Interview with Arthur Waskow

Arthur WaskowArthur Waskow is a rabbi who founded and directs The Shalom Center in Philadelphia, a prophetic voice in Jewish, multireligious, and American life that brings Jewish and other spiritual thought and practice to bear on seeking peace, pursuing justice, healing the earth, and celebrating community. He is the author of several books, including Godwrestling and The Freedom Seder, and co-author of two books especially relevant to the topic of this interview: The Tent of Abraham and Freedom Journeys: The Tale of Exodus and Wilderness Across Millennia. He was also a resident fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies from 1963 to 1977. As part of our special focus on Islamophobia, he talks here with Foreign Policy In Focus about how to counter Islamophobia through interfaith dialogue and the religious tradition.

John Feffer: You’ve been part of the faith community’s response to Rep. Peter King’s hearings on Muslim extremism. Why have the King hearings and Islamophobia been such a threat to the faith community in the United States?

Arthur Waskow: I thought that the hearings were a threat both to the broadest vision of what faith is and even the narrow vision of what the U.S. constitution is. Congress Peter King (R-NY) clearly went into the hearings without an open mind to examine the problems dealing with homeland security. He’d already said that there were too many mosques in the country and radical imams were in charge of them. He went into the hearings with a strong bias and a clear intention to smear Islam in general and American Islam in particular as violent and terrorist-oriented.

At the time, I realized that that the hearings opened a week after George Washington’s birthday. One of the few eloquent remarks that Washington made – he was an interesting statesman and general but not noted for his eloquence – was something he said about bigotry. It comes from a letter he wrote to a synagogue in Rhode Island in 1790. The synagogue there wrote to him to ask about the role of religious freedom and the Jewish community under the constitution, which had only been in effect for a year. It was before the Bill of Rights had been adopted as part of the constitution. Washington wrote back “To bigotry no sanction; to persecution, no assistance.” Then he referred to a passage from the Prophets: “May the children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.” This was intriguing because he was thinking of the “stock of Abraham” as the Jewish community. But it’s also how the Muslim community sees itself and how Jews see the Muslim community.

At every conceivable level, Peter King violated the deepest teachings of his own tradition and the deepest meaning of the constitution. I urged people to hold a prayer meeting at his home office in Long Island. And there was a very broad spectrum of religious folks who condemned the hearings. I think that response more or less neutralized the poison that he was attempting to inject into American society. King backed off somewhat in the hearings. He dropped one or two witnesses who were virulently anti-Muslim.

Here in Philadelphia, our City Council adopted a unanimous resolution condemning the hearing. One member, of Irish descent, said that he was ashamed that King, also of Irish descent, had forgotten the history of how the Irish in America were treated in the 19th century as pariahs and outsiders.

John Feffer: How would you compare Islamophobia with anti-Semitism?

Arthur Waskow: The last time there was a major wave of anti-Semitism in the United States was in the 1930s during a huge economic disaster with massive disemployment. When this society feels uncertain about the future, confused, or frightened at a time of war or economic disaster, it often turns to some scapegoat. Perhaps the single worst case was the imprisonment of tens of thousands of Japanese Americans during World War II. Yet there was not a single case of sabotage by Americans of Japanese descent on the West Coast in support of Japan. One of the leading proponents of internment said that the fact there was no single case proved that Japanese Americans were so subversive that they created an underground conspiracy preventing people from doing sabotage. This was how crazy it all was. Later, in the 1950s, during the Cold War when the Russians had the bomb, we saw a wave of McCarthyism.

The stranger becomes an easy target for scapegoating.

In the 1930s, the Jewish community was still strange to many Protestant and Catholic Americans. But in the 75 years since, the Jewish community in the United States has become pretty normalized and no longer strange to Christian America. Even in the face of mass unemployment and several unwinnable wars, a serious outbreak of anti-Semitism is unlikely. But the Hispanic community and Muslims have become scapegoats in the midst of these unwinnable wars and mass unemployment.

John Feffer: Critics who want to minimize the impact of Islamophobia often point out that, according to the FBI, there are more anti-Semitic hate crimes than anti-Islamic hate crimes.

Arthur Waskow: That’s probably accurate in terms of the numbers of incidents. But in terms of the communal attack, it’s not the same. The Jewish community has real clout in American society not only in terms of numbers but in terms of its impact on American politics and place in American economy. An attack here or there, while despicable and frightening, is not really a threat to the sense of the Jewish community, which is fully part of American society.

Attacks on Islam, on the other hand, go to the heart of being Muslim in America. Blocking mosques, labeling and libeling major Muslim organizations as “unindicted co-conspirators” as the Bush Department of “Justice” did, passing laws against sharia – all that goes to the heart of being a Muslim. The “unindicted co-conspirator” label means only that the prosecutor dislikes you, since the very label means there wasn’t even enough evidence of wrongdoing to warrant an indictment, let alone a conviction. But it sounds nasty to the public.

Such attacks are connected to the fact that the United States not only suffered at the hands of terrorists who claimed to kill in the name of Islam, but is itself at war with at least two majority Muslim societies – in Iraq, in Afghanistan – with attacks spilling over into Pakistan, sometimes with and sometimes without that government’s permission. And now there are attacks, argued to be on humanitarian grounds, on another Muslim society, Libya. There are sanctions and possibly underground attacks on Iran. There is a close alliance with the government of Israel, which is occupying still another Muslim-majority territory. The whole society is acting as though a huge chunk of the Muslim world is the enemy.

In what psychologists call cognitive dissonance, it’s hard for Americans to keep in their heads that this does not mean that Islam is your enemy. Why are we spending billions of dollars and losing thousands of lives on these wars if these others are not bad people? This spills over into American society as well. The enormous concentration of wealth at the top, while other people are losing homes and jobs and health insurance, is a ready-made situation for deflecting anger from the real culprits onto attacks on some scapegoat, some alien. Islam is a perfect scapegoat. Even if the number of hate crimes is larger against Jews that Muslims, I don’t see evidence that U.S. society is in the middle of defining Jewish community as alien.

There have been attempts to make scapegoats out of Hispanic Americans and undocumented immigrants. Also there has been an effort to scapegoat gay people. The second most progressive community in America, second only to African Americans, is the Jewish community. The Jewish community is not split by attacks on gays or Hispanics. Indeed, almost all Jews view such attacks as disgusting. But the attempt to make Muslims into scapegoats does have an effect. The majority of Jews and official Jewish institutions say about this as well, “This is disgusting.” But a minority of individual Jews and some of the major institutions respond, “Oh, they’re Muslim, they must be anti-Israel, so it’s okay to make them scapegoats.”

This attack on Muslims has the potential of splitting the Jewish community in a way that attacks on gays and Hispanics never did. Some politicians like Peter King seemed to have acted in a conscious attempt to divide the Jewish vote so that it’s not as heavily progressive as it has traditionally been.

I’ve talked about the economic, political, and foreign policy aspects. There are also religious aspects. American society has over the last couple hundred years been able to digest but not without difficulty new religious communities, but often only when those religious communities redefined religious life to be less different from Protestant America. The structure of Judaism – the synagogues, the seminaries, the professional rabbinate, Reform Judaism — is not quite a carbon copy of Protestantism in America, but it’s close. The Catholics and their devotion to a religious structure centered on the pope was scary to Protestants, so American Catholics downplayed this relationship. With the Mormons, the difference was originally focused on polygamy. Indeed, the U.S. government outlawed polygamy and refused to allow the state of Utah into the United States until the Mormon Church observed this ban on polygamy. Despite the Mormon abandonment of polygamy, being Mormon still carries a political cost in running for higher office.

Very few Americans know much about Islam as a religious phenomenon. The fear of sharia is based on an utter ignorance of sharia. There is little understanding that sharia is similar to halakha or Jewish law. Sharia is the body of laws internal to the community that people wouldn’t think of imposing on others.

John Feffer: Is there a similarity in the “good Muslim, bad Muslim” dichotomy in Judaism as well?

Arthur Waskow: There have been three kinds of “bad Jews.” There are the Orthodox Jews with their incomprehensible religion and incomprehensible language and their praying in totally peculiar ways. Then there were socialist Jews talking about the total transformation of capitalist America. Then there was the third kind, the ones who went into business and did very well, even ran sweatshops with Jewish employees.

It has taken a while for the socialist Jews to redefine themselves as liberals, though from some “middle Americans” you still hear code words attacking “easterners” and “cosmopolitans” and “New Yorkers,” which really mean “Jewish liberals” though “Jewish” is often left out so as not to seem nasty. The Jews who went into business and made money, as populist and socialist movements in America collapsed and liberals acclimated to the image of America as the home of big capitalism, became normalized and even heroicized. Most of the Orthodox Jews and their incomprehensible language learned to deal with American society, though some are still isolated. American society has become more tolerant of differences as long they don’t threaten the structure of American society.

There are at least three different kinds of Muslims in our society: those from South Asia, from the Middle East, and those in the African American community. Being African American and Muslim means you have two levels of strangeness in white, American, Christian eyes. Being an immigrant and Muslim also means you have these two levels of strangeness. Add to that the overlay that a tiny group of people claimed to be acting in the name of Islam when they killed people on 9/11. The result, in a time of cultural, economic, and political crisis: the perfect scapegoat..

John Feffer: You’ve written about the Abrahamic tradition linking Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Can you talk about the implications of this more inclusive tradition and also what it excludes?

Arthur Waskow: All the religious traditions in the planet are in crisis. Modernity has put them in crisis, has shattered the conventions of thousands of years. Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism all are up for grabs. The world is up for grabs. The revolution in technology has brought about profound shifts in politics, economics, military power, the nature of family, sexuality, the very life-systems of the planet,

Everyone is feeling as though they are living in an earthquake. There are three things to do in an earthquake. You can stagger along, buffeted by the quake, and most people do this. Another response is desperate fear and anxiety and a desire to grab hold of something that you think is unmovable. If the whole world is shaking, you want something to hold on to that isn’t moving. Emerging in all religious traditions is what people often call fundamentalism or restoration. This is a kind of photograph of the past. It’s often a spurious picture, but at least it was the past and you can hold on to it and maybe your life will be stable if you do that. You see this in Judaism, in Islam, and Christianity. There’s also the Hinduist emergence in India among people who don’t want India to be a secular society, who want the whole society reconfigured as Hindu. We can’t hold onto something without becoming incredibly coercive, trying to force other people to hold on to it too.

The third response is a really hard response. It is to learn to dance in an earthquake. The earth is constantly moving so it’s hard to do. But it’s the only life-affirming response. The Jewish, Christian, and Muslim renewal movements are all part of this.

The Abrahamic vision connects the renewers, the dancers in the earthquake, in all three of the Abrahamic traditions: Judaism, Christianity, Islam. At The Shalom Center, I’ve had direct experience working with progressive Christians, Muslims, and Jews in the “Tent of Abraham, Hagar, & Sarah,” a group that has met for long weekends every year since 9/11. We have shared our spiritual journeys with one another, learned to pray together without abandoning our unique version of prayer. We invite inclusiveness without abandoning authenticity, without watering down our traditions. The product of these meetings was a book called The Tent of Abraham, written by a Benedictine nun Joan Chittister, a Sufi Muslim Saadi Shakur Chishti, and two rabbis, myself and Phyllis Berman.

The image of the tent has origins in ancient oral tradition. Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar kept the tent open on all four sides to welcome travelers from all directions. They welcomed people with food and hospitality. You’ll notice that the tent is said to be open on all four sides. There are the sides of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. And the fourth side is open to everybody. The tent is open to travelers, seekers, searchers from anywhere. The whole meaning of the Abrahamic tent is that it’s not closed in.

Not only is it hard to open the tent in this way, it is hard to understand that traditions other than our own are reaching toward the One, the sacred interconnection that weaves reality together. One community arises in search of the One, creating rituals, practices, teachings, texts that aspire to celebrate the One. And then they meet another community that also claims to be in touch with the One, but has a different set of symbols, texts, practices.

Two possible responses: “You are lying! We learned from the One how to do it right, so you are not only mistaken but lying when you claim to be connected with the One!” The other is: “Wonderful! Of course the One is Infinite, and Infinitude can only be refracted in this world through diversity. Let us learn from each other!”

In the world we are entering, we can survive only by learning to celebrate as part of our sacred community not only Muslims and Jews and Baptists and Mormons and Hindus, not only the other human communities — but the frogs and the mushrooms, the rivers and mountains, the carbon dioxide and oxygen that give our planet life.

That is the dance of life. Dancing in God’s earthquake is hard – but in that dance are life and joy.

This is the tenth interview in FPIF’s special focus on Islamophobia. Earlier interviews were with John Esposito, Juan Cole, the Islamic Human Rights Commission, Phyllis Bennis, Arun Kundnani, Raed Jarrar and Niki Akhavan,Wajahat Ali, Farid Panjwani, and Cynthia Schneider.

Arthur Waskow is a rabbi who founded and directs The Shalom Center in Philadelphia. He is the author of several books, including Godwrestling and The Freedom Seder, and co-author of The Tent of Abraham and Freedom Journeys: The Tale of Exodus and Wilderness Across Millennia. He was also a resident fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies from 1963 to 1977. John Feffer is the co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus.