Giving Thanks, for Khartoum and Kennedy

Thanksgiving Khartoum Kennedy
via Mormon Newsroom and Mohamed Al Hammadi / Crown Prince Court – Abu Dhabi

Happy Thanksgiving to all American friends. Religious freedom is one item of gratitude, as well as positive signs it may be developing around the world.

Consider again these promising signs I’ve been privileged to report on the past two years:

Arab Gulf — Why Christianity is Surging in the Heart of Islam

Indonesia — World’s Biggest Muslim Organization Wants to Protect Christians

Morocco — Arab Christians and the Marrakesh Declaration

Egypt — Let My People Build

Bahrain — Saudi Arabia’s Neighbor Defends Religious Freedom of Individuals

Saudi Arabia — The Game of Thrones Christians Should be Watching

Italy — Muslims Work for Religious Freedom


Not all is rosy, of course, and some nations pretend nothing is wrong.

Sudan is one of them. But in recent engagement, the United States has religious freedom on the agenda for improvement of ties and removal of sanctions.

As Crux has reported:

A leading U.S. diplomat visiting Sudan said the United States is willing to work with the Sudanese government to help it achieve the conditions necessary to remove its designation as a “Country of Particular Concern” in the U.S. State Department’s annual International Religious Freedom Report.

Deputy Secretary of State John J. Sullivan was speaking on Nov. 17 at the Al-Neelain Mosque in Omdurman, located on the western bank of the Nile River, which separates it from the national capital.

Sullivan said “supporting human rights, including religious freedom, has been, and will continue to be, a critical part of the United States’ bilateral engagement with Sudan.”

The event at the mosque included leading Muslim and Christian clergy. Sudan is 97 percent Muslim, and the small Christian community has faced harassment, especially since the predominantly Christian and animist south of the country became the independent state of South Sudan in 2011.

The State Department’s 2016 International Religious Freedom Report cited reports of government arresting, detaining, or intimidating Christian clergy and church members, denying permits for the construction of new churches, closing or demolishing existing churches and attempting to close church schools, restricting non-Muslim religious groups and missionaries from operating in or entering the country, and censoring religious materials and leaders.

There is always room for cynicism, and perhaps frequently it is warranted.

Does the United States care more for counterterrorism and military contracts, and will let this item slide if progress is seen elsewhere?

Will Sudan put on a nice face and make superficial improvements, only to squeeze non-Muslim communities once the diplomats leave?

Maybe. But this Thanksgiving, let not cynicism be a landing place. Even the public rhetoric of religious freedom is something to celebrate. It sets a tone; attitudes can adjust over time.

And as the US ambassador told his Sudanese audience, it took a while in America.

“I am the grandson of Irish-Catholic immigrants who arrived in Boston, Massachusetts in the 1880s. At the time they arrived – and for many decades that followed – Catholics in the United States faced widespread prejudice based on their religion,” he said.

“When John F. Kennedy – another Catholic from my home state – ran for president of the United States in 1960, he even had to give a prominent speech to reassure the nation that his faith was compatible with the duties of the office of president.”

Sullivan said recalling such history “seems quaint” today, but added it took many decades – “it was not easy” – to reach the point where it is “nearly unthinkable” that one’s status as a Catholic in the United States would serve as a disadvantage to a person’s ambitions for life.

“The American experience in this regard underscores that respect for the human dignity of every person – regardless of religious belief or origin – is a key component of not only protecting human rights, but also fostering a society that can flourish, build upon each other’s strengths, and move forward together,” he said.

America has had flaws, too. She still has some, and may be developing others.

But today, around the table, give thanks to God for what exists — both at home and abroad.

Those who love God do not need freedom to follow their faith. But ample facilitation makes our world a better place.

Appreciate, and pray for more. And then, enjoy your turkey.


Thankful for Islamic Identity

Translation: We are those who pledge allegiance to Muhammad. The Battle for Identity, November 28. On the flag is the Muslim creed, there is no god but God, and Muhammad is his messenger.
Translation: We are those who pledge allegiance to Muhammad. The Battle for Identity, November 28. On the flag is the Muslim creed, there is no god but God, and Muhammad is his messenger.

Happy Thanksgiving to American friends and family, but as you are thankful today be aware about tomorrow, at least as concerns your interest in Egypt. Friday may be black here as well.

There are two reasons this could be true.

First, the Salafi Front has called for nationwide demonstrations, seeking a ‘Muslim Youth Uprising’. They announce their intention to ‘impose Islamic identity’, feeling it weakened by secular efforts against sharia. Within their propaganda are pictures of the black flag of Islam, used by the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. This connection does not come through in their rhetoric (that I have seen), and the flag has a place in Islamic history beyond current use by jihadis. They do, however, support a caliphate in principle and have criticized the government for calling it terrorism.

Second, this same government has promised to meet the protests firmly, threatening live ammunition if they turn violent or destructive. If Egypt has another round of deaths the day will surely be black.

It is difficult to say if the turnout will be simple or substantial. Egypt’s largest Salafi party has condemned the protests, as have the official religious establishments. But noteworthy is that the Muslim Brotherhood has announced its support, though it has not publicly indicated if it will participate.

The Brotherhood statement indicates a desire to ‘preserve’ Islamic identity, avoiding the Salafi Front’s use of ‘impose’.

It would be good if they were able to be contacted within Egypt, to further explore their meaning. Certainly the Brotherhood needs others to protest with them, as they are in a very poor situation currently. If the regime is to fall, they need allies.

But here, it is the Brotherhood supporting others. And what does it mean that they have chosen these allies?

In the West there is understanding that the Muslim Brotherhood is a moderate Islamist organization. Indeed, since the fall of Morsi they have been consistent in their public posture not to employ violence. Whether or not this is truly the case is contested, but they present themselves as a democratic organization that can be trusted to govern well within the norms of the international system. If political change comes to the region, so goes the argument, better the Muslim Brotherhood through the ballot box than the jihadis through the sword.

In Egypt people have been aware of Muslim Brotherhood double-speak for some time. But in announcing their support for a rally to ‘impose Islamic identity’, could their intentions be clearer? Some room should be given for nuance, of course, and desperate people do desperate things. The enemy of my enemy is my friend, it could be argued.

Please monitor the news tomorrow, and see how events are reported. Will the demonstrators be labeled as Salafi crazies, akin to the Islamic State? Or will it be a ‘revolutionary’ action, against the ‘coup’?

And be thankful for your identity, whatever it is. In Egypt as in America there is much to be thankful for, no matter the current unrest. Many, of course, are disagreeing to the point of protest. Be thankful for this right as well, if you have it, but be wary about imposing.

Does an Islamic identity demand its imposing? This Thanksgiving, the Muslim world is being forced to confront the question. For the good of the world, be thankful the conversation is happening, and may all decide rightly.



Salafi Muslims and American Thanksgiving

Salafi Thanksgiving

From Christianity Today, a very interesting article about an evangelical historian who challenges the received traditions of the Puritans:

In 1623, Plymouth Colony Governor William Bradford proclaimed the first Thanksgiving. “The great Father,” he declared, “has given us this year an abundant harvest…and granted us freedom to worship God according to the dictates of our own conscience.” He directed the Pilgrims to gather that November, “the third year since ye Pilgrims landed on ye Plymouth Rock, there to listen to ye Pastor and render Thanksgiving to ye Almighty God for all his blessings.”

Except Bradford didn’t write that. Someone—we don’t know who—fabricated this “proclamation” in the late 20th century.

The author takes note of how American Christians are at a bit of a crisis point concerning their national history:

American evangelicals seem to have reached a crisis point over the study of history, especially the history of the American founding. For decades, many evangelicals have turned to popular history writers who have presented America, especially of the colonial and Revolutionary era, as a straightforwardly Christian nation.

But take the popular belief that the pilgrims came to America in search of religious freedom. It is not wrong, he argues, but subject to misinterpretation:

He demonstrates that the quest for “religious freedom,” in the modern sense, did not really animate the Pilgrims. Yes, they wanted to find a place where they could worship God according to Scripture and the dictates of conscience. But they had already discovered those conditions in Holland, where a number of English dissenters had gone in the early 1600s.

The most pressing concern that led the Plymouth Separatists to leave Holland was that they found the Netherlands “a hard place to maintain their English identity and an even harder place to make a living.” They did not worry so much about religious persecution (at least not since they left England), but about “spiritual danger and decline.” They worried about the cultural corruption they saw around them in foreign Dutch culture, and struggled to find profitable employment that could nourish their common identity. America seemed to offer both better opportunity and a place to preserve their sense of covenanted community.

And, just to throw in one ugly incident:

We should remember, McKenzie cautions, than not long after the first Thanksgiving—which was indeed a peaceful, if tense meal between the English and their Wampanoag neighbors—the Pilgrims launched a preemptive assault on local Massachusetts Indians that resulted in violence and bitter resentments. The English even placed the severed head of one Native American on a pike outside their fort. Recalling this is telling the truth, not revisionist history.

What does any of this have to do with Salafi Muslims? Nothing at all, except by way of similarity.

The word ‘Salaf’ in Arabic means ‘forefathers’, and Salafi Muslims honor in particular the first three generations of Muslims. This was the golden age of Islam, when the community lived the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad. In all current religious interpretation – even in political and cultural matters – Salafis believe Muslims should study this period and apply its lessons accordingly to modern life.

Many Muslims honor this heritage without calling for the same level of imitation as Salafis. But most all of the faithful prefer not to open this history of these forefathers to questioning.

There are two issues at stake. The ancient challenge was given by Shia Muslims who said the community went wrong right after the death of Muhammad. Leadership, they say, should have been passed to Ali, within family lines. It was only the political scheming of these forefathers that prevented his immediate succession, and it was their further scheming that resulted in the loss of his role as caliph.

Sunni Muslims were the political and numerical victors of early Muslim in-fighting. But the Shia challenge contributed to the sanctification of these early generations who established the caliphate. They were also the assemblers of Muhammad’s sunna, his words and deeds not found in the Qur’an, so demonstrating their honesty was paramount. Just as Muslims find it terribly difficult to accept a word spoken against Muhammad, so do Salafi Muslims, and many beside, take offense if the Companions of Muhammad are questioned.

The modern challenge questions this sacred history as well. Using mostly Muslim sources, increasing numbers of historians are dissembling the received traditions about the development of the early Muslim communities. And similar to scholars who try to trace the human origins of the Bible, some also find other than divine influences in the Qur’an. The consequences can be dire for those engaged in revisionist history, or, let historians judge, telling the truth.

History, of course, is often deeply contested. Defining the past is a good way of determining the future.

For American Christians, revisiting the history of Thanksgiving is not nearly as threatening as the accusation that the Trinity was invented at the Council of Nicea, for example. But for a people confident in the idea that God has blessed America, there is often the implicit assumption that he has done so – from his sovereign purposes, of course – but also because of the Christian faithfulness of America’s founders. There is also often the modern application, with political overtones, that if America returns to her Christian heritage God’s blessing will come again.

It may well. ‘If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land,’ God said to Israel. Americans Christians consider themselves part of the family of God, his people. Should the land of America be considered a possible heir to this promise?

Either way, both American Christians and Salafis must face up to any possible ‘fabrications’ of their history. If this is a crisis point for evangelicals, it is hardly a blip on the radar for Salafis. But both groups have invested heavily in the sacred narrative of their secular traditions. As the author closes in his article:

The temptation toward idol-making seems much more pressing with the titans of America’s national history, those who line the mall in Washington, D.C. Jefferson, Lincoln, Washington: These are the ones that, despite limited evidence of orthodoxy, many of us want—or need—to be evangelical Christians, just like us. We desperately need help to know how to think about those Founders.

Similarly, what will Salafis do with the four ‘rightly guided caliphs’ – Abu Bakr, Omar, Uthman, and Ali? There were fine Muslims, surely, but what does it say that three of them were killed? What of other leaders who opposed Muhammad until the near-end, and then switched sides? Muslims are not ignorant of these controversies; in fact, Salafis study them diligently. But no one should go beyond the limits of the historic evaluation given to the Companions of Muhammad; no one should tar their reputation.

I must stop short of proscription for either community. This post began as an attempt to draw parallels between two communities not often associated together. But I am a historian of neither narrative, so I dare not make pronouncements that can be easily countered by the studied. Neither am I a theologian, certainly not of Islam to make cavalier statements about how to interpret God in their history.

But I hold as a conviction that fidelity to God requires fidelity to truth, come what may. The shaping of pious myths may aid in the development of social and cultural faith, but they are acts, ultimately, of manipulators. ‘God will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of the heart.’

He may take a long time in doing so, but this Thanksgiving, let us be thankful that God will guide us into all truth.