*A note on the use of the word “jihad”: “jihad” means something like “faithful struggle.” For Muslims, “jihad” is a positive word unassociated with terrorism or violence of any kind. In this column I use the word as it is misused by many non-Muslims, that is, as a synonym for holy war, especially when such war is directed at the West. I’ve done this because I don’t know how to talk about the concept of “cultural ‘jihad’”–a figment of paranoid non-Muslim imagination–without using the awkward name given to the phenomenon.
So a pastor, a rabbi and an imam walk into a crowded, fancy hotel ballroom in California’s Silicon Valley…
Each clergyman says a few inspirational words and offers a prayer of invocation. The men of the cloth then embrace and seven hundred folks in the room clap and cheer because the three of them— the pastor in his faux-linen dog collar, the rabbi in his crocheted yarmulke, and the imam in white robes beneath an ankle-length gabardine overcoat— present a compelling image, a brief reminder that options beyond antagonism are readily available for the spiritual heirs of Abraham.
I was the pastor on stage that night. Ramadan had just ended, the Jewish high holy days were in full swing, it was World Communion Sunday (celebrated by Christians who pay attention to such things), and the event upon which we invoked the favor of Heaven was a fundraising gala for Islamic Networks Group, or ING, a San José-based organization with a mission of promoting interfaith understanding, religious literacy and mutual respect, with an emphasis upon educating the public about Islam and Muslims. ING is a great organization with an international reach. They do really positive work on behalf of Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
In should be good—uncomplicated and universally celebrated—for a Christian pastor to support the work of an organization such as ING. As far as I’m concerned, any organization that seeks to improve relationships between religious people, to break down stereotypes and to educate the public about Islam and other religious traditions is a good organization. Such efforts are hopeful and faithful and they benefit the world we all inhabit; yet in recent weeks I’ve become aware that, for a growing number of fearful Americans, my prayers in support of the work of ING could be misinterpreted as invocations on behalf of a “cultural ‘jihad,’” a stealth invasion across the frontier of ideas, by which radical Muslims—in drag as champions of tolerance—are attempting to overthrow the historic Christian underpinnings of western society.
According to those who worry about such things, “cultural ‘jihad’” is the process by which Muslims are infiltrating Western society, intent on establishing a dominant Muslim culture by using the freedoms and values of Western society—the freedom to speak and to publish the values of diversity and tolerance—to make Islam seem safe and attractive, and then, while no one is looking, to supplant democratically elected, secular governments with a Caliphate.
As a result, any individual or organization that seeks to rehabilitate Islam’s public image or that tries to strengthen the Muslim community (which is to say, people like me and organizations like ING) is suspect. This is hysteria America doesn’t need.
Exploring the topic on the internet, I find that folks have been talking about “cultural ‘jihad’” for years, but the issue is gaining traction this fall with the forthcoming release of a film called “The Third Jihad,” a documentary by the same folks who produced and gave away 28 million copies of the notoriously Islamophobic film “Obsession.” According to information gathered from “The Third Jihad” website, the film tells the story of a Muslim-American physician who uncovers a document detailing plans by the Islamic Brotherhood to establish a Muslim theocracy in North America.
I’ll reserve judgment on the film itself until after I’ve seen it, but I’ve read “An Explanatory Memorandum on the General Strategic Plan For the Group in North America,” the document at the center of the film’s plot, and here’s my verdict: it’s probably authentic because it is banal. If someone wanted to create a forgery to scare Americans—some sort of “protocols of the elders of Islam,” they could have done a much better job. The paper has a few juicy paragraphs about how evil Americans are, but for the most part the document’s scheme rests on the assumption that if Muslims in North America could organize themselves and build strong community organizations, vibrant mosques, and excellent schools, Islam would become the dominant force in American life.
The document was penned by men who have seriously underestimated the power of Hannah Montana, Monster Truck Rallies, Disney Princesses, and countless other cultural trivialities to stifle the religious impulse the American People. If there’s a religious movement powerful enough to displace consumerism and passive entertainment as the dominant force in American life, I don’t know about it. Christians have been trying for years to accomplish exactly what the Muslim Brotherhood sets out to do in the document that has people so scared. For generations, we’ve been trying to transform society by building bigger, better churches and educational institutions, and the net result is that I cannot get some members of my congregation to show up on Sunday if the Forty-Niners are playing—and that’s in the age of TiVo.
These are uncertain and unsteady times. The global financial system is on the fritz. America is fighting two seemingly un-winnable wars. Poverty is on the rise. Humans are trashing the earth. The world is less safe for women and children, the elderly and infirm that it was ten years ago. What we don’t need to worry about is“cultural ‘jihad.’” If Muslims build more mosques and schools and community centers throughout this land, more power to them.
So the pastor, the rabbi and the imam walked into the fundraising gala, said a few prayers, and no one had anything to fear.