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Ten Terms Not to Use With Muslims

Monday, March 30th, 2009

 My favorite paper media for years has was the Christian Science Monitor which sadly from here on out is only going to be a weekly. Since I started traveling I have been subscribing to the online edition which will continue. This article appears in their last daily edition.

 There’s a big difference between what we say and what they hear.

By Chris Seiple

from the March 28, 2009 edition

“In the course of my travels – from the Middle East to Central Asia to Southeast Asia – it has been my great privilege to meet and become friends with many devout Muslims. These friendships are defined by frank respect as we listen to each other; understand and agree on the what, why, and how of our disagreements, political and theological; and, most of all, deepen our points of commonality as a result.

I have learned much from my Muslim friends, foremost this: Political disagreements come and go, but genuine respect for each other, rooted in our respective faith traditions, does not. If there is no respect, there is no relationship, merely a transactional encounter that serves no one in the long term.

As President Obama considers his first speech in a Muslim majority country (he visits Turkey April 6-7), and as the US national security establishment reviews its foreign policy and public diplomacy, I want to share the advice given to me from dear Muslim friends worldwide regarding words and concepts that are not useful in building relationships with them. Obviously, we are not going to throw out all of these terms, nor should we. But we do need to be very careful about how we use them, and in what context.

1. “The Clash of Civilizations.” Invariably, this kind of discussion ends up with us as the good guy and them as the bad guy. There is no clash of civilizations, only a clash between those who are for civilization, and those who are against it. Civilization has many characteristics but two are foundational: 1) It has no place for those who encourage, invite, and/or commit the murder of innocent civilians; and 2) It is defined by institutions that protect and promote both the minority and the transparent rule of law.

2. “Secular.” The Muslim ear tends to hear “godless” with the pronunciation of this word. And a godless society is simply inconceivable to the vast majority of Muslims worldwide. Pluralism – which encourages those with (and those without) a God-based worldview to have a welcomed and equal place in the public square – is a much better word.

3. “Assimilation.” This word suggests that the minority Muslim groups in North America and Europe need to look like the majority, Christian culture. Integration, on the other hand, suggests that all views, majority and minority, deserve equal respect as long as each is willing to be civil with one another amid the public square of a shared society.

4. “Reformation.” Muslims know quite well, and have an opinion about, the battle taking place within Islam and what it means to be an orthodox and devout Muslim. They don’t need to be insulted by suggesting they follow the Christian example of Martin Luther. Instead, ask how Muslims understand ijtihad, or reinterpretation, within their faith traditions and cultural communities.

5. “Jihadi.” The jihad is an internal struggle first, a process of improving one’s spiritual self-discipline and getting closer to God. The lesser jihad is external, validating “just war” when necessary. By calling the groups we are fighting “jihadis,” we confirm their own – and the worldwide Muslim public’s – perception that they are religious. They are not. They are terrorists, hirabists, who consistently violate the most fundamental teachings of the Holy Koran and mainstream Islamic scholars and imams.

6. “Moderate.” This ubiquitous term is meant politically but can be received theologically. If someone called me a “moderate Christian,” I would be deeply offended. I believe in an Absolute who also commands me to love my neighbor. Similarly, it is not an oxymoron to be a mainstream Muslim who believes in an Absolute. A robust and civil pluralism must make room for the devout of all faiths, and none.

7. “Interfaith.” This term conjures up images of watered-down, lowest common denominator statements that avoid the tough issues and are consequently irrelevant. “Multifaith” suggests that we name our deep and irreconcilable theological differences in order to work across them for practical effect – according to the very best of our faith traditions, much of which are values we share.

8. “Freedom.” Unfortunately, “freedom,” as expressed in American foreign policy, does not always seek to engage how the local community and culture understands it. Absent such an understanding, freedom can imply an unbound licentiousness. The balance between the freedom to something (liberty) and the freedom from something (security) is best understood in a conversation with the local context and, in particular, with the Muslims who live there. “Freedom” is best framed in the context of how they understand such things as peace, justice, honor, mercy, and compassion.

9. “Religious Freedom.” Sadly, this term too often conveys the perception that American foreign policy is only worried about the freedom of Protestant evangelicals to proselytize and convert, disrupting the local culture and indigenous Christians. Although not true, I have found it better to define religious freedom as the promotion of respect and reconciliation with the other at the intersection of culture and the rule of law – sensitive to the former and consistent with the latter.

10. “Tolerance.” Tolerance is not enough. Allowing for someone’s existence, or behavior, doesn’t build the necessary relationships of trust – across faiths and cultures – needed to tackle the complex and global challenges that our civilization faces. We need to be honest with and respect one another enough to name our differences and commonalities, according to the inherent dignity we each have as fellow creations of God called to walk together in peace and justice, mercy and compassion.

The above words and phrases will differ and change over the years, according to the cultural and ethnic context, and the (mis)perceptions that Muslims and non-Muslims have of one another. While that is to be expected, what counts most is the idea that we are earnestly trying to listen to and understand each other better; demonstrating respect as a result.”

Chris Seiple is the president of the Institute for Global Engagement, a “think tank with legs” that promotes sustainable environments for religious freedom worldwide.

Couchsurfing Zoe

Sunday, March 29th, 2009

I joined with a million members last year while I was traveling in Asia.  Couchsurfing is a world-wide social and cultural program run mostly by volunteers to foster cultural understanding…much like Hospitality Club (which I also belong to) or Servas.

For CS you are asked to set up a personal profile with your picture and fill in the answers to questions that explain your interests, personal philosophy of life, experiences with CS, travel experiences etc. You describe your guest facilities and whatever preferences you have such as preferred age groups or male, female or either etc. You are asked to verify your identity by giving a small donation by credit card and then they send a code number to your address which you then return to your profile and fill in. This verifies that you are who you say you are and that you live where you say you live. Then you can do a search for a particular city or country you want to visit and send a message through the secure CS messaging service to request a stay…or even just a request for a coffee or drink. At this time you can give your phone number and/or email address and discuss prospective visits. In addition, there are hundreds of forum discussion groups (I am a member of some of these like “International Politics”) and you end up getting to know and make friends with people there. Often these people will meet for a social evening in whatever city and country they are in and make their “couches” available to others from other cities/countries wanting to attend.

Then after being a guest or hosting or just “surfing” with (exchanging messages) you can leave a reference and/or a request to be a “friend” which will show up on the profiles of each party.

So when I returned to my home for a few months in Salem Oregon, I made my “couch” available but ended up not hosting anyone. However, now that I am living in Oaxaca I am getting requests almost daily…mostly from young women, although I did host a young French guy who has been living in Mexico City for three years. He is setting up a web-based Spanish-language radio program and is on the look-out for interesting stories. My first CSer was a young Iranian-American woman who had grown up in Berkeley. She was lovely and we had a great time together!  A couple nights ago I couldn’t host a woman from Oakland but she came to my apartment for a mescal…bringing a hand-full of lovely roses for me.  She appreciates that I make my “couch” available, she says.  A young Zoologist and his significant other from the Oregon State University faculty came one evening for fresh-squeezed orange juice and good conversation. In April I have two women from Estonia who are ecologists coming for a few days. And there are others.

In the meantime, I am hosting Belle and her young daughter, Yoli, from Austin Texas, who lived in my other apartment house with me in 2006-7. Belle has been to and lived in Oaxaca many times and tomorrow a Oaxaquena friend of hers is coming to my apartment to teach us how to make Chili Coloradito and get me back into learning Spanish.

Hillary Is Coming To Mexico Today

Wednesday, March 25th, 2009
Articles about Mexico appeared at least twice in the LA Times this morning. On her first official trip to Mexico beginning today, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton will confront a range of bilateral issues.  The LA Times this morning ... [Continue reading this entry]

“Gang-Rape of the American Dream”

Monday, March 23rd, 2009
Best article yet on the financial crisis.  Tells it like it all came great detail.  I can see it all now.

The Big Takeover

The global economic crisis isn't about money - it's about power. How Wall Street insiders ... [Continue reading this entry]

What Is Your Congressman doing?

Monday, March 23rd, 2009
Here's one of the reasons we desperately need campaign finance reform:

Comfortable Oaxaca Apartment

Monday, March 23rd, 2009
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Speaking About Toilets

Friday, March 20th, 2009
When I was hitch-hiking in Europe in 1965, I came across the bidet...couldn't figure it out.  Somebody had to explain it to me. It's an extra "toilet" in the bathroom that looks like a toilet except that it has no ... [Continue reading this entry]

I Used To Make Fun Of Rick Steves

Friday, March 20th, 2009
 I used to make fun of Rick Steves.  No more! Here are a few gems from a interview just in case you don't want to read to the end:
Salon: "Steves wants Americans to get over themselves. He wants us to ... [Continue reading this entry]

Costillas de Puerco en Salsa Verde

Thursday, March 19th, 2009
I have a cleaning lady come to my apartment twice a month to mop up the polvo (diesel dust and pollen) from my floors and shake the rugs. She also will give me a cooking lesson for a few extra ... [Continue reading this entry]

Every Day In Oaxaca A Different Day

Thursday, March 19th, 2009
My friends at home in the U.S. ask me "What do you do every day?" We expats find that a difficult question to answer. Well, last week I walked all over town to find a rice cooker. I know, I'm ... [Continue reading this entry]

Critical Thinking Takes A Blow

Wednesday, March 11th, 2009
Greenwald, in, describes how the Obama administration has passed the loyalty test when it allowed Charles W. Freeman Jr. to  step away Tuesday from an appointment to chair the National Intelligence Council -- which oversees the production of ... [Continue reading this entry]

The Enemy That Almost Isn’t

Saturday, March 7th, 2009
Iran: The Enemy That Almost Isn't Posted: 23 Feb 2009 02:00 PM PST Crooks And "One of the things that I've found most disconcerting about American news coverage of Iran is the complete disconnect between what our own (and international) intelligence reports ... [Continue reading this entry]

Casa Raab Zapoteco Mescal Distillery

Friday, March 6th, 2009
My friend Charlie and I visited Tony this week at his Casa Raab estate, about 30 minutes north of Oaxaca City, where he has built a traditional Zapoteco mescal distillery. 57bab57a7bb8a5a6f20a95eaf7110bed31ecdc4b9e1f9c0ea4cb789ccb243e01.jpg From the Casa Raab ... [Continue reading this entry]