Side, an area plagued with violence, drugs, and poverty. In its early days, the program focused on bringing together Muslim children from the inner city and other groups of Muslim children, such as African-Americans from nearby suburbs.
“When we brought all of this eclectic mix together — middle class immigrant Muslim kids brought up in the suburbs, young immigrant Muslims brought up in the hood, African American Muslims who have generations of experience on the South Side of Chicago — that produced this extraordinary excitement, a sense of possibility, something that had not been done, something whose time had come.”
One of the first initiatives of the program was called “Takin’ it to the Streets.” The event was held in the same park the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was stoned, in 1966. The point of the event was to take the work IMAN was doing and bring it out for the world to see, Mr. Nashashibi said.
About 900 people attended the event, and the organization raised $20,000. But, it could have been 900,000 people and $2 million judging by the amount of momentum and excitement it inspired, he said.
IMAN stems from a core Muslim principle, the call for social justice, Mr. Nashashibi said. Jesus Christ is often credited with working for and championing “the least of these,” but serving the marginalized was also an action and focus of the Prophet Muhammad, Mr. Nashashibi said.
The poor and marginalized sections of society, including women and slaves, were some of the earliest converts to Islam, Mr. Nashashibi said.
The disparities of wealth and opportunity based on arbitrary boundaries or uncontrollable events — such as a person’s race or the ZIP code in which he or she was born — motivate Mr. Nashashibi to continue to work for change, he said.
“For me, this work is in part a way to deal with the anxiety, the spiritual anxiety of those disparities. I can’t feel religiously comfortable in simply accepting that type of division in the way we live our lives.”
Mr. Nashashibi said he understands how it can be difficult to stay faithful and committed to the idea of social progress, especially when problems can seem overwhelmingly large and the actuality of change distant.
“It’s one thing to aspire towards those type of parities in our lives that we think are more reflective of the spiritual calling that we all attempt to implement into our lives and implement into society. It’s another thing when, you know, you’re walking 4- and 6-year-old girls down a block where, you know, two days earlier there was a gang shooting.”
Recently, Mr. Nashashibi was walking down his block on the Southwest Side with his young daughters. As they passed a stoop, the smell of marijuana smoke wafted in their direction. After dropping his children home, Mr. Nashashibi left his house and returned to the offending stoop and walked up to one of the men seated there.
“Listen man, can I holla at you for a moment?” Mr. Nashashibi asked. The man listened, and Mr. Nashashibi expressed to him that he did not want his daughters to smell marijuana every time they walked home. Within moments, the man had his arm around Mr. Nashashibi, apologizing and promising that it would not happen again.
“I want to grow with you, I want to learn with you, I’ve been watching you, and don’t worry, you won’t have to deal with that next time you walk down in front of us,” the man had said.
When the enormity of the world’s problems becomes overwhelming, micro-moments such as that human-to-human interaction reaffirm his belief that change can happen.
“You can engage those who sometimes you’re told to fear, who you’re told to write off,” Mr. Nashashibi said.
At the heart of IMAN is a dedication to art — visual and musical. The incorporation of art in the program reflects the Muslim understanding of God as beautiful. There is a Muslim tradition that says God is beautiful and loves beauty, Mr. Nashashibi said. In Islam, God is also referred to as a beautiful storyteller. In one of the Suras of the Quran, the story of Yusuf is told. The chapter about Yusuf begins, “We reveal to you the most beautiful of stories,” Mr Nashashibi said.
“The idea of God and the divine as a beautiful storyteller is also really at the core of our tradition."
IMAN brings musicians from all around the world to perform at its events, including opera singers and spoken-word artists, Mr. Nashashibi said. The use of art, specifically hip-hop music, began organically as an effective tool for bringing together those Muslim youth from diverse backgrounds.
“It became the most powerful and useful way of bringing together young kids in Chicago who were totally disconnected from one another while living and sharing the same kind of urban experiences,” Mr. Nashashibi said.
One of the earliest uses of hip-hop culture and art happened in 1995, when Mr. Nashashibi asked a well-known graffiti writer in Chicago to write a phrase from the Quran on a wall in graffiti. The phrase said, “We created you into nations and tribes so that may get to know each other, not hate one another, and the most dignified among you is the one with the most consciousness of the divine,” Mr. Nashashibi said.
The artist did not write in ornate Arabic calligraphy, but his transcription and artwork was so perfect that a Palestinian man walking on the street stopped to ask how long he had been training. The unveiling of that project showed Mr. Nashashibi art’s strong, uniting force. Since then, it has been a fundamental aspect of the program. Today, the biyearly “Takin’ it to the Streets” celebration has more than 20,000 attendees each year, with huge celebrities and artists in attendance, Mr. Nashashibi said.
“The arts have become the real factor for us in both humanizing each others’ stories, connecting our stories and, I think, revealing to one another the possibilities of what a better world can look like."
The idea of a collective American-Muslim culture is one Mr. Nashashibi holds dear and tries to spread through IMAN’s programs. It stems from the work of Malcolm X, following his trip to Mecca. After returning from Mecca, Malcolm X wrote to his wife that he no longer believed in race-based segregation within Islam. He had an image of Islam as a “powerful conduit in reconciling some of the great tensions of his time, of our time,” Mr. Nashashibi said.
“Nowhere is that dream, that broader dream, more possible, more relevant, more germane and, I think, more urgent than it is here within the context of the American experience."
Sept. 11 changed the lives of Muslims living in America, Mr. Nashashibi said. There are still vast parts of the United States where strong traces of fear of Islam and Muslims remain. For example, legislatures in states such as Oklahoma are introducing bans on Sharia law, he said.
Following Sept. 11, Mr. Nashashibi said he began to begrudge the eagerness with which Islamic leaders would frequently make statements distancing American Muslims from the attacks. He said he felt and feels Americans do not need to hear about how American Muslims are not this, or not that. But, he said, they should be exposed to American Muslims living the American experience.
In Chicago, Mr. Nashashibi does not have to tell people he is not from a religion of violence, because people see him holding prayer sessions on street corners where violence takes place, and they know he is fighting violence.
“There’s an anxiety for me even, about when to be OK with talking about the very basics and when to say: ‘Hey, damn it, we’ve been here, we’ve been doing great things, we shouldn’t have to convince you that we are part and parcel of the American experience.’ ”
By Trent Gilliss | Thursday, July 26, 2012 - 10:17am
Another serendipitous pairing one often sees in his Tumblr dashboard if he pays attention. It seems to point at something in our cultural consciousness that we need to connect more. What a juxtaposition in scale and how the forms sit in their environment.
Several weeks ago, Father Gregory Boyle, S.J., buried his 183rd young person.
In 1988, he buried his first, an identical twin named Raphael. At Raphael’s funeral, his twin brother, Roberto, looked into the coffin, a living reflection of the body contained within. That picture of a young man staring into the coffin that held his brother, his mirror image, has stayed with Fr. Boyle: “That was my first introduction to the great loss and unspeakable grief of it.”
The “it” Boyle refers to is gang violence in streets of Los Angeles. Fr. Boyle is a Jesuit priest, former pastor of the Dolores Mission Church in Los Angeles, and the founder of Homeboy Industries, a gang intervention program. He is the author of the book Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion.
Homeboy Industries seeks to improve and transform the lives of gang members by employing them at one of the Homeboy businesses, which include a bakery, café, a silkscreen and embroidery shop, and others. Homeboy Industries also provides support services including therapy, GED classes, and tattoo removal, Boyle said.
In the July 10th Interfaith Lecture at the Chautauqua Institution, the second of the series’ week three theme “Krista Tippett and Friends Who Inspire, Commit, Act,” Ms. Tippett sat down with Fr. Boyle in the Hall of Philosophy to discuss his life, work, inspirations, and relationships.
Boyle grew up in Los Angeles and was educated by Jesuits. In his time spent with the priests, he found them to be joyful and prophetic.
“The combination of the prophetic and the hilarious — I loved that,” Fr. Boyle said. “So I thought, ‘Boy, I want — I’ll have what they’re having.’”
Being a Jesuit priest is about being a companion of Jesus, he said. St. Ignatius said that Jesus is standing in the lowly place:
"Standing in the lowly place with the easily despised, and the readily left out, and with the demonized — so that the demonizing will stop — and with the disposable — so that the day will come when we stop throwing people away. That gives me life, that’s where I want to be. I think that’s where Jesus insists on standing."
After his ordination, Fr. Boyle spent some time working with the poor in Bolivia. When he returned to Los Angeles, he asked to be sent to the poorest place he could be sent. He was placed in the Dolores Mission Church in Los Angeles. At the time, the area had eight different warring gangs and the highest gang activity levels in the world, Fr. Boyle said.
The work Homeboy Industries does can be categorized as service work, but it is important to understand the mutuality of the relationship between the former gang members or “homies,” who participate in the program, and Fr. Boyle. One of Fr. Boyle’s messages is the necessity of “delighting in people.” Delighting in people means moving past defined identities such as “service provider” and “service recipient” and reaching a kinship, Fr. Boyle said.
“I think that’s where the place of delight is, that I’ve learned everything of value in the last 25 years from precisely the people who you think are on the receiving end of my gifts and talent, and wisdom and advice, but quite the opposite — it’s mutual.”
In the Acts of the Apostles, it is written, “awe came upon everyone.” The expression teaches that the measure of our human compassion is not based on the amount of work we do for those in the margins, but on our willingness to form a kinship with the marginalized, our willingness to move away from judgment toward awe, Fr. Boyle said.
He said he is perpetually in awe of the homies he knows and works with. In his conversation with Ms. Tippett, Fr. Boyle told the story of José, a former gang member and heroin addict who now works for Homeboy Industries. Recently, at a social worker’s training event, José told the audience that when he was six years old, his mother asked him, ‘Why don’t you just kill yourself?’ When he was 9 years old, she drove him into Baja California, Mexico, and left him at an orphanage. He stayed at the orphanage until his grandmother picked him up 90 days later.
When José’s mother was not actively trying to abandon him, she beat him relentlessly.
Throughout his years in school, José said he was forced to wear three layers of shirts to mask the wet blood that would seep from open wounds on his back. As he grew older, he continued to wear three shirts every day because he was ashamed of his scars. At the end of his story, José told the audience that today his wounds are friends. He said, “How can I help the wounded if I don’t welcome my own wounds?” Fr. Boyle said.
"And awe came upon everyone. Because we’re so inclined to, kind of, judge this kid who, you know, went to prison, tattooed and is a gang member, homeless, heroin addict — the list goes on. But he was never seeking anything when he ended up in those places. He was always fleeing the story I just told."
The role of people on earth is to try to imitate the kind of God they believe in, Fr. Boyle said. If a person’s understanding of God is as a source of love and compassion, then that is what the person should reflect on earth. In human interactions, people should work to show others how special and deserving of love they are, Fr. Boyle said.
“You want people to recognize that they’re the truth of who they are — that they’re exactly what God had in mind when God made them,” Fr. Boyle said.
Alice Miller, a child psychologist, said that we are called to be “enlightened witnesses” who return people to themselves, Fr. Boyle said. In doing so, they will return us to ourselves.
To illustrate that concept, Fr. Boyle told the story of an 18-year-old he works with named Luis. Luis is exasperating and sometimes whiny, Fr. Boyle said. Recently, after talking with Fr. Boyle, Luis asked the priest for a blessing:
“I said, ‘You know, Luis, I’m proud to know you, and my life is richer because you came into it, and when you were born, the world became a better place, and I’m proud to call you my son. Even though’ — and I don’t know why I decided to add this part — ‘at times, you can really be a huge pain in the ass.’”
In response, Luis looked up at him and said, “The feeling’s mutual.”
“Maybe I returned him to himself, but there is no doubt that he’s returned me to myself,” Fr. Boyle said.
Ms. Tippett noted that in Fr. Boyle’s books he often references the greatness and vastness of God. She said the words he uses often seem to contrast the dismal statistics associated with the work he does and the neighborhood in which he works. In response, Fr. Boyle said people should always be attentive because the vastness of God is always happening everywhere.
In his first few years at the Dolores Mission Church, Fr. Boyle said he would often walk through the projects at night. One evening, he stumbled on a 16-year-old boy named Mario sitting alone on the porch stoop. When Fr. Boyle approached Mario, the boy said it was funny that the priest had appeared at that moment, because he had just been praying and asking God to show him a sign. That encounter touched Fr. Boyle deeply and helped establish his understanding of God’s vastness:
“It came by way of knowing that the day won’t ever come that I am as holy as the people I am called to serve, that the day won’t ever come that I have more courage, or am more noble or am closer to God than the 16-year-old gang member sitting alone on his porch. And that’s important, because I think that’s sort of where the vastness of God resides.”
Homeboy Industries has a 75-percent retention rate, which means 75 percent of the people they work with do not return to prison. Since the late 1980s when Fr. Boyle first began working in the Dolores Mission Church, his approach to fighting gang violence has evolved. A variety of successes and failures has offered new insights into what are the most effective practices:
“Anything worth doing is worth failing at, I think — that will be on my tombstone. We had seven businesses, but not all of them worked. You know, Homeboy Plumbing was really not a huge success. Apparently people didn’t want gang members in their homes — I didn’t see that coming."
In the early days of his work in Los Angeles, Fr. Boyle would actively work to draft peace agreements and ceasefires among warring gangs. Today, he does not work with gangs as complete units, only with their disparate members who seek help from Homeboy Industries. Peace-making agreements require conflict. In gang warfare, it is important to understand that there is gang violence but not actual conflict. The violence has no foundation, Fr. Boyle said.
“It’s about a lethal absence of hope. It’s about kids who can’t imagine a future for themselves. It’s about kids who aren’t seeking anything when they join a gang. It’s about the fact that they’re always fleeing something,” Fr. Boyle said.
When Homeboy Industries first started, it was mostly an employment referral agency. The slogan on its T-shirts still reads, “Nothing stops a bullet like a job,” Fr. Boyle said. In the last five years, Fr. Boyle said he’s beginning to see that employment is only part of the battle. Eighty percent is about having a job and having a paycheck, but the other 20 percent comes from being a part of a healing community, he said.
“It’s about what psychologists would call attachment repair, you know, because gang members come to us with this disorganized attachment,” Fr. Boyle said. “Mom was frightening or frightened, and you can’t really soothe yourself if you’ve never been calmed down by that significant person in your life.
“It’s never too late to kind of gain this, so they repair this attachment and gain some resilience, and they redefine who they are in the world,” he said. “And then we send them on, beyond us, and then the world will throw at them what it will, but it won’t topple them.”
In the concluding moments of their conversation, Ms. Tippett discussed how Fr. Boyle’s work and philosophy truly embodies the incarnational heart of Christianity.
“The truth is, you know, we’re so used to a God — a ‘one false move’ God and so we’re not really accustomed to the ‘no-matter-whatness’ of God, to the God who’s just plain old too busy loving us to be disappointed in us,” Fr. Boyle said. “That is, I think, the hardest thing to believe, but everybody in this space knows it’s the truest thing you can say about God.”
One of the things I find I most enjoyed — and, now, most miss — about my travels to the West Bank, Jerusalem, and Istanbul is the periodicity of the muezzin's call to prayer. It greets you in so many unexpected ways.
Standing on the Mount of Olives, one call drifts across the valley from the Old City only to be washed over by another call to prayer down the way. But walk within its walls, and it beckons you to stop — sometimes sternly and, at others, as a mother would remind her child.
Walk around a corner in Ramallah and the muezzin's voice may greet you as a friend and wrap its arms around your shoulders; walk down another alley and it barks at you. Sit atop a rooftop patio in the oldest parts of Istanbul and several voices vie for your affections without competing with one another. The voices of small, underpowered speakers from a nearby local mosque provide background vocals for the melodic mix of the more prominent mosques like the Sultanahmet Mosque, the Blue Mosque, in what seems like a talent show of some of the world's finest muezzins.
And, then there's the greeting from one's home, as you can hear in the audio embedded audio above. It's the maghrib athan, the fourth call that summons the faithful to prayer just after sunset, during Ramadan from what seems like an apartment window somewhere outside of Nablus.
One sees so many sites, eats so much delicious food, meets so many wonderful people. But it's the rhythmic reminder that stays with me, a discipline I'll cherish long after the memory of such encounters slowly erode themselves in my mind.
About the photo: The muezzin at the Madrassa of Sultan Hassan in Cairo demonstrates his vocal abilities in the liwan. (Photo by Christopher Rose/Flick, licensed under Creative Commons)
On Tisha B'Av, a family reads Lamentations at the synagogue Kehilat Moreshet Avraham in East Talpiot, Jerusalem. (Photo by Brian Negin)
According to Sefer Yetzirah, to each month of the Jewish calendar there corresponds a letter of the Hebrew alphabet, a zodiac sign, one of the twelve tribes of Israel, a sense, and a controlling limb of the body...
That's from The Month of Tamuz According to the Book of Formation (Sefer Yetzirah) at Inner.org, a website which collects the kabbalistic teachings of Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh. R' Ginsburgh teaches that the sense associated with this month is sight. And the tribe associated with this month is Reuben — a name which comes from the same root as the verb "to see."
Our task this month, he teaches, is to rectify, or heal, our own sight. "[O]ne must train one's eyes (both spiritual and physical) to see only the inner positive dimension of reality and not to focus upon reality's outer, negative 'shell.'" On another page at that same site — The Month of Tamuz: The End of Tragedy — we read:
The sense of the month of Tamuz is sight. This means that the month of Tamuz is the best month of the year to learn to exercise our sight in the most positive way possible. Rectified sight involves both shying away from that which is negative (an ability associated in Kabbalah with our left eye) and training ourselves to see things in a positive light (associated with our right eye). In essence, both aspects are included in the right eye, which means that we should seek to see only the good points in others.
I love this idea: that this month it is our task to learn to stop seeing the bad in people, and to perfect the art of seeing the good in people. I make a year-long practice of trying to see the good in people, but there's something especially meaningful to me about the idea of strengthening that practice during this time.
We've entered the Three Weeks when we are bein ha-meitzarim, caught in the narrow straits of remembered grief and suffering. We remember the sack of Jerusalem and the fall of the Beit haMikdash, the house of holiness where we once understood God's presence to dwell. I keep returning to the text from Talmud which teaches that it was sinat chinam, needless hatred between and among our community, which brought the Temple down. And I find that I'm feeling even more keenly than usual the wish that I could create bridges of understanding between people who don't see eye to eye.
If we could all spend these Three Weeks healing our sight so that we truly only see the good in one another, how might the world be different? I'm not talking about superficial pretense, but about really training ourselves to see the best in people. Imagine seeing the best not only in your friends, but in the guy who cuts you off in traffic; in someone who looks different from you; in someone whose political positions are the opposite of yours.
Imagine Democrats and Republicans not just pretending to like one another, or focusing on their common ground in order to get along, but really figuring out how to see the good in each other. Imagine AIPAC supporters and Jewish Voice for Peace supporters doing the same. Secular Israelis and ultra-Orthodox Israelis. Soldiers and refuseniks. Israelis and Palestinians.
The classical tradition, I suspect, would argue that our task is to learn to see the best in each other within our community, not outside the bounds of our community. (Define those boundaries how you will.) But my teacher Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi has taught that in this age of paradigm shift, we need to move beyond triumphalism to an organismic understanding of our place in the world. Each religion is a necessary organ in the body of humanity; we need to maintain our differences, but we also need to communicate and connect. Maybe the best way to do that is to learn to see the best in one another.
May our vision be healed; may we learn how to look at each other and to see not our flaws and failings and differences but our holy sparks, our souls which shine, no matter who we are.
Rachen Barenblat is a rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel in North Adams, Massachusetts. Better known in online circles as the blogger Velveteen Rabbi, she's also an ordained mashpi'ah (spiritual director) and poet. Her first collection of poems is 70 faces: Torah Poems.
The Mormon scholar Joanna Brooks describes celebrating Pioneer Day as a young girl by donning a "pioneer calico bonnet and skirt handmade by my mother every July 24 to celebrate my great-great-grandmother and other ancestors who had come from as far away as England to build an American Zion in Utah and Idaho."
Flyin' to Zion blimp float in a local parade celebrating Pioneer Day. (Photo by Martijn van Exel/Flickr, cc by-nd 2.0)
(Photo by Arby Reed/Flickr)
Photo by Edgar Zuniga Jr./Flickr, cc by-nd 2.0
Photo by Arby Reed/Flickr, cc by-nd 2.0)
Ronda Robertson from Farmington, Utah pulls a handcart through The Needles area of southwestern Wyoming as a vivid reminder of the hardship endured by early Mormon pioneers. (Photo by Mike Nelson/AFP/Getty Images)
Crossing the swiftly moving Sweetwater River, Mormon youth grip a rope to keep them from being swept away in the current towards the end of their 10-mile trek. (Photo by Jill P. Mott/Flickr, cc by-nc-nd 2.0)
The first temple built by the LDS church after their arrival in Utah is the St. George Temple.. (Photo by J Brew/Flickr, cc by-sa 2.0)
Fireworks close the celebrations on Pioneer Day.
The University of Utah in Salt Lake City on Pioneer Day. (Photo by Sam Klein/Flick, cc by-nc-nd 2.0)
By Trent Gilliss | Thursday, July 12, 2012 - 10:06am
"Innovation is the exit strategy for aid."
—Dr. Abdallah Daar
"Inspire. Commit. Act." This was the theme of Krista Tippett's week-long series of interviews at the Chautauqua Institution in New York. Fresh off a plane from Istanbul, our host hopped on a flight to New York last week and interviewed six people over five days. The first conversation to kick of the series: Dr. Abdallah Daar.
Born and raised as a Sunni Muslim in Tanzania, the professor of public health sciences and of surgery at the University of Toronto is a leading expert in the field of global health, with a focus on righting inequities by studying how medical research and vaccines can be taken more quickly from "lab to village."
“I call them inequities, and not inequalities or disparities, because inequity is an ethical term which means that it is something that is both unfair and unjust and that you can do something about."
As he tells Ms. Tippett in this interview, his passion for improving global public health was inspired in part by losing his sister to malaria, a preventable and treatable condition. “The thought that in this day and age, 1997, someone could die of a preventable and treatable condition was just shattering to me, and for a family member to depart in that situation was really shocking,” Dr. Daar said.
Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople visits with primatologist Jane Goodall during the Halki Summit on the island of Heybeliada, Turkey. (Photo by N. Manginas)
Earlier this month, His All Holiness Bartholomew, the Patriarch of 300 million Eastern Orthodox Christians, convened a two-day conversation on "environment, ethics, and innovation." We gathered on the tiny, ancient island of Heybeliada off Istanbul, the city that was once the Patriarch's Constantinople and before that New Rome.
There were scientists there, and activists, and religious thinkers. Greenpeace was represented, and so was Dow Chemical. We did not solve any problem or draft a white paper or conceive a plan of action. There were no expectations of these things, and so it was not, like the recent Rio conference, roundly condemned as a failure. But our discussion did yield some fresh examination of the often-unnamed obstacle to all the good solutions and plans already out there: the human condition.
The gathering convened in a former seminary, which Ataturk's successors closed in 1971 as they secularized Turkey and which the present Islamic government seems poised to reopen. It was poignant, in this space, to hear James Hansen — the NASA scientist who seminally defined the relationship between atmospheric carbon dioxide and civilization as we know it — profess that scientists need the help of the religious in an urgent struggle for public understanding.
But really, the problem is something different from understanding. Facts are out there, knowledge is out there, and there are fewer and fewer people alive on any continent who do not have a direct experience of environmental volatility — whatever their doubt or faith in "climate change." The problem, as the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr famously diagnosed, is that "man is his own most vexing problem." Or, as Patriarch Bartholomew more poetically invoked, "there is a long journey from the head to the heart, and an even longer journey from the heart to the hands."
We circled back to this insight over and over again, with different words and from disparate directions. Jane Goodall spoke of the intelligence that distinguishes humans among species — our ability to teach our young about things that are not directly tangible, to recall the past, to think and organize into the future. But intelligence alone does not get us where we need to go or even necessarily where we want to go. For that, the human creature must exercise harder-won capacities of wisdom, and wise action.
I went to this conference ready to challenge theologians to more robustly articulate their vision of the relationship between humanity and the natural world. There has been an explosion of new theological thinking and scriptural scholarship across religions and denominations in recent decades, paralleling the explosion in scientific understanding of how the world is changing.
Now I suspect that the most urgent religious contribution to our environmental present may be in the knowledge it holds — at its best — about engaging hearts and organizing hands. Before neuroscience and brain imaging, our great religious and spiritual traditions knew that fear and anxiety are sources of suffering, but that we are prone to create more suffering rather than face these. They understood that knowing what is right is not the same as living it. They developed contemplative practices, rituals, and communities in which human beings become safe and supported to aspire to their best, for the good of the whole.
The evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson has studied religions precisely in this way — as remarkably successful examples of adaptive groups, practicing for thousands of years what evolutionary biologists are figuring out about the link between environment, values, and behavior. There is altogether a fascinating convergence right now between ancient religious teachings and new science on altruism, forgiveness, and empathy. We're understanding how such qualities are triggered physiologically, and how they can be made more likely.
The path Jane Goodall is now following reflects a kindred line of questioning and discernment. As she became aware of the destructive force of human beings on chimpanzee habitats, she simultaneously attended to the human suffering behind it. New conservation initiatives have been realized for the chimpanzees of Gombe, which began with meeting human fear and need. And her program, Roots and Shoots, is yielding practical projects all over the world; it is, in essence, about emboldening hope and courage in young people paralyzed by the deluge of environmental bad news.
Stonyfield Farms founder Gary Hirshberg is another voice for both profitability and what he calls "restorative commerce." He pays organic farmers generously to put carbon back into their soil and has far poorer gross margins than his commercial competitors — including Groupe Danone, the global food giant that bought a majority stake in Stonyfield Farms a decade ago. But Hirshberg has higher net margins, a confounding equation that led Danone to leave the business model in his control. He's achieved this in part by eschewing traditional advertising budgets but reaching out directly to consumers, one might say, at the head-heart-hands nexus. His paradigm, he said on Heybeliada, is peace of mind. His customers' motivation — and his own — is having children.
This is language that reframes behavior, taking our sense of necessary actions out of the realm of guilt and into the realm of deeply desired good. And this is another thing religions have always understood: the power of words, specifically of naming, to make new realities possible. The word "environmentalism" itself segregates the importance of what happens in places like Rio. It makes the work of nurturing and restoring the environment seem the domain of experts and activists. It points away from near universal, life-giving experiences like having children, loving the place one comes from, and discovering courage in the presence of dignity and beauty.
The great question — beyond Heybeliada and Rio and all the conferences to come — is how to open up environmental and scientific discourse and passions to the human and civilizational discourse and passions they rightly are. Another scientist who came to Heybeliada, Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute, evokes spiritual traditions along with scientific innovation in a virtue he calls "applied hope." How interesting and fitting that the natural world might be the ground that brings science and religion back to a shared sense of purpose after a few hundred years of estrangement. What a relief that this could be the story history will tell in the next century, if we survive to see it, rather than the distracting narrative of discord that we privilege at our peril.
Americans once feared that the United States was under threat from a band of religious fanatics. The American people believed that these fanatics, who were said to force their women into unwanted marriages, wanted to replace American democracy with an extremist religious regime established by “prophets.” There were even rumors that they had committed atrocities in the name of God against American citizens in terrorist attacks.
Who were these feared “fanatics?” Muslims?
Mormons and Muslims face a similar struggle when it comes to being largely misunderstood in the United States today. When it comes to both faiths, media seem determined to focus on the rumors and extremes. Seen in this light, it is an incredible, and promising, sign that today Americans are considering the possibility of electing a Mormon, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, as their next president.
The Mormon faith was founded in 1830 in New York by American Protestants seeking a closer and more vibrant relationship with God. As the religion grew, Mormons organized settlements, first in the American Midwest, and then further westward in Utah, where they could practice their faith in community. During the 19th century, Americans viewed Mormonism as a fanatical faith dangerous enough to require military intervention. The first came through Missouri Governor Lilburn Boggs’s “Mormon Extermination Order” in 1838, and later in the 1850s when President Buchanan sent federal troops to march on Utah Territory in order to strengthen US government control over Mormons.
Since then, Mormonism has grown into a global faith of 14 million members. Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), to which the vast majority of Mormons belong, now live in virtually every country of the world, and represent a diverse group of people. Our political opinions span the spectrum, and one can find Mormons on either side of major national and international divides. But we all understand ourselves to be members of a global community of faith.
Given the U.S. media attention on both Mormonism and Islam of late, it is a worthwhile moment to note how much both groups have in common.
Like Islam, Mormonism is a religion of peace. Mormons consider themselves Christians and strive to uphold the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth when it comes to loving those with whom we share the world. However, because Mormons hold beliefs that differ from other Christian groups — such as that Jesus and God are separate entities — they have often been met with animosity. This animosity and sense of being misunderstood is no stranger to the Muslim American community.
One of Mormonism’s main teachings is that a person’s time on earth is a time to learn to submit to God’s will and accept life’s challenges and blessings. Modesty in dress, especially in women, is often considered a sign of piety, as is abstinence from drugs and alcohol. Mormons regularly fast and, similar to the Muslim observance of the month of Ramadan, Mormons are encouraged to give money to the poor in conjunction with fasting.
Such similarities and a desire by LDS Church leadership to foster a healthy relationship with all faiths have led to many positive, tangible interactions with Muslim Americans. The LDS Church has worked with Islamic charities and initiated outreach efforts to Muslim American communities. One LDS congregation in St. Louis, Missouri, for instance, opened its church to local Muslims for Friday prayer services. The LDS Church also pays for the education of Palestinian students who want to study at Brigham Young University, an LDS Church-owned school.
We rarely hear about efforts like these in media, whereas all too often we hear about the negative aspects of Islam, or Mormonism. A recent Gallup poll found that 18 percent of Americans would not vote for a well-qualified presidential candidate who happened to be Mormon — suggesting that Americans may be wary of the impact of the religion on policy.
But there is so much more to Mormonism, just as there is more to Islam and other faith communities that call on its adherents to conduct themselves with wisdom and responsibility toward others. Our religious principles can shape the kind of moral bearings we need to address difficult global problems, political and economic, and help diminish sharp political divides.
To accomplish this, people of all faiths must start focusing on what unites us, because ultimately, so many of us share not only common beliefs but common goals for strong, faith-filled families and a relationship with a higher power — all of which become much easier when we are at peace with the world’s inhabitants.
Joanna Brooks is the author of The Book of Mormon Girl: A Memoir of an American Faith. You can read more of her writing on her blog Ask Mormon Girl and follow her on Twitter.
Tamarra Kemsley is a student at Brigham Young University and editor of the Student Review. Follow her on Twitter at @tamarranicole.
A version of this article was published by the Common Ground News Service on July 10, 2012. Copyright permission is granted for publication.
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