Monthly Archives: May 2013

Native Americans as a Lost Tribe: American Jews respond

LINK: Native Americans & Jews: The Lost Tribes Episode, by David Koffman

Someone posted a link to this article a week or so ago at a Mormon-themed Facebook group I belong to. That group was interested in the article because, of course, the Book of Mormon arises from the belief that Native Americans are descended from scattered Israelites. What intrigued me most about the article is its discussion of how American Jews responded to this once widely entertained idea. From Koffman’s conclusion:

Many of the major figures in nineteenth-century American Jewry weighed in–in one manner or another–on the Jewish-Indian controversy. The practical stakes were never high, but the claim–so ubiquitous and so fluid (since it was used for so many different functions by so many different people)–was taken seriously and fretted over by Jewish leaders of very different orientations. The Lost Tribe theory had significant symbolic stakes–for Jews, Christians, and Native Americans. Linking America and its earliest inhabitants with the Bible and its theology, meant staking a claim on America–and championing God’s plan for the New World.

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Guest Post: “Muslim Americans and the ‘Ground Zero Mosque'”

Today’s guest post was composed by students in an undergraduate course I just finished teaching on American religious minorities. The students’ assignment was to provide historical perspective on a controversy involving one of the religious minorities we discussed, with the aim of generating greater empathy among readers (i.e., greater understanding if not necessarily agreement) for the minority group’s position. If you have constructive feedback to offer the students, please comment on this post.


MUSLIM AMERICANS AND THE “GROUND ZERO MOSQUE”
By Alex Dietz, Blaine Elliott, Ben Thaeler, Sara Wenger

Plans to build a community center, Park51, in New York City, were met with great tension and opposition by a majority of the American public. This disapproval was primarily due to the center’s Islamic values, Muslim heritage, and, most significantly, location: only two blocks away from where the Twin Towers once stood, a site that many mourn because of the devastating terrorist attacks on September 11th committed by Muslim jihadist group, al-Qaeda. As a means of gaining sympathy for Park51 and Muslim Americans, however, we wanted to explain how the community center was unreasonably misidentified and judged in the eyes of the Western press as well as modern day American society.

The American Response to Park51

The controversy and condemnation surrounding the supposed mosque gets its roots from the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center.  The 9/11 attacks were, obviously, a terrible devastation in US history and resulted in many people forming strong opinions against Muslims which, therefore, affected their thoughts about the construction of Park51.  Some people were quoted in The New Yorker saying that the construction of the Muslim center was “a slap in the face” for victims.  One person was quoted in The Daily Beast saying, “Placing the center close to the site of the late World Trade Center will not promote healing and, as for promoting a ‘better understanding of their religion,’ it would certainly be a constant reminder of the evil it is capable of.”  The project’s most blunt critics argued that Park51 was an insult to those who died at the hands of the Muslim extremists who carried out the 9/11 attacks.  It seems as though many share this negative point of view on the subject, as recent polls show that almost two-thirds of Americans oppose Park51.  Unfortunately, this anti-Muslim sentiment goes against the values that our nation was built on.  Our nation proudly claims to be founded on the principles of liberty and tolerance, not to mention the fact that our Constitution guarantees freedom of religion.

The fact that some Americans have reservations about Park51 is understandable, but Muslims have the right to practice their religion and those who oppose the institution could utilize their time and energy toward honoring victims of the September 11th attacks in other forms, without hindering Muslim practices.  One of the things that separates our country from others is the fact that citizens have the freedom to practice any religion they choose.  Imagine if you were Catholic, Christian, or Jewish and our country did not allow the practicing of your religion.  Would America still be so great?  The American public has every right to be angry about the September 11th attacks, but it is unfair to blame an entire religion for the actions of a small extremist group and to impede their right to practice their beliefs.  We are a country founded on the principles of freedom and as Americans, we should be proud of that.  Instead of preaching hatred, let us come together and preach acceptance.  Let us reinforce the fact that we are the greatest nation in the world.

The Media’s Influence and Misidentification

In order to understand the widely shared, negative bias toward Park51, one must survey the history of Muslim residence in America leading up to September 11th and how the chronology of events altered the opinion of many American’s to make them consider the cultural center as the “Ground Zero Mosque.”

Prior to the attacks on September 11th, there was little opposition against Muslims and Islamic establishments in the United States.  Conflict arising from Islamic followers was not prominent nor was the negative and extreme stigma that greatly follows Muslims today, other than skewed misconceptions caused by films and the media stereotyping Muslims.  In fact, two mosques had already existed as close as a mere four blocks from the World Trade Center since 1970 without facing any hostility during their decades of operation prior to the attacks.  They went seemingly unnoticed and unchallenged, as would the proposed Park51 Islamic center, until after the attacks, when curious and apprehensive residents would begin to ponder what the organizations were practicing exactly and whether they had ulterior motives.

When Park51 investors initially endeavored to gain approval to remodel an old Burlington Coat Factory into an Islamic community center in lower Manhattan in December of 2009, the organizers had already been utilizing the building since that July.  With no prior animosity, Imam Rauf, the head organizer for the project, thought that the prime location of the building would benefit the group’s mission to “push back against extremists” by occupying a structure that had been hit by wreckage from the September 11th attacks.  The general public did not resist the organization’s request and a mother whose son was killed in the aftermath of September 11th was quoted telling a New York Times reporter, “It [was] quite a bold step buying a piece of land adjacent to ground zero,” but considered proposals from the organization as a noble effort.

With this positive outlook on the group’s efforts, the New York Community Board committee unanimously approved the project in May of 2010.  It was not until this authorization that the media began to spin Park51’s motive and facts regarding its proposal.  The New York Post made the first inaccurate narration on the project when they headlined a story called “Panel Approves ‘WTC’ Mosque.”  A more hostile contribution to the fabrication of a mosque being built was made by blogger Pamela Geller when she wrote a post titled “Monster Mosques Pushes Ahead in Shadow of World Trade Center Islamic Death and Destruction” stating that the project was “Islamic domination and expansion,” and claiming that “the location [was] no accident.”

Geller successfully rallied support and launched a campaign to thwart the center while Andrea Peyser, another New York Post columnist, continued the condemnation.  Peyser misleadingly titled her column “Mosque Madness at Ground Zero,” notably contributing to the rumors and misinformation that a mosque was actually being built on the grounds where the Twin Towers once stood.  Most significantly, in Peyser’s May 13th column, she erroneously reported that the institution planned on hosting its grand opening on the 10-year anniversary of the attacks.  Because of these deceptive headlines and inaccurate stories by such popular news organizations, columnists, and bloggers, the media greatly contributed to and was responsible for so many Americans having negative opinions of Park51 based on false pretenses.

Inside Park51

Park 51’s website presents a very different vision of the “mosque.”  In the Frequently Asked Questions section, bullet #2 asserts, “Park51 is not a mosque.  It is a cultural and community center” in direct response to rumors suggesting otherwise.  Adjacent to Park51’s location is a not-for-profit group called “PrayerSpace,” where praying is encouraged but, “is completely independent of Park51.”

The group recalls in its “Our Story” section, that, “Park51 was conceived as a way to give back to New York City, to help rebuild and reinvigorate lower Manhattan while developing a new perspective on Muslims in America.”  Far from fears of radical secrecy, Park51 welcomes “New Yorkers of all backgrounds” to engage in community building “interfaith workshops.”  The group goes on to assert that the park is “open to people of any religious, racial, ethnic, or socioeconomic background.”

Park51 resembles an interfaith YMCA, offering total wellbeing services such as, “social and recreational services, as well as world-class health, wellness and educational facilities.”  Where the park includes services for Muslim New Yorkers including bread making and Arabic writing classes, it also provides mainstream multicultural experiences such as Karate and an informative “Haitian Creole workshop.”

Muslim American Response

The Park51 project was largely made possible by the funding efforts of Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, head of the Cordoba Initiative.  Cordoba’s website describes “a multi-national, multi-faith organization dedicated to improving Muslim-West relations.” Unlike Park51, which actively avoids the “Ground Zero Mosque” controversy, Cordoba goes to greater lengths to distance itself from any hint of radicalism.  The Cordoba Initiative’s “Our Mission” page states, “A strong American Muslim community- confident in its identity as both wholly American and wholly Muslim, will inevitably be moderate.”  Directly addressing the controversy, Cordoba states an ongoing hope to, “reverse the downward spiral of fear and mistrust that is fueling extremism on all sides.”

The leadership behind the Cordoba Initiative, specifically Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, has been accused of secrecy, but has met all accusations publicly.  In 2010 he and his wife attended a community-board hearing in Manhattan.  Angry residents often shouted and held signs opposing the construction of the Park51 facilities, but Rauf defended the center and its intentions to “’bridge the great divide’ between Muslims and the rest of America.”  Rauf’s wife added, “we have no higher aspirations than to bring up our children in peace and harmony in this country.”  Despite the raucous start to the meeting, the New York Community Board voted 29-1 to support the project, with 9 abstentions.

American Muslims unconnected to the project have expressed their support for Park51.  Hussam Ayloush, the executive director of the CAIR, echoed President Obama in a Washington Post interview saying, “Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as anyone else in this country.”  Beyond defense of constitutional religious liberties, Ayloush drew a clear distinction between Islam and the 9/11 hijackers saying, “Islam rejects such murderous action and every major Muslim scholar and institution has unequivocally condemned the act and those who try to justify it.”

Islamophobia

During the controversy surrounding Park51, the perpetuation of the unfair and harmful stereotype associated with Muslims as “terrorists” seemed to be all-consuming within American society. The belief that a few extremists reflect all of the people affiliated with Islam, that the values shared by those deemed “extreme” were shared by all within the religion, and that we, as a nation, should be wary of any Muslims, is a type of prejudice known as Islamophobia.  Islamophobia can be found in the many misinformation campaigns throughout the United States that tell of a religion that only wants to bring destruction and mayhem upon Western civilizations. According to his article “Islam and Extremism: What Is Underneath,” William DiPuccio, Ph.D, correspondent for the Galestone Institute, claims Islam is a “diverse religion (…) a religion of peace,” and although its reputation is far from fair, one must wonder how it came about in the first place, how it managed to shape over the years into what it is now. Perhaps the blame should fall mostly on the Western press, who, according to DiPuccio, “continue to take the words of Islamic leaders at face value without adequate scrutiny” and who fail to recognize that “Islamists often refrain from discussing the unsavory aspects of their faith, such as the degradation of women, the suppression of free speech, homosexuality and ‘blasphemy’” and many more harmful instances that do nothing to help perpetuate a positive and accurate depiction of Islam.

Christian Extremism: The Untold Side of Terrorism

Though probably unthought-of of by most members of both religions, the connections and similarities between modern day Muslim Extremism and Christian Extremism are irrevocable in many ways, including execution and motive.  In the United States, one of the most violent groups associated with a Christian ideology is the Ku Klux Klan, a white supremacist group that, according to their mission statement, intends to “re-establish Protestant Christian values in America by any means possible,” and believe that “Jesus was the first Klansman.” Their well-known cross burnings were not only to intimidate racial and ethnic targets, but to demonstrate their “loyalty to Jesus Christ” that included the singing of hymns and spoken prayer.  The modern movement and organization focuses on the supposed “war against Western Christian civilization,” and their methods of outreach and domestic terrorism remain the same: beatings, lynching, murder, whips, destroying of property, rape, and much more.

Beginning in the 20th century, a group known as the Army of God began planned attacks against abortion clinics and their doctors all across the United States, including the biggest organization to provide them, Planned Parenthood.  Many people involved in carrying out these attacks were self-proclaimed members or allies of Christian Identity/Patriot movements, including the powerful Lambs of Christ group.  On May 31, 2009, anti-abortion citizen Scott Roeder murdered Wichita doctor George Tiller for performing late term abortions at his Women’s Health Care services clinic – his being one of only three nationwide to actually perform late term abortions – saying in a statement how he believes abortion to be “criminal and disgustingly immoral” and in direct conflict with his religious beliefs.

Many would argue upon hearing these incidents in direct association with the Christian faith, especially those of the Christian faith themselves, that these extremists do not represent Christianity as a whole and are only a select few giving the religion an unjust and unfair reputation. But if this is true, and we as a Christian-heavy society believe that groups such as the Ku Klux Klan or people such as Roeder are not the poster children for Christianity, why is Islamophobia so rampant within society?  If we are taught that extremists in one religion – such as Christianity – do not represent the whole of that religion, then the same empathy should be given to Muslims still facing prejudice for their religion that is judged not by their “diversity” or “peacefulness,” but by their most extreme members.

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Guest Post: “Religious Controversy: UDV”

Today’s guest post was composed by students in an undergraduate course I just finished teaching on American religious minorities. The students’ assignment was to provide historical perspective on a controversy involving one of the religious minorities we discussed, with the aim of generating greater empathy among readers (i.e., greater understanding if not necessarily agreement) for the minority group’s position. If you have constructive feedback to offer the students, please comment on this post.


RELIGIOUS CONTROVERSY
By Max Bress, Caroline Metzger, Lusumino Nyamayedenga, Brian Smith, Casey Taylor

Religious controversies surround us in everyday life. We hear about them on the evening news, in the newspaper, and learn about them in class. A recent religious controversy we found interesting was the conflict between the Uniao do Vegetal (UDV) church and the United States government and its citizens. The conflict sprouted from the UDV’s use of ayahuasca tea. The following gives background on the UDV, the pros and cons of ayahuasca tea, the public perception and the court case involving the UDV.

The Brazilian church of Uniao do Vegetal (UDV) was founded by Jose Gabriel da Costa in 1961 after he consumed ayahuasca, a hallucinogenic tea brewed from mariri and chacrona leaves found in the Amazon River. Once he consumed the tea, he had a vision in which “spiritual revelations and sense of personal mission… came together in a coherent belief system.” After this profound vision, he began to gather followers under the name of Mestre Gabriel and the church of Uniao do Vegetal. Uniao do Vegetal, which translates to ‘the union of the plants’ and refers to the ayahuasca tea Mestre Gabriel consumed during his time in the Amazon. Gabriel’s teachings blended Christianity and indigenous Brazilian beliefs while including ritual drinking of the ayahuasca tea. In 1969, the first UDV temple was built in Porto Velho, Brazil and was declared headquarters of the UDV. In 1971, Mestre Gabriel died and left his teachings to his family. His wife would later become a Mestre of the UDV. When Mastre Gabriel’s family took over the role of leading the church, they renamed it Centro Espirita Beneficente Uniao do Vegetal (United Beneficent Spiritual Central of the Vegetable) and moved its headquarters to Brazilia, Brazil. In 1987, Brazil legalized the use of the ayahuasca tea, opening the doors for the UDV to recruit more followers.

According to Jeffrey Toobin of the New Yorker Magazine, the UDV was introduced to the United States by Jeffrey Bronfman who founded the Santa Fe, New Mexico branch. Bronfman, an ecologist, traveled to the Brazilian rainforest where he was introduced to the UDV and tasted the ayahuasca tea. The tea inspired him to become a Mestre of the UDV and led to the founding of the U.S. congregation. During services the congregation drinks the tea together as part of their ritual, somewhat comparable to the Catholic tradition of taking communion. In 1999, federal agents raided the New Mexico branch of the UDV and confiscated their ayahuasca tea. As a result, Bronfman sued the federal government for the violation of religious freedom. The United States Supreme Court ruled in favor of the UDV and they are now allowed to use the ayahuasca tea. The UDV’s membership is estimated to be between 8,000 and 10,000 worldwide and between 100 and 200 in the United States. The UDV have branches in Brazil, Spain, and the United States.

According to Anthony Hennman, the UDV church members use the Ayahuasca tea every 1st and 3rd Sunday of the month, as well as various other days and perform a certain ritual. During these rituals, the leader or the Mestre distributes the tea and guides the people through their painful, yet meaningful, journey while under the influence of the tea. While sharing the tea, certain chants called Chamadas are recited providing instruction as well as teachings of Mestre Gabriel. The UDV church believes that in order to truly perceive god, one must ingest this tea. Also, according to Hennman, the followers believe that by using the tea they can find self-knowledge, and often times share their visions and experiences during their rituals with one another.

While there are many potentially negative effects associated with DMT and ayahuasca usage, there are also many potential benefits for users. Although there have been few studies conducted to examine the impact of the psychoactive substance, users often report positive and even life-changing results and revelations from the drug. One of the few legitimate studies of DMT was conducted by Rick Strassman MD at the University of New Mexico in the early 1990’s. The studies were then turned into a documentary entitled ‘The Spirit Molecule’, highlighting test subjects experiences while under the influence. Mitch Schultz, director of the documentary, describes the DMT journey as a way for users to look into themselves and discover their true identity. Schultz says, “ DMT can give you something inside you that can really open up the layers of your ego. And pulling back those layers of the ego, you start to get a sense of that perfect awareness of your being, and to me that is more real than real if you will. More real than this hallucination that we’re living in on a daily basis.”

In addition to self-examination, users of ayahuasca often report how beautiful the experience is. In the Strassman study, the volunteers seemed to continually reiterate how stunning their journey was. Schultz believes that there were benefits for all of the users saying, “Even the frightening experiences for them were in some way beautiful and even more so after they returned and were able to take some sort of lesson from that.”

A 2012 study of ayahuasca usage in two Brazilian churches found that users measured significantly lower than the controls for depression, anxiety, hostility, paranoid ideation, and phobias. The ayahuasca users also scored significantly lower than controls for measures of worry, shyness, and fatigability and weakness. Finally, users scored significantly higher than controls on measures of self-transcendence and spiritual orientation, including sacredness of life, subjective well-being, and mission in life (Beyer). For these reasons, Amazonian shamans have come to describe ayahuasca as the ‘window to the soul’ (Salak).

The psychedelic effects of ayahuasca include visual and auditory stimulation, the mixing of sensory modalities, and psychological introspection. It has come to be known as the spirit molecule because users often claim to have otherworldly experiences and encounters with supernatural entities. Usage of the tea is often viewed as a way of physical and spiritual renewal. It is known for its purgative properties, first causing its ingestor to vomit prior to its psychoactive effects. After the physical cleansing, the spiritual journey is a source of renewal for many people who see visions or discover a revelation resulting in transformation of self or ideals. For the UDV, ayahuasca promotes a spiritual evolution based on the search for self-knowledge and mental concentration.

Though DMT is known to have the capability to positively impact users’ lives, public perception largely disapproves because of the psychedelic effects on the user. Those who oppose the use of DMT take this standpoint often because of DMT’s capability to drastically alter self-identity, induce extreme anxiety, realistic hallucinations, and spiritual emergence. The long term side effects of DMT usage are largely unknown. Because of this, as well as the hallucinogenic properties, the federal government classifies DMT as a Schedule I drug. Schedule I drugs are those which have a high probability of abuse, and no known medical use. However, new scientific evidence shows that drugs like psilocybin mushrooms and MDMA, both Schedule I drugs, indeed do have medical use in small doses; people suffering from post traumatic stress disorder are finding relief by using these substances. Once classified as dangerous and without medical justification, certain substances have been erroneously classified and banned from consumption. With recent advances in scientific understanding of substances similar to ayahuasca, it is plausible that scientific evidence will emerge about ayahuasca in the same vain.

The DEA has nicknamed DMT “the businessman’s trip” because of the brevity of the experience. A DMT high typically peaks within a minute of being taken. This peak often drastically changes one’s self-identity while the context of their surroundings such as furniture, plants, animals, and people gain a different meaning. This change in meaning of surroundings can cause a life-altering rearrangement of existential perception, which has been known to cause users to place less value on human beings and place more value on other things. In some cases, users of DMT begin to identify with inanimate objects, leading to existential anxiety. When analyzing the merits and downfalls of DMT, it is also important to recognize where it comes from. Many people question how a substance could be harmful if it is naturally produced by the human body and in nature. It is not a synthetically manufactured substance, whose sole use centers on getting high; it exists in almost all living things as part of their genetic makeup.

While many users of DMT enter a euphoric state, it can be laced with an intense feeling of fear and apprehension. Even experienced users of psychedelic drugs often experience uncomfortability through the intense loss of control caused by DMT use. The feelings of euphoria and fear alternate much more frequently when using DMT versus other psychedelic drugs. Because of its strength, users of DMT often fail to realize that their hallucinations are not real. Many users have described this effect as a “live dream.” As one is convinced that events are real when dreaming, DMT users often perceive hallucinations as actually happening in a different realm where life is more vivid and intriguing. This intense perception elevates the DMT’s risk level beyond other psychedelics as it breaks the bounds of a secure hallucination and takes the user’s mind to a vivid, often spontaneous realm.

Though the general public may be unaware of these specific psychological effects of DMT, those against the use of Hoasca tea are opposed to it primarily because it contains a psychedelic drug. Many are against its use simply because of its drug classification. Some are wary that it could permit drug abuse for members of the Centro Espirita Beneficente Uniao do Vegetal. It is perceived to some as a place welcoming drug usage without genuine religious purpose and that the members are just looking for some kind of high. However, a study labeled the Hoaska Project explored the UDV church and its members, and found some rather interesting and surprising information. The study found that most of the people involved in the church are actually in a higher socioeconomic class than expected. UDV members even include physicians who are well educated about drugs and their effects, yet still are willing to expose themselves to the Ayahuasca.

An interesting aspect of the Supreme Court case against the UDV church centers on the legal boundaries the U.S. government accused the church of crossing. According to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, both State and Federal governments may not “…substantially burden religious exercise without compelling justification.” The compelling justification the government offered was counterintuitive in a lot of ways; it seemed as if the government was doing everything within their power and using whatever obscure argument they could legally muster to try and categorically dismiss the UDV’s claim because it involved a controlled substance. Through the RFRA, many other religious groups have argued their cases and legally been permitted to use substances deemed to be Schedule I drugs.

Schedule I drugs are those which the federal government determined to be the most dangerous, and those which carry the most substantial penalties. One of the justifications the US Government invoked to fight the UDV church in court over the use of ayahuasca tea was that by virtue of  “description of Schedule I substances…by itself precludes any consideration of individualized exceptions such as that sought by the UDV.” This interpretation was odd because on several occasions the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in favor of religious groups attempting to gain legal recognition. Mescaline, the active ingredient in Peyote is classified as a Schedule I drug, yet certain Native American groups have been legally allowed to use it ceremoniously for decades. Why now would federal prosecutors say that by virtue of the Schedule I classification, the RFRA is negated, and does not afford the UDV church consideration for ceremonial use of ayahuasca tea? It seems that the position of the federal government is less about there being an actual problem with using certain substances for religious sacrament, but instead about the government doing everything within its power to resist change for fear of how the public will react.

This assertion is validated by the Supreme Court Majority Opinion on the case, authored by Chief Justice John Roberts, which reads “According to the Government, there would be no way to cabin religious exceptions once recognized, and the public will misread such exceptions as signaling that the substance at issue is not harmful after all.” The government is afraid that fully applying the laws they have already passed to protect religious freedoms will confuse the ignorant public, and they will no longer be able to determine for themselves which substances they will put in their body.

The argument is not whether the UDV has the legal right to practice their religion; the highest court in the land has already ruled in their favor. New emerging evidence suggests that schedule I drugs often can be used for medical reasons, and often are not as harmful as they are classified to be. These people aren’t hurting anyone, and are merely practicing their religion freely, and with legal justification. America is the land of free religious practice; these people are no different. The stigmas about DMT often are misconstrued, and rely on fear and misinformation to convince people that it should be outlawed.

This religious controversy has in fact be somewhat solved. The ruling of the Supreme Court allowing the UDV’s use of ayahuasca tea will pave the way for other religions using a substance that is different from what Americans perceive to be the norm. Maybe in the future Americans will be more open to rituals used by religions that are not mainstream.

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Guest Post: “Muhammad in South Park”

Today’s guest post was composed by students in an undergraduate course I just finished teaching on American religious minorities. The students’ assignment was to provide historical perspective on a controversy involving one of the religious minorities we discussed, with the aim of generating greater empathy among readers (i.e., greater understanding if not necessarily agreement) for the minority group’s position. If you have constructive feedback to offer the students, please comment on this post.


MUHAMMAD IN SOUTH PARK
By Katherine Chapel, Matthew Hurd, Ethan Lawless, and Andrew Moore

Your most meaningful religious figure is portrayed in a bear suit; how do you react? To a certain Islamist organization, threats and radical statements against the portrayers were the way to protest it. Most would think this is a little harsh, but an understanding of Islamic views gives insight into this situation.

What happened:

South Park, an animated series shown on Comedy Central, has depicted Muhammad several times. The first depiction was on July 4th, 2001, when Muhammad was shown and described as “the Muslim prophet with the powers of flame” (as shown in the figure). This episode did not cause much controversy at the time, but would get brought up later when South Park portrayed Muhammad again in 2006.

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Two episodes in 2006 portrayed Muhammad and caused the nationally recognized controversy. These episodes are poking fun at Family Guy and even proclaim that some Muslims found it insulting that Muhammad was depicted in a Danish newspaper, but further into the episode an uncensored, cartoon version of Muhammad is shown. Soon after this aired, the episodes were later ran with a black screen that proclaimed Comedy Central has refused to broadcast an image of Muhammad.

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Yet again, in 2010, South Park portrayed Muhammad in a giant bear costume and within no time at all, the creators of South Park received death threats from an extremist Islamic group. In the 200th episode, titled “200” (the one aired in 2010), Tom Cruise is ridiculed by South Park character Stan Marsh and Cruise becomes filled with rage. Cruise, as well as 200 other celebrities mocked by South Park, file a class action lawsuit against the town. Stan attempts to apologize, Cruise accepts his apology only if they help him meet the prophet Muhammad. The characters in South Park go to the “Super Best Friends”, a team of religious superheros to request Muhammad. He eventually accepts the invitation and is hauled to South Park in the back of a U-Haul truck. As he is getting taken to Cruise in the bear outfit (shown in the side figure), they are interrupted by the Ginger Separatist Movement and they take Muhammad away from the people of South Park.

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So what’s the big deal?

For most Americans, the airing of an image of Muhammad over broadcast television is not an offensive act. The United States is a country rooted in the first amendment, but in a post 9/11 society where Islamaphobia exists; there is little understanding for the Muslim community. The show South Park is widely popular in the United States because it does not discriminate against those that it insults. No person can escape from the satirical comedy that Stone and Parker produce.

The beginning of each episode of South Park even has a disclaimer, warning that the program has insulting skits that none should view;

All characters and events in this show-–even those based on real people–-are entirely fictional. All celebrity voices are impersonated…..poorly. The following program contains coarse language and due to its content it should not be viewed by anyone. (South Park Studios)

Many would argue that this should be enough to ward off anyone who may be sensitive to certain viewpoints, and that the show should not be taken seriously, because the creators do not take it seriously themselves. The goal of Stone and Parker is to be comedic, nothing more. South Park “tackles subject matter that (they) think is funny and unique” and their only concern is that they “make people laugh” (Lim). Often times, the show can appear to be sexist, anti-Semitic, grotesque, bigoted, or racist, but that is just the point; the creators find funny subject matter while offending all of their viewers; all facets of society are fair game.

Another contributing factor to the insensitivity towards the American-Muslim community is the Islamaphobia stemming from the attacks by an extremist Muslim group on September 11, 2001. As defined by Berkeley University, Islamaphobia is “a contrived fear or prejudice fomented by the existing Eurocentric and Orientalist global power structure and is directed at a perceived or real Muslim threat” (Berkeley).  While most Americans are accepting of the Muslim culture, there are still a few who have been misguided by the attacks of a few Muslim extremists. These extremists give the culture of Islam a bad name in the United States, but while most can see through these terrorists, there are still a few who generalize the entire Muslim community.

Islamic View of Muhammad

It may be difficult to understand why a relatively frivolous cartoon could anger an entire group of people to such an extreme degree as to warrant death threats. To understand this, it is vital to understand why exactly Muslims are angry about this issue. In Muslim tradition, there are two main religious texts: the Qur’an and the Hadith. The Qur’an is a piece of literature that is believed by Muslims to be the Word of God, transcribed by Muhammad. This is comparable to the Christian belief that the Book of Revelation was a vision experienced by the apostle John, who then wrote down what he saw. The Hadith is a collection of teachings, laws, and history of the Muslim faith that are connected to Muhammad. This is comparable to the Jewish Talmud, or Catholic magisterial doctrine. The Qur’an does not specifically rebuke the depiction of Muhammad. However, the Hadith contains several passages that impugn upon not only depicting Muhammad, but any living creature as well (Anonymous).

Now that we understand the root of the issue, we must ask, “what about this South Park incident was offensive?” One very common theory that explains why depicting Allah or Muhammad is disparaged is that there is a concern that iconography will develop into idolatry, which is considered a very serious offense in Islam. This is similar to the concern held by many Christian Protestants that the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches are committing idolatry by depicting and venerating saints. A more specific explanation as to why Muslims find this offensive is that they believe that Muhammad is being portrayed in the fashion of a terrorist, which reflects upon all Muslims. A third explanation could be that Muslims, who revere Muhammad above all other human beings, believe that it is wrong to mock a figure that is vital to their religion (“Chicago Tribune”).

One more question we must ask is, “are all Muslims upset about this?” The answer is clearly “no.” Why is that? Why do some people want to have legitimate discussions about Muslim relations in America, others threaten violence, and still others seem completely unphased? The answer is simply “differences in religious opinion.” There are two main sects of Islam: Sunni and Shi’a. Sunni is the larger, more dominant group, generally interpreted to be the more orthodox version of Islam. This is the group that was generally more offended. Shi’a Islam is considered schismatic and liberal. Shi’ites have even been known to tolerate and even create religious art depicting Muhammad. Shi’ites would not be nearly as likely to be offended by incidents such as the South Park episodes. However, this division does not necessarily create a strict outline for who was or was not offended by the episode. There were members of each sect that were offended, and others that weren’t.

Backlash

The backlash from the American-Muslim community was mostly restricted to a small group of radical/extremist Muslims. The website “RevolutionMuslim.com” based out of New York was the most prominent entity to speak out after the episode aired (lDanios). The page showed a photo of Theo van Gogh who was murdered in 2004 because of documentary he made about violence against Muslim women. The page gave the caveat that the photo of this Dutch film maker was “not a threat, but a warning of the reality of what will likely happen to them,” them referring to the creators of South Park. Abu Talhah al Amrikee authored this post to make the mocking of Muhammad known to the general public. When asked why the graphic photo of van Gogh was necessary, he said it was “meant to ‘explain the severity’ of what Parker and Stone did by mocking Muhammad,” (Miller). What might be even more panic-inducing to the general citizen is that the web posting also included a sermon of a extreme U.S. preacher named Anwar al-Awlaki, and it also gave information about Stone and Parker’s residence in Colorado (Miller).

Differing Reactions

It is important to note that American-Muslims were themselves divided on the issue of this South Park episode. There were a significant amount of American-Muslims that were not mad at South Park, but rather at CNN  and Revolution Muslim. They were unhappy about the way CNN covered the story (Danios). Anderson Cooper devoted ten minutes to it and did not even interview an American-Muslim but included an interview with Islamophobe Ayaan Hirsi Ali (Danios). Loonwatch.com argues that this gave the impression to the watcing public that Revolution Muslim was representative of the general American-Muslim which is simply not true. The website also states that Revolution Muslim only has two to ten members at any given time. In reality. “The vast majority of Muslim Americans despise Revolution Muslim and their hate-filled ideology. . . Many Muslim Americans question whether Revolution Muslim are real Muslims, and instead hold them to be agent provocateurs who wish to smear Islam,” (Danos). This small group of radical Muslims is obviously not indicative of how most Muslims in America are choosing to react to South Park.

Conclusion

South Park has depicted Muhammad over the years through a couple variations. Upset by this, a portion of American Muslims have reacted strongly. The depiction of Muhammad is offensive to Muslims because the Hadith, a collection of teachings connected to Muhammad comparable to the Catholic magisterial doctrine or the Jewish Talmud, contains passages that strongly forbid this. It was also offensive for a couple other reasons as well. Idolatry is a serious offense in Islam, and they fear that these depictions of icons will breach their laws. They also believe that South Park mocked their religious figure throughout their depictions, especially in the bear suit. Albeit a reaction like this came about, only a very small portion of Muslims in America reacted with threats. Most Muslims were passive or indifferent on this issue.

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Guest Post: “Muslim Prayer in Public Schools”

Today’s guest post was composed by students in an undergraduate course I just finished teaching on American religious minorities. The students’ assignment was to provide historical perspective on a controversy involving one of the religious minorities we discussed, with the aim of generating greater empathy among readers (i.e., greater understanding if not necessarily agreement) for the minority group’s position. If you have constructive feedback to offer the students, please comment on this post.


MUSLIM PRAYER IN PUBLIC SCHOOLS
By Mandy Sadler, Andrew Roussos, Faith Schneider, and Krystole White

What is Islam?

The 9/11 attack on America changed a lot of things for the Muslim community, especially American-Muslims. Many forget that there were American-Muslims in the casualties of the tragedy. Edward Curtis says in his work Muslims in America, that for many American-Muslims, “the attacks inspired national solidarity in the face of fear and insecurity (167).” Muslims were quick to denounce the terrorist acts and support the victims. After the attacks there were many Muslim organized anti-terrorism movements and many Muslim people opened their doors and gave fellow Americans information sessions on Islam to show how peaceful it was. In addition, American-Muslim communities raised many donations for the victims of 9/11.

Still Muslims were worried that their whole religion would be blamed for the few radical terrorists associated with it. Their worries were not unfounded. Many Muslims were the targets of angry Americans looking for revenge. Some non-Muslims were even targeted just because they looked like what Americans think of as stereotypical Muslims. Curtis writes that, “as many as seven people, including an Arab American Christian, were murdered in revenge for 9/11 (200).”  Now even though it has been established that the Nation of Islam and the Muslim religion is as peaceful as any other, people still carry these unfavorable stereotypes. Because of these misunderstandings, many American-Muslims have had to face numerous obstacles as practicing Muslims in America.

So if the stereotypes are wrong, what exactly is Islam? Islam is an Abrahamic religion, as are Judaism and Christianity. All three of these religions believe in the monotheistic God and all trace their origins back to Abraham and his religious affiliation. The Muslim religion is based on the Qur’an, which is a divine message revealed to the prophet Muhammad by an angel. After his death, the Muslim community split into two different sects; the Sunni and the Shi’i. Though the sects are different they still share some essentials, such as the pillars of Islam. There are five pillars of Islam, one of which is prayer, or Salat. According to the Qu’ran, this means praying five times a day, at specified times. Muslim worship is held at dawn, noon, mid-afternoon, sunset, and nightfall. For Muslims, this is a natural part of the rhythm of the day and that rhythm is essential. In fact, many Muslims see the time of day the prayers are held to be almost as important as the prayers themselves. Keeping that in mind, let’s introduce the current issue of American-Muslims and their battle with the right to pray in public schools.

What is the issue?

Now that we understand a little more about Muslims it will be easier to discuss the issue of Muslim prayer in public schools. Muslims want the ability to pray, like their religion requires, while attending a public secular-based school. The reason for their request like mentioned earlier is that one of the most vital of the five pillars is Salat. It is because of Salat, which instructs Muslims to observe five time specified prayer rituals a day, that many Muslim students feel it is essential for them to have the ability to pray during school time. It is a custom to pray regardless of the location, as long as you face Mecca, and is viewed as a symbol of dedication to Allah and Muhammad. The prayer is a major part of connecting and communicating with Allah. Without prayer there is no connection between Allah and the practicing Muslims. For this reason, prayer is very important to the Muslim culture and is instilled into the Muslim mind at a very young age. Altering the time of prayer for school could affect the next generation’s view of what is essential to Islam causing change within the religion. Also, if students are singled out in class it might steer them away from the religion as well, to avoid bullying and other forms of discrimination. Therefore, American-Muslim parents seek a safe environment for their children to practice their religion in.

The First Amendment in the United States Constitution states that any student has the right to freedom of speech as well as religious freedom. Being religious is not seen as the problem, but rather the issue is with keeping a separation of church and state. American-Muslims, like other religious Americans, want to be able to have the same freedom of religion promised in the Constitution extended to the school systems. Still because of the issue of separation of church and state they have come up against problems with this. Yet the religious restrictions Muslims have with prayer time make this separation more of an issue for them than some other religions.

American-Muslims only want their right to exercise religious freedom in the public school sphere. They do not need to have their religion promoted or favored, they just need a solution where they can practice Islam in a way that suits their religious needs. With this in mind we might ask ourselves this, what is to come if we allow Muslims to pray in school and should we let them?

What is the Opposition?

Some say no, we should not allow American-Muslims the right to pray in public schools. While accommodating Muslim prayer time within the American school system might seem a reasonable expectation to some, there are those that would argue this violates their right to an education that does not endorse a specific religion.  By allowing American-Muslims prayer time in addition to other components of their worship, one could make the case that other religions are not given the same type of “special treatment.” Pamela Geller’s blog gives an insight into what some conservative Christians are saying concerning the American-Muslim prayer in public school issue.  In one of her posts entitled “Mosqueing the Public School,” she argues that there is an effort being made to “islamize” schools.  It could appear as though a special effort is being made to integrate Islamic law into the public space. For example, the University of Dearborn intends to construct footbaths, while other public schools and universities provide prayer time and space for the adherents of this religion.

So what designates something as a reasonable accommodation? The issue has become more complex than just the question of rights to religious freedom. Many argue their rights are being violated by the allowances being made for American-Muslims.  However, those in opposition might consider that they are not being forced to practice Islam and by denying American-Muslims these accommodations, the American-Muslim rights are also violated. The Minnesota Independent and USA Today have both run stories involving this conflict. In addition, the ACLU, who has a history of suing institutions they feel go beyond respecting an ideology are currently supporting this type of allowance.

Why they should be allowed to Pray

If institutions that are usually opposed to these types of allowances are okay with it, then why shouldn’t we be? The freedom to chose and practice any religion we want, as Americans, is a right embedded in one of the most important documents in our nation’s history. The first amendment of The Bill of Rights states “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”. This has been a very significant statement for many Americans since its creation of this amendment in 1789. Immigrants still flock to the United States for this very reason. For the right to chose and exercise their religion no matter what it is. The recent issue of banning Muslim children from praying in schools is a clear violation of this Amendment.

The official stance of public schools on prayer was created in the Supreme Court case Engel v. Vitale (1962). The ruling of the court was that public schools cannot sponsor religious activity. This verdict has no effect on the right for children to practice their religion as individuals in public schools. So children still maintain “the right to pray on their own.” A Christian student is allowed to fold their hands and silently pray anytime they like, so then there should be no reason a Muslim student should be denied their right to pray. Yes, Muslim prayer is more involved than in Christianity but according to Principal Cheryl J. Logan of Parkdale High School in Riverdale, Maryland although “public schools are not religious… [they are] legally allowed to accommodate students to practice their religion in some ways.” If the legality of accommodating students to practice their religion is no longer under question then why do American-Muslim children still get denied this right? As stated in the previous paragraph, schools cannot sponsor religious activity. If a school denies the right for one religious group to practice and is indifferent of the actions of other groups, isn’t that the same as sponsoring those other groups? The actions of public schools must be equal for all religions. Realistically it is impossible to take religion out of public schools completely, so shouldn’t the role of the school then be to make sure that each religion is equally represented? American-Muslims are not asking for special treatment, just equal treatment in the act of freely practicing what they believe in, just like everyone else.

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Guest Post: “Freedom under Fire”

Today’s guest post was composed by students in an undergraduate course I just finished teaching on American religious minorities. The students’ assignment was to provide historical perspective on a controversy involving one of the religious minorities we discussed, with the aim of generating greater empathy among readers (i.e., greater understanding if not necessarily agreement) for the minority group’s position. If you have constructive feedback to offer the students, please comment on this post.


FREEDOM UNDER FIRE
By Zach Ellsworth, Sara Garret, and Kyle Bush

The United States has always claimed to be the land of the free. It is so ingrained into our country’s self-portrait that we wrote it into our National Anthem. In addition, the great forefathers of the United States saw freedom as such a defining trait of our fledgling nation that it is the foremost thought written in the preamble to the U.S Constitution. The purpose of the Constitution, it explains, is “to secure the Blessings of Liberty.” These blessings are spelled out in the Bill of Rights, which declare freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, the right to bear arms, and the freedom of religion.

Freedom of religion has been the center of controversy as of late, most recently in the case of Tulsi Gabbard.  Early in 2013, Gabbard became the first Hindu-American to be elected to Congress. When swearing in, she used the Bhagavad Gita, a sacred text used in Hinduism, as opposed to the traditional Christian Holy Bible. This turned the heads and opened the mouths of traditionally staunch conservatives, who claim that this is a violation of American tradition. But if we are a country represented by our freedoms, why should Gabbard be held to a custom that is irrelevant to her beliefs? It can be argued that Gabbard succumbing to this opposition and swearing in on the Bible would have been the actual violation, not of tradition, but of the freedom the U.S. has flourished under. By exercising her rights, Gabbard reminded America that freedom of religion also means freedom from religion.

Tulsi Gabbard’s case is not an isolated event as some would suggest.  In fact many government representatives have historically been sworn into office over something other than a bible.  When John Quincy Adams was sworn into office as President of the United States on March 4th 1825, he did not use a Bible.  Instead, President Adams used an American law book.  No sort of controversy was reported from this decision at his oath ceremony.

Keith Ellison, however, faced more criticism to his oath ceremony when he was elected a Congressman in 2006.  Ellison, a practicing Muslim, requested that he be sworn into office under the Qu’ran.  This caused much controversy from a group of radical conservatives, because of anti-Muslim tensions post-9/11.  Despite the critics, Ellison did follow through with his oath ceremony and was sworn into office under the Qu’ran;  a Qu’ran owned by no other than founding father Thomas Jefferson.

In a more recent example, John Brennan became the Director of the CIA and chose not to use the Bible either.  Rather, in his oath ceremony, Brennan chose to use the United States Constitution.  When asked why he wanted to be sworn in under the U.S. Constitution, Brennan replied he, “wanted to reaffirm his commitment to the rule of law as he took the oath of office as director of the CIA”  (AUSCS).

Despite the controversial feedback, research these “different” oath ceremonies and you will find something very interesting about American Religious legislation: You are not required by the U.S. Constitution, or any other law, to be sworn in on the Bible.  In fact, U.S. law does not require one to be sworn in under any book at all.  Using the Bible has simply been an American tradition – not a law.  Members of Congress that have sworn in using the Bible, law books, the Koran, or even the Bhagavad Gita that Gabbard used, were completely within their legal right.

Opposition to this type of religious plurality has been a many sided force. On one side of it are the conservative Christians who take up a decent majority of politicians and opinion makers. In his article “Spiritual Adultery,” World magazine writer Timothy Lamer gave this opposition a voice when responding to a Hindu prayer given by Venkatachalapathi Samuldrala before a joint meeting of Congress. Lamer called his Christian brothers who had heard the prayer to repentance, claiming that they had, “basically bowed down to Baal,” (Baal is a pagan god from the Old Testament). He continues to accuse them of spiritual adultery and recommends they be excommunicated from the Church if they fail to repent.

While no swearing in took place in this case, it is important to note because it brought to light the anger of traditional conservatives towards growing religious plurality in a government feeling the affects of post-modernism. Lamer speaks passionately; it is obvious that his convictions are strong. The doctrines and scriptures of Christianity teach that once Jesus saves you from your sins, the Holy Spirit consumes you with passion and zeal for the Glory of God. This is evident in Lamer’s words. But other Christians have had less forward reactions, noting that the Bible also teaches that God has ultimate sovereignty, and Jesus speaks to endurance during suffering.

In relevance to the swearing in of Tulsi Gabbard, Christians must again take comfort in God’s sovereignty. As a government official, your job is to serve the people, no matter their race, religion, gender, etc. With that comes the protection of the separation of church and state. When we are outraged by the fact that a religion other than Christianity is at center stage, have the two not come together, de facto? Additionally, forcing someone to swear in on a text or document of no meaning to them may weaken their vow. Some would argue that by using an object of sacrament, or another item that one holds dear, strengthens one’s oath by adding conviction.

Ellison’s case was similar to the controversy surrounding the Hindu prayer. However, it wasn’t so much that he was a Muslim that he was scrutinized for; it was the fact that he used the Koran in taking his oath of office. Being the first to do so, coupled with the complicated understanding shared by many Americans of Islam in the wake of 9/11, made Ellison a target of numerous prejudices, both political and social. This parallels the criticism surrounding Tulsi Gabbard. One of the most outspoken adversaries against his swearing in on the Koran was Dennis Pragar.  Pragar, one of America’s most well-known talk show hosts, argued that Ellison’s choice to use the Koran should not have been allowed, “because the act undermines American civilization.” He posed a mandate that America, as a whole, is Christian, and that this symbol of religious pluralism is “damaging to the fabric of American Civilization.” This consistent use of the word “civilization” seems to be an attempt to use his conservative Christian view to juxtapose the seemingly savage, foreign, unwelcome Islam.

However, Keith Ellison is neither of those things. Keith Ellison was born and raised in Detroit, Michigan, as “American” a city as any in the states. He pursued an American dream, which to him meant a better America. This commitment was what led the people to vote him into office, and eventually Congress. He has four children, who attended public schools and enjoyed all of the “American” experiences that come with it. To argue that Ellison is a threat to “American” civilization is to argue that Ellison is a threat to the very thing that molded him; a country, a culture, and a civilization that he worked to protect as a governing official. Insofar as Islam being considered a “foreign” religion; Muslims have been practicing in the states since they were just colonies, nearly as long as protestant Christianity.

While congress has mostly consisted of Christians, we have found that as religious diversity in our country has grown, the amount of religions represented in Congress has increased as well. While Congress still does not completely reflect the religious demographics of our country, it is a good thing that they are becoming more religiously diverse. Congress is still majority Christian, so even though we see more members of other religious affiliations in government, Christians do not have to worry that they will not receive appropriate representation. As a matter of fact congress is still very much dominated by Christians with 54.7% being Protestant and 30.1% being Catholic. Tulsi Gabbard, in fact, is the sole practicing Hindu in Congress.

While Tulsi Gabbard is the only practicing Hindu in Congress, it is still extremely important that she is there. Whether people want acknowledge it or not, our country continues to become more diverse and all these different races or religions deserve to have representation in Congress. It is hard to find an exact number of how many Hindu-Americans there are, but there is said to be anywhere from 600,000 to 2.3 million. So if there were not at least one Hindu-American in Congress, there would be many citizens without representation.

People who opposed Tulsi Gabbard swearing into Congress on the Bhagavad Gita ought not worry. By Gabbard making the statement of swearing in on something other than the traditional bible, she reiterated that our country still stands on the basic morals that it was founded upon. Religious freedom is granted to everyone here and that is a fundamental right in our Constitution that Gabbard is exercising. So for those concerned about American civilization and what it means to have a practicing Hindu swear into congress on the Bhagavad Gita; your concerns have been heard. However, you can take confidence in the fact that Gabbard is just exercising her rights as a citizen of the United States- the same rights granted to each and every one of us. By exercising her freedom, Gabbard is showing that she is just as concerned about America’s civilization as everyone one else. This country was built on freedom and that includes freedom of religion. Gabbard is exercising that right just like any other American citizen.

The United States is a constantly changing nation, a continuously evolving culture, and could be a perpetual emblem of freedom if we, as its citizens, possess the desire for it to be so.  Our government, which is for and by the people, has to be a direct representation of this desire. As the great American melting pot, diversity plays an integral part of our liberty. When it comes to religion, our tradition is not Christianity, but freedom of such, and freedom from such.  From John Adams, to Keith Ellison; from hindu prayers, to Tulsi Gabbard; America is populated for the free and governed by the same.  Diversity is not a threat; it’s an asset.

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