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Wednesday, November 19, 2008


Christian and Muslim Dialogue


Varo Borja

The future belongs to those who prepare for it today.
--Malcolm X (1925 - 1965)

The ancient world as well as the modern has witnessed the struggle and strife of two of the most widespread and militantly devout religious groups ever known to man: Christians and Muslims. Christianity is the older of the two, but it has only known world hegemony since the time of Constantine. Islam, a faith that at its very core has been at odds with not only other religions, but with itself, is the younger by about five hundred years. Quite possibly, the dawn of the atomic age has brought about the impetus for Muslims and Christians to finally destroy each other in a great conflagration, or to finally come to terms, each with the other’s differences of opinion and dogma. Three primary differences, or sources of contention exist between these faiths that act as stumbling blocks to peace and reconciliation. History, politics and views on women ensure that the dialogue between Islam and Christianity will be very difficult but absolutely necessary if the world is to truly know the peace of God.

First of all, the history of warfare between both religions is long and arduous. From Abu Bakr to Pope Urban, to the reign of Mohammed II and the fall of Constantinople, Christians and Muslims slaughtered each other for possession of pieces of earth and dry rocks (Gibbon 753). The fall of Constantinople at the hands of Muslims was engineered by the greed of the Greek Christians who inhabited the city, and by the resentment and power motives of Mohammed II, quite possibly one of the most ruthless men who ever lived (Gibbon 752). After building a fortress on the banks of the Bosphorus to control the flow of goods into and out of Constantinople, in other words after sealing the fate of the Greek Christians who lived there, Mohammed II received a startlingly prophetic declaration from the last emperor of the eastern Roman Empire. In his magnum opus, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon relates the emperor’s words:

“Since nether oaths, nor treaty, nor submission can secure peace, pursue,” said he to Mohammed, “your impious warfare. My trust is in God alone: if it should please him to mollify your heart, I shall rejoice in the happy change; if he delivers the city into your hands, I submit without a murmur to His holy will. But until the Judge of the earth shall pronounce between us, it is my duty to live and die in the defense of my people” (Gibbon 753).

This statement of defiance is just one of many made over the almost 1500 years of sporadic warfare between Muslims and Christians. With a long history of hate and misunderstanding such as this, the successful dialogue between Christians and Muslims will surely be difficult to accomplish, but if the lion is to finally lie down with lamb, an understanding must be reached (Isaiah 11:6).

The realm of politics is also a source of contention for the Muslim nations of the Middle East and the Western, predominantly Christian nations. Issues with Israel and arguments over oil reserves promote a climate of strife for these warring factions of differing ideologies. In the United States, opinions as to Western involvement in Middle Eastern affairs are drawn along two distinct lines: the paleoconservative, libertarian, and Leftist groups advocating almost total isolationism from Middle Eastern entanglements, and the neoconservative Right who maintain that Middle Eastern involvement is absolutely necessary and pragmatic (Stephens 25). According to Bret Stephens, author of the article How to Manage Savagery, “the (isolationist) view hardly bears discussion: all mention of Israel aside, access to Middle Eastern energy resources is a vital American interest and will almost certainly remain so for decades” (25). However, even with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq seeming to take an upturn, western political and economic aggrandizement in the Middle East will be difficult, partly because of extremist Muslim hatred for the West, and also because of sectarian strife. According to Bret Stephens, Islamic society usually segments itself into three distinct entities: the middle class, the “anti-modern” element (comprising the various extremists), and poor, rural tribesmen (26). Also according to Mr. Stephens,

so far, many of our democracy-promotion efforts have been aimed at the middle class, the one most familiar to us (but) it is necessary to isolate anti-moderns by creating political alliances between the urban middle class and the tribes (26).

These barriers present political challenges to both sides of the ideological spectrum. For the West, a shift in policy to reflect the sociological dynamic of Islamic culture is in order, and for Muslims, a willingness to put aside both hatred of the Christian infidels, and a deep desire to heal sectarian differences must come to pass. This political reconciliation will certainly be challenging and may take decades, or even centuries to complete, but a willingness to try is vital if the citizens of the earth are to know true harmony.

Lastly, differing views on women present a difficult obstacle for the peace process between Muslims and Christians. The Christian West has witnessed liberation of women on an unprecedented scale in the last century. Women wield more power in the United States and Europe than ever before. The previous presidential race here in the U.S. saw two viable, women contenders for high political office; this feat was unthinkable for Americans less than one hundred years ago. Islamic culture too has undergone some dramatic changes regarding the status of women, with many Middle Eastern females adopting the garb and enlightened familial roles of their Western counterparts. However, there has been a strong backlash in the Middle East against this trend. In her book, Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women, Geraldine Brooks chronicles some of the struggles of Islamic women and their acquiescence to the prescribed, fundamentalist code of dress called hijab (Brooks 8). Ms. Brooks describes a young, Egyptian woman named Sahar, who:

had opted to wear (the hijab) in Egypt’s tormenting heat (therefore) signifying her acceptance of a legal code that valued her testimony at half the worth of a man’s, an inheritance system that allotted her half the legacy of her brother, a future domestic life in which her husband could beat her if she disobeyed, make her share his attentions with three or more wives, divorce her at whim and get absolute custody of her children (Brooks 8).

Certainly mind boggling to Western Christians, and particularly to liberated American women, this ultra-conservative dress code trend and all that it entails has and will create ever more difficult barriers for Christians and Muslims. The hijab is a political tool, a religious phenomenon, and an anachronistic vice to keep women, who traditionally seek peace rather than war, in bondage. This foundational schism between the Muslim Middle East and the Christian West, although not the most blatant of differences, certainly will be problematic for the dialogue between these two cultures, especially as women grow more powerful in nations like America. However, both cultures must strive for equilibrium in their attitudes toward women if peace is to reign in the future.

In conclusion, it is important to remember that, although Christianity, in the present day, seems to favor much more progressive political and gender equality policies in the nations where it is the predominant religion, the searchlight of history does not always cast a favorable glow upon the followers of Jesus. In the eighth century, under the Abbasids, Muslim culture entered its “golden age” and became the flower of the world, while in Christian Europe the Dark Ages clouded the landscape where the mighty Roman Empire once stood (Fisher 408). Perhaps the measuring stick of time in relation to enlightened culture and progressive ideologies need not be a stick at all, but a circle instead. From all evidence, great civilizations only follow linear time to a certain extent—they rise for perhaps a few hundred years and then sink into decline, only to rise again at a later date. Religions seem to follow the same pattern, as they are inextricably woven into the fabric of civilization. Perhaps also the great Islamic faith is undergoing a period of cleansing in the great circle of time, much as the Christian world did during the Dark Ages and later, the Reformation. Finally, couldn’t it come to pass that both Christianity and Islam, the two most populous faiths of the world, could have their next golden ages coincide on the wheel of time, and therefore bring about a better world than we have ever known? Surely through the prayers and service of saints from all faiths,
brought about by a long sought, common goal, the historical, political, and gender related issues of both creeds will no longer be impediments to the power and peace of God’s love.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Virginia's Voice

Virginia and Obama


Varo Borja

An article in the Christian Science Monitor today cried hope for the Democratic presidential bid in the state of Virginia, an otherwise and aforetime staunch bastion of Republican sympathy. According to the article, Mr. Obama stands a good chance of winning Virginia in some polls, but according to one academic mentioned in the article, we are not to count Virginia’s electors before November 4. The article gave two opposing pictures: one of a pseudo-glorious McCain on stage with Hank Williams Jr. at a rally in Richmond. The other snapshot was of Mr. Obama kissing an elderly black lady at a hair salon somewhere in the state. I think this photo comparison does justice to both candidates, especially in regard to the slogans for their respective support centers: McCain’s, “victory centers” and Obama’s, “Campaign for Change” offices. Mr. McCain represents the tired old hegemony of the wealthy, white, landed gentry while Mr. Obama stands for a departure from traditional views and an enfranchisement of little old African American ladies who not only get their hair done on Saturdays, but topple whole socioeconomic structures, as was the case with Rosa Parks in the 1960’s. The state of Virginia has a long history of rebellion; some of the most prominent and levelheaded leaders of the American Revolution and the Civil War hailed from Virginia. Virginia also has a history of economic and racial disparity, coupled with the long arm of the Tidewater Elite and the old planter class. It remains to be seen what direction one of the greatest, and oldest, states in the Union will take on November 4th, but one thing is for certain: the result of Virginia’s vote will most likely determine who will reside on Pennsylvania Avenue in January.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Last Debate

Last Debate


Varo Borja

The Economist, on October 16, 2008 heralded the last presidential debate between Barack Obama and John McCain to be the finest so far. I must agree. For the most part, John McCain was on the offensive, jabbing, huffing, snorting, pouting and gouging at Mr. Obama for all he was worth. Mr. McCain knew he was desperate, and according to the polls, he still is. Mr. McCain brought up some valid points, but his body language and mental inferiority to Mr. Obama clouded what could otherwise be seen as a determined effort to close the gap in the polls. Mr. McCain made some very obvious blunders. He dwelt on petty issues, such as Mr. Obama’s association with Bill Ayers, and he seemed to be losing his dwindling acumen for the facts. Mr. McCain even went as far as to say that he would hire troops, just back from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, to teach high school students, all without undergoing the process to achieve a teaching license! With all due respect, Mr. McCain is more ready for the rest home than the White House, and I believe that this final debate will seal the victory for Mr. Obama and Joe Biden. Mr. Obama, throughout the debate, kept a cool head and steady pressure on John McCain, who seemed to be on the verge of physical assault upon both the mediator, Bob Schieffer, and Mr. Obama himself. Surely the American public sensed the desperation in Mr. McCain’s tone and body language, and much like the dying gurgle of the annual Thanksgiving turkey, Mr. McCain and Sarah Palin’s chances for a prolongation of the George W. Bush/Dick Cheney legacy have all but given up the ghost in favor of the economic Santa Claus: Barack Obama.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Debt Before Dishonor

Bailout Plan Passes the Senate


Varo Borja

The Economist, on October 2, 2008 stated that the Wall Street bailout plan proposed by George W. Bush and Henry Paulson has passed the Senate by a large margin. However, the bailout is somewhat revised and includes several “sweetners”, including a raising of the FDIC bar to 250,000 dollars and several giveaways to parties unnamed. My thoughts on this issue are myriad in scope, but my first reaction to this entire crisis is a cry of disbelief at the shamelessness of Wall Street. A legion of robber barons and petty gentry who in aforetimes decried almost as a whole the institution of public welfare and social services in general, now cries for a gargantuan aid package from the Federal government to “sweeten” their demise. What in God’s name is this “bailout” other than corporate welfare—a payoff for failure, greed, and irresponsibility of a magnitude hitherto unknown in the annals of economic history? Meanwhile, residents of ghettos, slums, and tenements across the United States live in such degradation and squalor as to make even the most stolid members of “decent” society cringe in disgust, and John McCain squawks about cutting all “unnecessary” spending. I suppose the good old spirit of greed, profiteering, and what was termed in the Middle Ages as usury will continue as sovereign in the land of the American Dream. Exactly how much wealth does one group of our population need? In Africa and Asia, starving denizens grasp for a bowl of rice and a little rat meat, while the baronial manors of the Hamptons burst at the seams with the amenities of the modern age. How, in God’s name can a generation of thieves and corporate Pilates underwrite their actions with the name of the Son of Man who hung on a tree in the desert, penniless and abandoned by his followers? Exactly what would Jesus do in this situation? Would he cosign this orgy of profiteering and abashed extravagance, or would he cast the money changers from the temple and feed the more than five million poor, hungry residents of America who borrow to the hilt just so they won’t be turned out on the streets? Something must change. Individual liberty relies not on a single document or 700 billion green pieces of paper, but on personal responsibility and justice for the downtrodden and the oppressed. Otherwise, we shall reap the harvest of our actions and fade into oblivion with the rest of the dynasties who turned a deaf ear to suffering and clothed themselves in the purple robes of dishonor.