Tom Friedman, in his New York Times column this morning, produces examples of hate speech uttered by various Islamic clerics, scholars and journalists to show that “their” extremists are as bad as “ours”. He makes a legitimate point, but perhaps in a subsequent column he might want to address how all of us caught between the self-reinforcing viciousness of the extremes might go about finding and expanding the middle ground. A starting point for such a column might be the homily South Africa’s ambassador to the US, Ebrahim Rasool, an imam, gave at Ramadan iftar hosted by the Pentagon in July. Here is a flavour:
“We need a community that is militant for justice and but not violent, an ummah that is capable of being revolutionary and changing societies from autocracy, but never extremist. That is the fundamental challenge of the moment in Ramadan 2012: how can we drive the changes that the global community requires without falling into the traps of either extremism or fundamentalism or violence?
“And so may this Ramadan be a month in which we make..the transition from a community that has ceased to occupy the middle ground to one that does occupy that middle ground. We have to ensure that it is us who occupy the middle ground because it is only people in the middle ground who can reach out comfortably to people who are also in the middle ground from other faiths, other ideologies and other thought patterns.
“On the extremes, you cannot find others because you are perpetually at war with anyone who is different to you. It is only in the middle ground that we can recognise the divine in each other. I have quoted from the Koran where it says … “I have blown of my own spirit into you.” What God says in the Koran is that we all carry a part of God’s own spirit in us that constitutes our soul. The first epistle of St John says who lives in love lives in God who lives in them … and then in the Jewish scriptures, in Isaiah, it says, God addressing the Jewish community, “I blow my spirit into your nostrils”.
“If the Abrahamic faiths are agreed that we are all carriers of the divine spirit, then why do we see each other’s colour before we see the divine in each other, why do we hear each other’s language before we hear the divine, why do we see each other’s form of worship before we see submission to the divine. We should be treating each other as the carriers of the divine and what fasting does is it allows your divine to shine through, it allows your soul to become the dominant partner in your life and it allows the spiritual to take precedence over your material interests.
“If Ramadan can begin to do that to us, we can build a single and common humanity not on collapsing the differences of worship or language or race or religion amongst us but simply by making sure that the divine is more powerful than the differences between us.”
Here is a video of all the remarks at the iftar. Ambassador Rasool’s homily begins at 22 minutes 37 seconds and follows a moving address Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta.