Is It Time to Reconsider the Term Islamist?

Independent experts sent by UNESCO to examine the church recommended turning down the request, saying that while the church roof needed patching up, the shrine could not be considered “to have been severely damaged or to be under imminent threat”.

Palestinian statehood

Friday’s meeting was attended by the Palestinian foreign minister, and the PA has viewed its entry into UNESCO as a strategic milestone ahead of the broader international recognition it seeks for future statehood.

“This gives hope and confidence to our people in the inevitable victory of our just cause,” said Prime Minister Salam
Fayyad in a statement following the decision.

“It increases their determination to continue efforts at deepening readiness for the establishment of an independent
State of Palestine, with its capital in East Jerusalem within the 1967 borders,” Fayyad said.

Israel has questioned the need for Bethlehem to be registered as an endangered site and sees Palestinian moves at
UNESCO and other UN bodies as efforts to embarrass Israel on the world stage.

“This is proof that UNESCO is motivated by political and not cultural considerations,” Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s office said in a statement following the decision.

“Instead of taking steps to promote peace, the Palestinians are acting unilaterally, which makes peace more distant.”

David Killion, the US ambassador to UNESCO, said he was “profoundly disappointed by the decision”.

The Palestinian government plans to register about 20 more sites with UNESCO, including the ancient city of Jericho and the archaeological site of Sebastia, and has dismissed Israel’s accusations.

“Our goal is to preserve and safeguard these sites in spite of the threat from Israeli occupation,” Hanan Ashrawi, head of
the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s Department of Culture and Information, told Reuters.

Last year, UNESCO granted the Palestinians full membership, a decision seen at the time as a boost to their bid, since
largely stalled, to win United Nations recognition of its statehood.

Israel and the United States, which later cut off its $80m annual funding of UNESCO, condemned the decision, saying
peace negotiations, which collapsed in 2010, were the only viable path to a Palestinian state.

Motivated by her faith, she was a powerful advocate for radical political and social change. Upon meeting her, President Abraham Lincoln reportedly said, “So this is the little lady who made this big war.”

Was Harriet Beecher Stowe a Christianist? At this year’s National Prayer Breakfast, President Barack Obama said his policies were grounded in his Christian beliefs. In a 2008 speech, former GOP presidential contender Rick Santorum said America was in the middle of a spiritual war in which “Satan has his sights on the United States of America.” Are Obama and/or Santorum Christianists? The answers to those questions would depend on how the term is defined. But it is unlikely you will hear any Christian politician or activist referred to in that way. What American and western audiences are increasingly hearing, however, since the political and social upheaval that accompanied the Arab spring, is the term Islamist. Muslims already face significant prejudice in the U.S.: 43 percent of Muslims in a 2011 Pew Forum survey reported experiences with intolerance or discrimination in the past year. And now there is growing concern that the label that was once welcomed by some as an alternative to more pejorative terms such as Islamic fundamentalist may itself be more a source of stereotyping than understanding. “I used to like it [Islamist] because I thought it represented a broad term that represented those who believe Islam should have a role in society,” said University of Kentucky researcher Ihsan Bagby, who led the U.S. Mosque Survey 2011. “But it’s been used so much in the media for a little while now to conjure up militant, extremist, radical” imagery. A larger question is whether the term still holds a coherent meaning for general audiences. “Right now, it’s confusing,” Bagby said. “Who is an Islamist?” An Evolving Term

The modern use of the term Islamist is a Western creation, but it was adopted by many with the intent of providing a more accurate label for Muslims seeking to integrate their faith into public life. In the wake of the Iranian revolution, the term Islamic fundamentalism gained currency, Martin Kramer noted in a comprehensive 2003 article in the Middle East Quarterly. “Journalists, ever on the lookout for a shorthand way to reference things new and unfamiliar, gravitated toward the term fundamentalism,” he wrote. Against that backdrop, the term Islamist gained increasing favor as a more accurate alternative that was designed to encompass the wide range of ways Muslims sought to participate in the civic arena. That didn’t happen. As Kramer noted back in 2003, “To all intents and purposes, Islamic fundamentalism and Islamism have become synonyms in contemporary American usage.” Since the 9/11 attacks, the term has often acquired a “quasi-criminal connotation,” according to The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World. “In Western mainstream media, ‘Islamists’ are those who want to establish, preferably though violent means, an ‘Islamic state,'” the encyclopedia said. Bridging The Gap The reality, many observers say, is far more complex. Like individuals from other religious traditions, Islamic activists have differing interpretations of sacred texts, varying ideas of religion-state relations and complex motives that can have as much or more to do with historical, cultural, economic and political factors as religious considerations. “The use of the term Islamist does not capture the phenomena that is quite heterogeneous,” said sociologist Mansoor Moaddel of Eastern Michigan University. “It is not a good term.” In his own interviews, for example, Moaddel has found that, “In some respects, Mr. Santorum is more extremist” than leading figures of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, who today talk relatively less about Islamic law than about having to face the challenges of economic development and cutting back on pollution. Overall, most Muslim believers want religious principles and democratic values to coexist, John Esposito, a professor of international affairs at Georgetown University, said in a paper for the Association of Religion Data Archives. Esposito explored Gallup Poll data from 2001-2007, encompassing a survey sample including more than 90 percent of the world’s Muslims. Significant majorities of Muslims in many countries said religious leaders should play no direct role in legislation, foreign policy or restricting freedom of the press. Citizens in countries in which Muslims are a majority said they want greater political freedoms and rule of law, Esposito said. In the United States, Pew surveys have found 63 percent of Muslims see no conflict between being a devout Muslim and living in a modern society. Sixty-four percent of U.S. Christians see no conflict between being a devout Christian and living in a modern society. So what is the solution to a more accurate portrayal of Muslims who believe the values of their faith deserve a place in the public square? For starters, it is not to place an undue focus on the violence associated with “what has been termed Islamist or radical expressions” of faith, Azim Nanji said in the Encyclopedia of Religion, Second Edition. “While their relevance to contemporary politics and current affairs cannot be dismissed,” Nanji said, “it would be erroneous and limiting to make it the primary expression of Islam in the modern world.” Scholars and journalists are able to describe the particular relation between religion and politics among non-Muslim individuals and groups without a shorthand term adding a suffix to the faith of the activists. The question now becomes: Is it time to reconsider the term Islamist?

I won’t say I was in love with Jesus, but I will admit that I miss him sometimes.

Jesus was the dropped pin on my Google Map; the marker which showed me where I was in relation to everything else. Jesus was central to my religiosity in the way that salt is central to cooking, or tempo is central to music. Jesus was the unspoken principle which informed all things religious, spiritual, or cosmic, because Jesus was, as I was taught, the true center of those things.

I never believed that idea completely, though. I recognized that Jesus could be central to one’s tradition, but I didn’t believe he was necessarily the center of all things. I also took issue with the divisive politics of Jesus’s followers, their rigidity surrounding matters of sexuality and gender, and their tendency to literalise mythology. My rift with the corporate institution led to less attendance at Sunday services, or weekday Morning and Evening Prayer in the chapel. Eventually I stopped attending all together.

I sort of broke up with Jesus.

In our four years apart, I’ve discovered other ways of approaching divinity, other forms of ritual than that of my Episcopal upbringing, and I’ve been more or less ok without him.

But then comes Reverend Mark Townsend, renegade priest and author of the book, Jesus Through Pagan Eyes: Bridging Neopagan Perspectives with a Progressive Vision of Christ (Llewellyn, 2012), and now I’m digging through old pictures of me and Jesus, wondering what it was that made me, to paraphrase Townsend, throw out the divine baby with the dirty bathwater.

In Townsend’s view, Jesus not only exists in the hearts and minds of the faithful, but he might also be seen as a useful point of entry for conversations about different expressions of faith, experiences of divinity, and understandings of compassion in the lives of people from many different religious traditions. Townsend uses Jesus to initiate dialogue, and he does so in way that is accepting and inclusive of many understandings and interpretations of Jesus, his purpose, and his relevance (or irrelevance) in the religious practices of contemporary Pagans.

The Pagan teachers, leaders and elders who contributed to Jesus Through Pagan Eyesinclude the likes of John Michael Greer, Archdruid of AODA, Selena Fox, senior minister of Circle Sanctuary, and Christopher Penczak, co-founder of the Temple of Witchcraft. They offer personal reflections about their connection — if any — to Christianity, their conflicts with the Church, and their take on Jesus as man, myth, and metaphor. Some of the Pagan writers speak about Jesus with a degree of familiarity and fondness that caught me by surprise. Others seem unable or unwilling to separate Jesus from the religions built in his name. But regardless of their perspectives, or how those perspectives sat in relation to my own, the dialogue remained civil and honest. This isn’t always the case when one brings up Jesus in a crowd of Pagans.

One important idea Townsend seeks to get across with this book is that there is not just one Jesus; there are (at least) three. There is the human Jesus of Nazareth, the divinised Jesus Christ of the Church — which is the Jesus that Pagans took issue with most — and there is the universal Jesus, known as the Mythic or Cosmic Christ. It is this third Jesus, the Christ, which Townsend believes to be the most underrepresented in the popular consciousness. It is also, I think, this third Jesus which spoke most clearly to me when I was a practicing Christian.

Townsend writes, quoting Fr. Richard Rohr:

Of course, the essence of both the Jesus story and the Christ myth is this: “There is no division/no separation between the divine and everything else. The Incarnation of God in Jesus is the symbol of what’s true, of what has always been true, for everything.”

I read those words, and it feels like Jesus left a message on my phone to tell me he misses me sometimes, too. I read those words, which speak clearly to the idea that the divine is immanent, integrated into the fabric of the universe, and I wonder what would happen it all Christians and Pagans, and everyone else for that matter, could imagine a world in which the Mystery was manifest in all things, at all times. Would we stumble through our lives bored, tired, disenchanted, or would we rejoice with every breath at the wonder of our existence?

I’m glad I read this book, and I’m glad to remember what it was about Jesus that did a number on my heart. I think there is good cause for Christians and Pagans, alike, to read Jesus through Pagan Eyes, and to step back from our preconceptions about one another. I’m happy, too, to remember that Christ can be conceived of as something apart from the Church, and that the Church — when functioning at its most healthy — is bigger than any of its individual Christianities.

Perhaps one day it will be big enough for every conceivable Jesus.


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