I first published this on February 19, 2004
During the run up to the war with Iraq I witnessed the all too common phenomenon of people who, when criticizing or questioning our administration’s policies, are labeled by others as America-haters or as unpatriotic. The explanation offered in defense of their assessment is that if those criticizing our nation’s policies really loved this country they would support their government. They say that they love America and claim that this love is demonstrated by their support of our government in whatever it chooses to do.
It occurred to me that this is the same logic that religious fundamentalists use in support of their position. People such as Osama bin Laden and others like him, claim that if Muslims really loved Islam, they would support those people who “defended” it against its “attackers.” Osama bin Laden and his ilk claim to represent Islam just as these “defenders” in the US claims to represent America. Both sides mistakenly believe that the other side is out to destroy their own way of life.
Both of these positions are based on an incomplete understanding of the institutions that they claim to represent. America is based upon the Constitution and our founding fathers’ view of how man should live. Those who say that they know what America stands for, but don’t hold the Constitution as their guiding force are misinformed and mistaken. America only exists when it is true to and lives in accordance with the Constitution. America is a concept and a state of mind, not only a piece of land. America is not the government. Once we give up on the idea of America and exchange it for the idea of “my country right or wrong” or “we are right because we are America” then all is lost. We are not Americans because we live in America, we are Americans when we live as Americans.
The same is true of Islam and religion in general. For Muslims Islam is literally surrendering to God’s will and his vision of how humans should live. The Qur’an is the living constitution that explains how this is to be accomplished. Islam is something that man does for God, not the other way around. When Islam becomes something that man has to defend against attack, then somewhere the original intent and purpose has been lost and forgotten. Muslims are not righteous because they are in the religion of Islam, they are righteous only if they follow the religion of Islam.
If you say you love America but don’t love and honor the Constitution and the spirit embodied therein, then you are like the religious fundamentalists who love and honor their religion but don’t love and honor God. This type of belief is just another form of idol worship. These idolaters are taking the symbol as the object of their worship instead of the underlying essence and source from which it springs.
Both John the Baptist and Jesus taught on this subject. John the Baptist challenged some of his fellow Jews who believed that being the children of Abraham was sufficient for their salvation. He confronted this belief and pointed out its inherent falsity. So significant was this incorrect reliance that he offered the radical symbolic ritual of baptism to bring them to the realization that their salvation lay in repenting of their sins and turning to God. Identification with and membership in a particular group was not the basis for God’s judgment.
Jesus was preaching to a large crowd. When told that his mother and brothers were asking for him, he challenged this limited understanding of identification and relationship and taught that whomsoever does the will of God is truly his mother and his brother. Being members of his family, being connected to him in a most intimate and direct way, was not as important as doing God’s will.
The Qur’an challenges this idea of self-selected salvation when it asks, “Do men think that they will be left alone on saying, ‘We believe’, and that they will not be tested? We did test those before them, and God will certainly know those who are true from those who are false.” Even so many Muslims are guilty of this same misunderstanding and are in even greater danger of missing the mark. In the Qur’an Muslims are also warned of the mistakes of their older brothers-in-religion who preceded them. God reminds Muslims with the same lesson by describing some of the Jews and Christians who believed that because God had specially chosen to send them a unique Message and a unique Messenger, membership in each community alone was sufficient to make them secure and protected from making mistakes and committing sins. God points out that if Muslims as a whole can learn not to make this same mistake, that they will indeed be a great community having fully benefited from the experience of their predecessors and more completely and effectively implemented this teaching. Unfortunately, many Muslims simply believe that because they can be a great community that they automatically are the greatest community.
Sound familiar? America can be a great nation because it has the understanding to be a great nation and because of what it has learned from the nations that preceded it both in its creation and implementation. America is a great nation only when it lives up the promise of its founding fathers and implements that wisdom and vision better than any of the previous nations that have preceded it. Like great countries in the world of which America is arguably the last, Islam is arguably the last great world religion. When you come last in history, you do have the opportunity to be greater than those who came before, but only if you learn from their successes and failures and take full advantage of all the accumulated knowledge available. If not, your loss is even greater. When you think that you will succeed where others have failed because it is your destiny to succeed, you have misunderstood God’s promise.
Because Islam is the last great world religion and America is the last great country in the world, Muslims in America have a special role to play on the world stage. Muslims in America can practice their religion freely, unlike their co-religionists in many other so-called Muslim countries. We also have the vantage point of seeing and understanding better than any others, how democracy and Islam are compatible and complementary and actually arise from the same underlying principles. Muslims in America have the unique challenge to show the entire world that Islam can work in and contribute to the social good in the most powerful, modern and technologically advanced democracy in the world. If Muslims are going to reclaim the soul of Islam, it is going to happen first in America. If there is going to be an Islamic reawakening, this is where it starts.
If Mecca is the supreme example of unity in diversity for Muslims, America is the Mecca for the world. That is why so many people make the pilgrimage to this country. America is the country where people of all religions, ethnic backgrounds, cultures and nationalities must demonstrate, by working in unison, that we are a community that improves the human condition and brings people closer together in harmony and unity, instead of contributing to more death, destruction and division. America is the country that can show the rest of the world that the most diverse nation on the planet with people who are different from one another in every conceivable way can live together in mutual respect and admiration and have a better society to show for its efforts. I believe that America is the last great social experiment of history and we the people are its subjects. I pray for the sake of all human kind that we are up to the challenge.