Michael Lerner speaks at a
rally against the War on Iraq.
What I learned from the Saudis
Michael Lerner attends Madrid inter-faith conference.
-- Rabbi Michael Lerner
I had expected the World Conference on Dialogue convened by the
King of Saudi Arabia July 16-18 in Madrid to be little more than a photo op for the King, a cheap way to buy good public relations for a regime that has refused to increase production of oil as a way to reduce the current surge in the price, provided haven and support for the Wahabaist stream of Islam that has fostered extremists likeSaudi-born and raised Osama bin Ladin and many other, and has
done far too little with its wealth to alleviate the poverty and suffering of many in the Middle East. For that reason, when the Embassy called me to invite me I at first declined the invitation, and only changed my mind a few days before the event when it became clear that many establishment Jewish leaders were planning to attend, so my presence there would not be giving legitimacy that these other leaders had not already given.
Imagine my surprise, then, to hear the Saudi King not only affirm the centrality of tolerance and dialogue, but speak in a language that, as one Muslim observer pointed out to me, sounded more like the New Bottom Line of the Network of Spiritual Progressives than it did like a speech of a self-absorbed monarch. [He is certainly also that, and my praise for his actions in starting what may be a processs of Glasnost and Perestroika is the Muslim world does not mitigate against the strong ethical revulsion I have at a society that does not allow the practice of any other religion besides Islam, for decades prevented Jews from even entering the country, even when they were members of the US Armed Services, systematically subordinates and oppresses women, and beheads people for "crimes" like adultery].
King Abdullah started with a strong affirmation of the goal of a new kind of tolerance between religions. Religions have not
caused wars, said the King, but rather extremists who have misused religion in a hurtful and harmful way. A truly religious person
would not resort to war, the King reminded us. But why do people respond to the extremists? Because there is a deep spiritual
crisis in the world, and it is that crisis which creates theconditions in which exploitation, crime, drugs, family breakdown
and extremism flourish.
The King went on to explain that it should be the task of
the various religious communities of the world to work together to
overcome that spiritual crisis. But that will require religious
cooperation which must begin with mutual respect and tolerance.
We need to emphasize what all religions have in common--the ethical
message that permeates every major religion. That message is that
hatred can be overcome through love. We in the religious world
need to choose love to overcome hatred, justice over oppression,
peace over wars, universal brotherhood over racism.
To me, this didn't sound like the King I had come to expect from Western media. This was obviously a new direction being articulated by the King of Saudi Arabia. Moreover, it was not just being articulated for a Western audience. The King had convened a similar meeting of Islamic scholars and thinkers in Saudi Arabia six weeks before, and there had championed this new approach for Islam as the one most authentically rooted in traditional Islam (an argument made previously by many Western Islamists-but when they were making that argument, the Saudis seemed to be aligned with the other side, the more reactionary and anti-tolerance forces). The King had faced some real opposition in his previous meeting, and the events there and in this meeting in Madrid represent first steps in a process that is likely to take years or decades. But this was quite a striking new direction, and one that is very hopeful. It was an historic event, the thawing down of the ice that the Saudis had helped create as they sponsored rejectionism of multiple paths in the past. Even in an authoritarian society like Saudi Arabia, the King has to deal with people who have different approaches to the world than he, particularly in the reactionary and anti-Semitic elements in the Islamic religious community, and I don't expect to see some clear line of unambiguous goodness suddenly emerging in Saudi Arabia to magically transform the whole society overnight, any more than I expect to see that in the US or Israel).
The overwhelming majority of people in the room were leaders
from Muslim countries around the world. It appeared as if they
were the King's primary audience. He was introducing a new
language into the Islamic religious discourse, and it was a
language that has in the past largely been rooted in Western
humanism and human rights. Many Muslims in the room mentioned to
me or to others that they felt that this speech was actually a
significant breatk-through, because the King is one of the more
influential figures in Islam, because of his role as "Protector
of the Two Mosques" (in Mecca and Medina), gives him immense influence in the Islamic world.
Like the Jews, the Muslims have no pope and no authoritative body that makes all religious rulings, but instead has a plethora of religious authorities who read Islamic law in as many different ways as Jewish Hallakhic authorities read Jewish law. Protestantism in Christianity de facto created this same kind of plethora of sources of authority, so that in effect people get to choose among a variety of different Christian traditions today, just as they have had in Islam and Judaism for many many centuries. But the identification of religious leaders with state power leaders in Islamic countries has defacto created a much tighter control by the powerful elites over the religious tradition in those countries.
It remains to be seen whether the King can impose his new tolerance over a Saudi society which has not done much yet to embrace this new tolerance. But if the Saudis do in fact allow other religions to teach their ideas and practice their religions in Saudi Arabia, and if they can make other changes in law that embody a new spirit of respect for human rights, that could have a huge impact throughout the Islamic world. Moreover, even if none of this happens very soon, we should understand that in changing ideologies, statements of a new worldview are themselves acts of importance-sometimes writing or saying things
(e.g. writing the Declaration of Independence or giving a speech about the failure of Stalinism or writing a book about the way that Israelis kicked Paletinian non-combatants out of their homes and into refugee caps) can be just as important an action as any other.
The Saudi King was followed by the King of Spain who talked
about tolerance as an old Spanish tradition, presumably
referencing the period when Christians, Jews and Muslims lied in
Spain in the 11th to the 14th centuries. He made no mention (or
apology) for the Spanish expulsion of all Jews in 1492, He made a
point of stressing, however, that today Spain is a democracy
(presumably to acknowledge that unlike the King of the Saudis,
the King of Spain no longer rules Spain in the way that the King of
the Saudis actually does rule Saudi Arabia).
Next, the leader of the Muslim World League spoke about the
common values held by all humanity that should be a foundation
for transcending our political differences. Instead of rejoicing
at the possibility of a clash of civilizations, as some right-wingers in America
have preached (like Norman Podhoretz in
his most recent book
War IV), we actually need to be
seeking cooperation between the various global civilizations.
Islam, he insisted, believes in the equality of all. There is no
legal foundation for the prevalence of any given community or
race within Islam.
Here too was an incredibly hopeful message. It wasn't
relevant, really whether this is an accurate description of Muslim
practice. It was, as was the King's talk, an obvious attempt to change the thinking in his own community, a change that could have profound
political effects if it is taken as seriously inside Saudi Arabia as it was in Madrid.
After hearing the Kings of Saudi Arabia and Spain speak, the "religious leaders of the world" moved to a reception line in which each of us was to give our name and shake the hand of the King. I was in one of my more irrepressible moods, so when it was my time I broke protocol and said to King Abdullah "I represent the many Jews in the world who wish to see cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians and a peace that provides security and justice for both sides (and I pointed to the
Tikkun pin I was wearing which has the Israeli flag and the Palestinian flag
with the words "Peace, Justice, Life, Tikkun"). I hope that you will use some of your huge oil-generated billions of dollars to help Palestinians build decent housing and plumbing in the refugee camps." By this point the people
surrounding the King were moving to push me forward, and the King
merely gave me a big smile (English was being translated for him by his US Ambassador) and I moved on into the dining area.
To my surprise, I was seated at a table with
eight members of the
King's cabinet and his closest associates (I was the only
non-Muslim or non-Saudi at the table). I sat next to the Secretary
of Labor, and next to him was the Secretary of Finance, and then
the others I remember included the Secretary of Communications, the Secretary of Labor, and one person who was introduced as the King's main counsel and another as a close personal friend of the King and another was one of the major corporation heads in Saudi Arabia. Several people knew about Tikkun and it turned out that these men had mostly been educated in the US or England, several at Oxford,
some at the University of Southern California or at University of
California. Whereas at almost all of the other tables in the huge
dining room there were several conversations going on at the same
time, these people stopped their separate conversations and
focused on me and wanted to know my perspective on American
politics and on Israel/Palestine.
I very briefly described the Tikkun/NSP perspective, particularly the need for a new consciousness based on open-heartedness, mutual repentance, and compassion, and the idea of the "New Bottom Line." I also talked about the new Global Marshall Plan as a way to do foreign policy based on the recognition that our interests as human beings in the West are directly tied to the well-being and success of eveyone else on the planet, and that the smartest way to achieve Homeland Security is not through Domination and "Power ove" other, but through Generosity and Genuine Caring for Others. To start in this new direction, I argued, would take a major act of public repentance by the peoles of the world.
A few embraced this right away, and explained that their own understanding of Islam led them to feel very comfortable with what I was saying. Others argued that my thinking might be right for the U.S., but certainly couldn't apply to the Middle East, since it would be unfair to ask Palestinians to show equal repentance toward Israelis, given that the Palestinians had been made homeless by the 1947-49 conflict and were living in terrible conditions.
I agreed with them that the suffering of the Palestinians was impossible to accept as legitimate, and certainly ran counter to the dictates of Judaism with its commands to care for "the other"
(ve'ahavta la'ger --- You must love the stranger). But then I added that it was a shame that the Saudis with all their wealth had not done more to help the Palestinians. The Finance Minister smiled and said that that was simply not true, but that Israel was not letting their aid come through. He is certainly right about the intransigence and human-rights-violating policies of the Israeli government as it attempts to punish the entire Palestinian population for the activities of a few (an explicit violation of international law). However, I pointed out that Palestinian refugees lived in Jordan, Syria, Egypt and
particularly in Lebanon where their conditions were
appalling and that the Saudis could rectify that.
The Finance Minister responded by saying that they had done more than was known, but that the particulars he was not going to discuss.
I then pointed out that Gaza and the West Bank were in the hands of the Arabs from
1948-1967 and that their Arab hosts and the Saudis had done
nothing to improve their slum-like conditions. Several people
pointed out to me that the Palestinian leadership that existed at
that time (1949-1967) prior to the emergence of the Palestinian Liberation Organization)
did not want to accept that the expulsion from their homes was permanent, and hence did not want to begin any housing construction project that would appear to be a resettling in the refugee camps.
Didn't I agree that the refugees had suffered a huge humanitarian
disaster? Yes, I said I did agree with that, but that Israelis
were fearful that if Palestinians were to return now with their
millions of people, that would eliminate Israel as a Jewish state.
And I referenced my article on Israel at 60 in May/June 2008 Tikkun
in which I had analyzed the situation in terms of the Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome facing both Jews from our long history of oppression
culminating in the Holocaust and the Palestinian people as a
result of their displacement for the past sixty years.
My even-handedness was challenged by some who said that certainly
the suffering of the Palestinian people couldn't be excused by
reference to the suffering of Jews in Europe, since it was not the
Palestinians who had participated in the Holocaust? I replied that
the Palestinians had played an important role, along with the
Saudis and other Arab states in convincing the British to cut off
immigration of Jews to Palestine. They responded that this policy
was understandable, given the explicitly stated goal of the
Zionist movement leaders to create a Jewish state in Palestine,
and thus, Palestinians feared, to exclude or evict Palestinian
settlers (and as several pointed out, Israeli historians like Beni Morris,
Avi Shlaim, and Ilan Pappe uncovered documents and letters from Zionist leaders
revealing that their intent in accepting the UN resolution of 1947 to partition Palestine was only a first step in their larger intent to eventually take
over all of Palestine-and that goal was clear to the Arabs as well as to the Zionist movement and
accounted for their resistance to the partition agreement). I
pointed out that whatever their fears, the reality was that they
had chosen an immoral path in pushing the British to close
immigration to Jews, and that a majority of my larger family had
died in Europe during the Holocaust and might have been saved had
there been a place to escape to, and that Palestine was the
nearest place in which Jews had some historical claim.
At this point the Saudis challenged my contention that the
Palestinians or Arabs had had much of an impact on the British in
their decisions. I argued that the British in the 30s and 40s were
following policies shaped by their concern for steady oil supplies
for their coming war (either with Hitler or Stalin). The Saudis
responded by telling me that they (the Saudis) were not a major
source of oil for the British and that in any event the British
were a colonial power that was shaping the policies of other Arab
states, and not vice versa. I was not sure that that was true, but
then switched my line to point out that wherever colonial
authorities ruled, they always tried to set the native populations
against their minority groups, and that this is what had happened
in Palestine and more generally in the Middle East. The Jews, I
argued, were the minority in Palestine at that time, and the
potential Arab revolt against colonialism had been weakened by the
distraction onto opposing Zionism.
But was it a distraction or were the Zionists really agents of
colonial rule? The Saudis pointed to the Balfour Declaration in
1917 proclaiming Britain's commitment to supporting the Jews in
establishing a state in Palestine. I argued that a. the British
had no right to determine the future of the area, since it wasn't
theirs in the first place (a point that showed the Saudis that
there were indeed Jews who did not identify with the colonialist
perspective) and b. that most Jews coming to Palestine were
fleeing oppression, most form Europe but some from Arab countries.
They responded that Jews had lived in harmony with their Arab
hosts until the colonial period and the rise of Zionism. At that
point, rather than pursue that argument (I disagreed with them and
would have pointed out that the conditions were akin to apartheid
for Jews in most of those countries through much of that history),
I turned instead to the larger frame of our discussion and said,
"Wouldn't it be better if we really wish to build a future of
peace that we stop trying to get a triumph on the issue of guilt?
There are two national discourses here, and each has lots of facts
to back it up, but it is futile and destructive to follow the path
now being followed in which each side tells the story as though
they are the righteous victims and the other side is the evil
oppressors! Lets move beyond that to ask what we can do to build
peace now, and start by each side acknowledging that the other has
a legitimate though partial view, and that each side has sinned
and gone off course." I then explained the Jewish view of "sin" as
similar to an arrow going off course, implying that the sinner was
fundamentally good, not evil, but had lost his or her way. They
seemed happy with that notion.
But then they turned to the current situation and told me how
surprised and outraged they were that the Saudi proposal to end
the struggle and create peace based on a return to the 1967
borders, a proposal offered to Israel several years ago, had
gotten no response from Israel. I responded that if they really
thought that there would be a full return to those borders, they
were mistaken, because no Jew would ever agree to give up access
to the Western Wall which was part of Jordan before the 67 war (and while
under Arab rule, Jews had been prevented from going to the Wall to pray).
They thought that could be negotiated, but the point, they said, was that they had
zero response to a gesture which they felt should have been perceived by Israel as giving Israel the recognition that Israel always claimed to be central to its
I could not justify the Israeli government's behavior, but
said that I opposed the current and past Israeli governments since
the death of Rabin precisely because they had given up on peace
and seemed more interested in holding on to the West Bank. But, I
argued, most American Jews and a large number of Israelis would
accept major territorial compromises if they really believed that
peace was possible.
The Saudis said that it seemed impossible to believe that when the Saudis had made it clear that peace was indeed possible. I responded by pointing to the PTSD thesis coupled with the continuing fear of Israelis that they might be wiped out by a combination of the Iranians plus the surrounding Arab states. Incredulously, they asked if any Jews in the US seriously believed that destruction of Israel was possible. I responded that such fears were frequently voiced in the organized Jewish community, though many younger Jews did not share that fear. At this point, the Saudis were so astounded they almost lost interest in the conversation. They found it impossible to believe
that anyone could believe that Israel was in any danger of
destruction. Israel, they pointed out to me, had close to two
hundred nuclear bombs-no state would dare seek to destroy Israel
for fear of being wiped off the face of the earth. Similarly, they
perceived Iranian threats from Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to be a joke, since
everyone knew that Iran did not have any nuclear capacity
whatsoever and was unlikely to have anything in the next decade.
Many of the Saudis at the table felt that at this point they were
listening to a typical Israeli propagandist (me) and that there
was no point in continuing to talk since they believed that I knew
and all Israelis and Jews knew that there was no possibility of
Israel ever getting destroyed by the weak Arab or Islamic world,
and that taking such concerns seriously were about as rational as
thinking that Saddma Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.
In any event, they asked what I thought they should do-was there
anyone among Israelis leaders who had the power and inclination to
build peace. When I talked about Yossi Beilin they said I had
misunderstood-they wanted to know about anyone who was likely to
actually have the power to implement a peace agreement, and I was
not sure who to suggest. Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni does not seem to me to have the kind of commitment to peace that would be necessary to gain the support of the current cabinet for a path to peace that involved serious land compromises, and Bibi Netanyahu, who may be Israel's next Prime Minister,
has no inclination toward a negotiated settlement with the Palestinian people.
The Saudis then asked me about Obama and particularly his
capitulation to AIPAC immediately after securing the Democratic
nomination. I told them about the divisions in the Jewish world,
the way that the peace forces represented a majority of American
Jews were largely without the finances or access to media to
make their presence known, and that the pro-AIPAC dems would
likely make it difficult for Obama to provide strong leadership on
Israel/Palestine unless there emerged a powerful grassroots force
in the Jewish world and in the Christian world that would push in a
different direction. Many of them asked if that was not in part
the role of the Network of Spiritual Progressives, and I affirmed
that but pointed out major problems we faced: a. lack of finances
b. media power of the Jewish right and the willingness of the
liberals in the media to assume that AIPAC and the Jewish
establishment spoke for most if not all American Jews. c. turf
battles that made groups like Brit Tzedeck unwilling to cosponsor
Washington lobbying with NSP and Jewish Voices for Peace or any
groups that were interfaith, the unwillingness of Christians for
Middle East Peace to align in their lobbying with Jewish groups,
the unwillingness of Jim Wallis' Sojo group to work with the
Network of Spiritual Progressives on Israel/Palestine issues, the
fear that J Street people seemed to have about getting involved
with any group that might appear too critical of Israel or even
too explicitly critical of AIPAC, and the contrast with the Jewish
right which had been willing to all work together to support AIPAC
for the sake of maximizing their political power. I also discussed
the lack of political coherence of the Christian Left and their
inability to join in any effective public political action with
other groups with whom they disagreed theologically (so, for
example, it was rare to see progressive Catholics joining
with progressive Protestants on Middle east issues, or even on
issues like the Global Marshall Plan because they didn't want to align with groups that had a different stand than they on abortion or gay rights), much less with Jewish groups, except in the narrow frame of specific legislative issues on Capitol Hill (but not in challenging the dominant political ideas that shaped American thought on the Middle East and made Obama reluctant to challenge the willingness of the American government to follow the lead of whoever happened to be in power in Israel). But I also told them that all this could change. I
pointed out that Obama had been intellectually close to Tikkun for many years, that his ideas on many issues closely aligned with the Tikkun perspective, and that he had signaled 8 years ago to our Chicago chapter of the Tikkun community that he was very sympathetic to our position on reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians.
Still, I pointed out, in some respects the Clintons had been aligned with Tikkun before they took office, but our failure to mobilize enough public pressure on them had made it possible for AIPAC insiders in the White House and the Democratic Party to push them far from me or Tikkun's perspectives, and the same danger existed for Obama unless the progressive forces in all the religious and secular
communities could organize a serious and systematic alternative in
every Congressional district.
But how could that help, the Saudis wanted to know. What could
change the discourse in America or Israel in the way that I had suggested, a way that would recognize the humanity and fundamental decency of most Muslims, most Arabs and most Palestinians
To answer that I presented the Global Marshall Plan. Many were very positive about it, but insisted that the initiative would have to come from the United States in the first instance. If that happened, they felt sure that Saudi Arabia and many others would join such an effort. Theyhoped that the Global Marshall Plan would gain traction, and they fully embraced the view that security would come through
generosity more than through military domination.
That was my discussion with the Saudis. I consciously held myself
back on several fronts. I felt it pointless to argue with them
about the deficiencies of this conference-the fact that though it
was centered on the notion of "dialogue" that in fact the sessions
were a series of presentations in which there was no opportunity
for dialogue with others in the room. I several times tried to
raise the issue of the de facto exclusion of women from the
dialogue, though there were some women in attendance, but I got
no response or understanding on that. I got nowhere in pointing
out the contradiction of holding an interfaith dialogue in Spain
at a time when the Saudis themselves prohibit the practice of any
other faith but Islam inside Saudi Arabia. Many of these sessions
seemed empty to me precisely because they were mere preaching about tolerance and dialogue, though the reality in Saudi Arabia
provides so little dialogue or tolerance of other religions.
And yet, I realized that that point, though righteous, somehow
missed the significance of this gathering, which was in fact more
about advancing the idea of tolerance, peace, non-violence, mutual
understanding and dialogue in the Islamic world and in particular
in the religious community in the Islamic world.
The Jews, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, and others who were in attendance here were props for this discussion, but what the King
of Saudi Arabia was doing was nevertheless of historic significance. In a previous meeting in Mecca with Islamic religious leaders, he faced considerable opposition to his proposal for an interfaith conference around dialogue and mutual understanding. He had used his power and authority as the Guardian of the Sacred Mosques of Mecca and Medina to override opposition and go forward with this conference. Precisely because Saudi forms of Islam are perceived as the most conservative, taking this step is certain to reverberate for decades through the Islamic world and to be an historical marker in the process of modernization in Islam. For Islam, this gathering and the one before it in Saudi Arabia were roughly equivalent in signifiance to that og Gorbachev announcing the beginning of a new openness and tolerance toward the West that was the first step toward the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
And there is also another dimension. The Saudis are implicitly
taking religious leadership in the struggle with a reactionary
version of Islam that has emerged in Iran. Though Iran was never
mentioned, this gathering, plus the actions of the Prince of
Jordan in calling for an Islam that works in cooperation with the
Western world and with other religious communities, renouncing the
"conflict of civilizations," appears to be a major challenge to
the growing appeal of Iranian forms of Islam among young Muslims
who are filled with righteous indignation against the West in
light of the devastation brought to Iraq by the US and the UK.
Finally, a word about the media. As I listened to the Saudis at my
table I realized once again what I've known for four decades-how
completely the media misrepresents who the people are with whom the powerful in the US are at odds. I have long known that about the
Jewish media as well-I'm portrayed often as an enemy of Israel or
a self-hating Jew! And ever since the Clintons embraced my
Politics of Meaning, the American media has represented me as a
New Agey thinker rather than as someone deeply rooted in
Judaism,psychology, philosophy and still learning from all the
other religious and spiritual traditions of the human race through
its history. Still, with all that, I was amazed to find myself
amazed at the humanity, intelligence, and shared commitment to
rationality among all these leaders of the Saudi regime. NO, I'm
not giving up my skepticism, and no, I have not forgotten the
barbarism of some Saudi legal practices, the strong misogyny of
their culture, and the profound anti-Semitism that exists in their
society. No, I was not holding some racist view-the Saudi system is actually extremely oppressive, its legal system extremely intolerant and imposing of a particularly reactionary version of Islam that goes with beheading some people for being But what I was discovering at lunch is that there is a modernizing Saudi elite that sees those reactionary aspects of their own society as problematic, and hopes to change that (indicated to me in many comments made during the two hours we sat together and which I've only partially summarized here).
I am not an advocate for the Saudi regime, but I now see that there are elements in it with a true and deep humanity. I see the fundamental decency of some who are engaged in an effort to "reform from within," and am reminded once again of how
ridiculous it is to talk about a whole society as though it
represented a single perspective or shared a single worldview. I also see now the need to work with the most progressive elements, and the need to avoid "Othering the Other."
Another point about the media: this conference is a front page story in most of the world, but is being largely ignored in the US media who were notably absent from the hundreds of media covering this event. This is a willed ignorance about the world fostered by the US media establishment.
What was also clear to me in this conversation was that these very
enlightened Saudis had never met or been in a conversation with
Jews who held progressive values and took those value seriously.
For them, it was an exciting revelation that there were Jews who were both pro-Israel and pro-Palestine, who could hold both narratives as having elements of truth and elements of goodness, just as it was exciting to them to learn about the interfaith Network of Spiritual
Progressives. They too had fallen for the media distortions and
for believing that the American elites with whom they have had
contact represent the democratic will of the American people, so
they were happy to be disabused of that notion.
I came away from this direct time with the Saudis with
the distinct impression that I had helped foster more positive
notions about who Americans are, who Jews are, and what Israelis
are about. I believe that this happened in many other conversations that took place in the hallways between the 20 or so Jews at the conference and the hundreds of Muslims and Christians. While some of those Jews probably conveyed the same stuckness and stubbornness that Israel and the American Jewish establishment always conveys, there were fresh thinkers like Rabbi Michael Paley, Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, Rabbi Phyllis Berman,
Rabbi Arthur Waskow,
Rabbi Marc Gopin, Rabbi Scott Sperling and Rabbi David Rosen who each have creative and exciting ideas on how to continue this dialogue. For that, as for many other aspects of this set of
conversations, I give thanks to God for the opportunity that I
have had to serve the causes of peace and reconciliation!
Returning to the rest of the conference would be a downer in
comparison with this conversation, but I soon realized that that
too was a premature judgment. I felt richly rewarded by the
opportunities to meet and chat with many other Muslims, and to
realize how safe the place felt for us Jews even though we were a
tiny minority in a hall filled with Muslims. But the actual formal
presentations also raised some important issues and even a rather
encouraging vision of the future, which I'll translate somewhat
into my frame.
I mentioned above that this conference is a significant step in
the process of modernization in the Islamic world. But of course,
modernization in the West has been deeply linked to a process of
"de-mystification of the world" that we at Tikkun call
"scientism," the triumph of the worldview that the only things
that count are those that can be measured or empirically verified,
and that everything else is literally "non-sense."
The result is the empty public square, a public life devoid of
values. And as I've showed in our empirical research at the
Institute for Labor and Mental Health, and explained more fully in
Politics of Meaning,
Hand of God, this has created a spiritual crisis of monumental
importance that is at the root of family breakdown, drug and
alcohol abuse, narcissism and alienation, loneliness and a sense
of the meaninglessness of one's life that has grown to monumental
While the poverty in the under-developed world is itself a major source of pain, one of the aspects of the West that is most resented and feared is the power of Western culture to uproot traditional cultures to replace them with the values of the
marketplace and the demystification and scientism that is central
to capitalist enterprise.
Watching the spiritual suffering and degradation that in the West is taken for granted and rarely connected with the values generated by a society that measures "success" primarily in material terms and encourages a world view of "looking out for number one" and "me-firstism" and "values out of our professions and out of our work world and only have a place on a weekend religious moment but not in dailylife," people in the Muslim world are particularly concerned about this aspect of Western imperialism and are committed to fighting it.
So what was said by some of the speakers was that the kind of
modernization that should be welcomed into Islam, and the kind of
tolerance that should be an important element of Islamic culture,
should not include a tolerance for those kinds of values that
shape the culture of capitalist imperialism and are reflected in
the pop culture it has fostered. Instead, they envision a
modernization that is respectful, inclusive, and based on
affirming the value of spiritual and religious diversity, but that
does not accept the secularism and the scientism of the modern
world that parades under the name of Western "rationality" and "progress."
That, of course, is a vision closely aligned with ours. We do not
at Tikkun or in the Network of Spiritual Progressives (NSP) affirm any particular religious tradition, nor do we believe that one must be religious or part of some religious tradition in order to be part of the NSP or in order to deserve our respect or connection.
But we do affirm that there is something in the
spiritual worldview, even the "spiritual but not religious"
worldview that is an essential part of a fulfilled life. While
that spiritual element may manifest as play, art, music, dance, or
even study of the wonders of the universe as experienced through
the study of science, it is an irreducible element that cannot be
accessed solely by scientism (though it could be by scientific
investigation). To be spiritual in our sense is to recognize that there are aspects of reality that are real and knowable, but cannot be know through measurement or empirical verification.
What the advanced-consciousness-Muslims whose
wisdom was in full flower at this conference seem to be promising
us is that the coming spiritual renaissance of Islam may provide a
foundation for precisely this kind of tolerant, loving, and
generous form of religion that becomes a beacon for future
generation. This kind of Islam will speak to people who may be experiencing the crisis of spiritual
emptiness of the contemporary world but are not willing to embrace
fundamentalisms of any sort or give space to worldviews that do
not include tolerance, mutual respect for others, and a true
spirit of generosity. This is precisely the kind of renewal that many of us in the NSP are seeking to build in the Christian and Jewish worlds today.
It may be hard for many of us to imagine a
world in which Islam becomes identified with these values of love,
generosity, kindness, tolerance, social justice and peace. Such a development for Islam, or for that matter for Judaism and Chrisitianity, would certainly be an incredibly wonderful development. For those of us who despair about Christianity or Judaism having gone astray from the loving elements in their founders' visions that these religions now embody, in at least part of their practice, exactly the opposite values from those that made these religions catch fire in the hearts of their adherents (that may be what it means to see the Burning Bush), the notion that Islam might be the spark that generates a new religious revival based on mutual respect and spiritual intensity could dramatically expand our understanding of
the endless potential for God to surprise us, un-do our conceptual
certainties, and open our hearts to each other.
Well, I won't hold my breath for that in Islam or any other religion. As moved as I was by this conference, I believe that the historically significant process that the King of Saudi Arabia helped advance in Madrid will take decades to fully mature in the actual reality of daily life in Saudi Arabia. In fact, I expect that we are more likely to see progressive visions from Islam emerge from the diaspora communities of Muslims in the U.S. (see the work of the Zaytuna Institute in the SF Bay Area), Canada, England, and France, and from Jordan, Egypt, Turkey and Palestine. But none of these will have as much lasting impact as the transformation, however difficult and long it may take, that was set on path by this process initiated by King Abdullah. Similarly, those of us who are seeking to build a renewal in Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism have our work cut out for us, and overcoming the out-of-balance energy toward repression, distrust, fear of the other, and commitment to "domination as the path to security" (the legacy of what I call "the Right Hand of God") will be a task that will not be completed in my lifetime, not even in Western religions. But I think it is very important to acknowledge victories and steps forward, and I believe that we are seeing now a major step toward strengthening the Renewal forces in Islam, and I am grateful to have been part of that experience.
I also came away with a hopeful attitude about what is possible in the way of Middle East peace once the Israeli people come to the place of being willing to give up the West Bank, Gaza and the Golan, and to the consciousness of recognizing that their security will come more from a spirit of generosity and caring for others than through domination and occupation. But that, too, is not around the corner. All the more reason why we at Tikkun and the Network of Spiritual Progressives have to be willing to remain true to our faith that love and generosity will eventually triumph in the hearts and minds of all people on the planet, and that our task is to do what we can to accelerate that process so as to relieve the suffering that is happening as long as the old paradigm of fear and domination continue to shape the policies of states around the world.
Rabbi Michael Lerner is editor of Tikkun magazine,
chair of the
Network of Spiritual Progressive,
and author of 11 books (including
Politics of Meaning,
Hand of God, the latter a national best seller in 2006). He is
rabbi of Beyt Tikkun synagogue
in San Francisco, and teaches Torah on Shabbat mornings in Berkeley.
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