Wednesday, February 4, 2015

The Evil and the Good

It’s hard to know what to say in the face of such senseless barbarism as the world witnessed yesterday, when ISIS released that video showing the murder of Jordanian pilot Mu’ath al-Kasasbeh.

As someone who spent 4 years in Jordan, and counts many Jordanians amongst my friends, I found this news particularly heart wrenching.  My newsfeed has been filled with sad posts for the past 24 hours, with friends changing their profile pictures to reflect their support for Jordan, while others busily unfriend people for making hate-filled rants against Muslims.

I am far from the events in the Middle East, but I am feeling the pain of my Jordanian friends all the way up here in Moscow. I never met that pilot, who was just 11 short years older than my eldest child, but I know people who knew him.

Just last week, ISIS murdered a Japanese journalist, who was actually a friend of a friend of a friend.  Such is our life in the Foreign Service: when tragedy strikes, it is seldom about something that is happening “over there.” We have a personal stake in it, either because we served there, because we have friends there now, or because we are personally involved in trying to fix the problem at hand.

Someone once tried to make the argument that I, along with other diplomats and their families, am somehow “out of touch” with America, I guess because we can’t watch American television or attend American sporting events in person.  I think the argument was that we don't interact with everyday Americans and thus cannot be relied upon to make the right decisions for the United States, or to even explain the U.S. to the foreigners we encounter at post.

It was a strange and offensive argument to make. I would argue that my service overseas makes me more of an American, not less. Yes, I am giving up some everyday American things by choosing to live outside of the borders, but the very act of giving them up makes me appreciate them more. It’s sure easier to appreciate the importance of free speech when you live in a country where people are jailed for speaking their minds. It’s easier to defend the idea of democracy when you see first-hand how people can suffer without it. And it’s also – yes, this is true, too! – it’s also easier to see the things that are wrong with the U.S. when you see how people in other countries manage the everyday tasks of working and praying and loving.

I didn’t know much about Islam before moving to the Middle East, and truthfully, even after 4 years there, I am certain that I’ve only scratched the surface of what it means to be Muslim.

But it bothers me to read the anti-Muslim comments that seem to be prevalent back there in the States. I say “seem to be,” because as my friend pointed out, I’m not in the States now, so I can’t say for certain what the average person is thinking and saying about Islam. I can tell you what the media are saying, and I find it profoundly disappointing.

These people who did these horrible things to the Jordanian pilot and the Japanese journalist and so many others, these people don’t represent Islam any more than a “Christian” protester who chooses to picket an abortion clinic or a funeral can be said to represent my religion.

These brutes, with their vicious and twisted misunderstanding of God, represent no real religion, no real faith. They know nothing of God.

I’m not a priest or a preacher or an imam. I won’t ever quote scripture at you to make an argument stick. But I know God. I’ve held a baby, buried a loved one, looked up at the stars on a dark empty night. I’ve cleaned up after a sick child, and held a friend’s hand while she mourned for her lost baby. That’s where God can be found, don’t you think?

Our boab in Jordan, Reda. He was the caretaker who lived in our apartment building, and he was Muslim. He prayed and fasted, as required of his religion, when he wasn’t busy mowing the lawn or washing the cars. Once, late at night, one of my children was hurt and I had to take her to the Emergency Room. He heard her screams, and when I came out of the front door, he was already there, waiting, ready to carry her to the hospital with me. That’s God, right there, don’t you think? He was poor, very poor, but whenever he came back from the bakery, he took a piece of pita bread out of his bag and sat down to share it with my kids. That’s God too, isn’t it? You know what else? He never forgot to wish me Merry Christmas, or Happy Easter. He remembered all of our religious holidays, and honored the days with us.

My boxing instructor in Jordan was Muslim, too. Raed made a living teaching clumsy folk like me to hit and kick and fight. He fasted during the month of Ramadan – no food or water from sun-up til sun-down, for an entire month. But he continued to show up for our classes, sparring with me til we were both covered in a sheen of sweat. I’d take breaks to gulp down water. He’d wait patiently for me to finish. Once I tried to apologize for drinking in front of him, but he was having none of that. “This is my religion, not yours,” he told me. “I need to do this because it makes me stronger. You need to drink your water.” We talked a bit about his fast, neither trying to convince the other of the rightness or wrongness of fasting. He said – and you could see it in his face – that he felt a certain joy in fasting, in taking part in such an important religious rite. I never did understand it. But the joy I saw in his face during Ramadan, as I spent an hour trying unsuccessfully to land a punch on his face? That joy was God, I’m sure of it.

Hiba, sweet Hiba. I never once saw her hair, because she kept it covered, as her religion dictated. But every time I saw her, she smiled and asked about my kids by name.  And when she talked of her family – her strict father, her sister, who had started a chocolate-making business, she glowed with such pride. I always felt happier after talking with Hiba, and that’s God too, I think.

My friend Qais is Muslim, too, and do you know he came to Kyra’s First Communion celebration? She wanted him there, and so he came and celebrated with us. Have you ever been to a religious ceremony for someone not of your religion? Because you might find God there, too.

I can’t fight ISIS. I’m just one person. But I can refuse to acknowledge their claim on Islam. I can refuse to accept their view of God.  I can refuse to admit them into my community of spiritual people. They cannot speak of God to me. They can discuss their views with God himself, directly, if ever they get to meet him.  I pray they do.

In the mean time, all I can really do is focus on my God. Not by proselytizing, not by preaching, and certainly not by telling you What Jesus Would Do. Because my God is just that – all mine, and nothing to do with you.

I think the best way, the only way, I can oppose the cruelty of ISIS and others of their ilk is to honor the people who land in my path each day. To try to find the beautiful in them rather than searching out the flaws. To look for the little ways I can make their world better with each interaction of mine, each and every day. This is not an easy thing to do. It’s easy to settle into a me-centered world and grab the things that come your way instead of sharing what you have with the world, the way Reda carefully split his bread into pieces to be shared with my children.

That’s where God is, I think. God is in the sharing. And I’m not sure I would have learned this lesson so well had I stayed in the U.S. rather than travelling overseas.

To my Jordanian friends, Muslim and Christian alike, I am so sorry for your loss.  That pilot Mu’ath looked so young, so handsome. When I saw that picture of him smiling up from his cockpit, I saw your smile there too, open and friendly and welcoming. Thank you for teaching me that the world is a small place, cruel sometimes, to be sure, but mostly filled with people like you, my Jordanian friends, who smile and love and help each other up, Muslim and Christian alike.


Michelle Hoffman said... [Reply]

Please keep writing that book. I loved not only what you wrote, but how you wrote it. I read part of this with my 11 year old daughter this morning (she has started reading the paper and has many questions about Muslims) and it led a to a sweet discussion on the walk to school. Thank you.


Dorothy Handelman said... [Reply]

Thank you for writing such an eloquent and touching post. I am in no position to reflect on your "Americaness" as someone who lives overseas- but from my atheist perspective- God has nothing to do with evil or good. Life is a series of choices and how you deal with your fellow living creatures is a matter of how you perceive the world around you. You don't need religion to treat people with respect, courtesy and compassion. But you do need a world view that is tolerant and willing to accept that we each of us has our own moral compass. I was raised to believe there is no hereafter but that what is was important is to be a caring giving person and to consider the needs of others as you consider your own because that's what makes our world worth living in. So, my heart breaks also for the senseless murder of innocents and for better or for worse, many governments and causes have blood on their hands in this respect. As long as profits are more important than people. religion is the holy grail of policy and women and children are second class citizens we will continue to see this senseless strife.

SRA said... [Reply]

Thank you. I needed to read this, because it is hard here in the US, if you don't have personal experience with 'real' Muslims, not to think that ISIS is the future of that faith.

Jerry Coolbaugh said... [Reply]

my cousin barb posted this on facebook...such a lovely passage. we in the states,owe you and your family so much for all that you do...this is a troubling time and your words have helped soothe...thank you

Sadie said... [Reply]

Thank you for this post. It made me tear up because it captures so much of what I'm thinking/feeling after this tragedy. I haven't lived in Jordan, but I love the country and its people, and I'm mourning alongside them.

Unknown said... [Reply]

I posted your blog on my Facebook page because I thought that it was so powerful. Jordan has been my home for more than 50 years and your blog, captured in a nutshell, the reality of life here. Thank you for saying so eloquently what so many of us feel.

Geraldine Kiser said... [Reply]

Thank you so much for your perspective. I was fortunate to visit my daughter, a foreign service officer, while she was in Amman. It was a treasured trip out of many I have taken. I will certainly be following your blog now!

Emily said... [Reply]

Thank you -- these are deep and beautiful sentiments.

Heather said... [Reply]

Beautiful post.

Kristi said... [Reply]

Somehow we never met, though we have many friends in common. Thank you for this. You capture what is in my heart and so many others. Please give Bart my best as well - I was the Jordan Desk Officer while you all were in Amman and it was an absolute joy working with Bart.
Cheers from Algiers -

12truck said... [Reply]

You have written one of the most beautiful, touching and honest pieces that I have read concerning this barbaric event. Thank you for the time, emotion and effort you put into it. From my time living in the Gulf and other Middle East states I have come to firmly believe that, as People of the Book, we share a common heritage of faith which weeps at, and has an undeniable obligation to stop, the evil that is destroying so many innocents. Your understanding highlights the hubristic self-absorption and fascination with trivia that exists back in the States today. I only wish that your posting would receive the publicity – at home and abroad – that it should have.

Be well. Stay Safe.

Ester Leutenberg said... [Reply]

Ester Leutenberg said ... Excellent article. As a Jewish person I wouldn't want to be judged as the same type of person as Bernie Madoff. In every country, religion, sex - there are ALL types of people and we cannot generalize them.

Popster said... [Reply]

I read and re-read your blog several times trying to grasp the elements which you have so aptly illustrated. I read the comments made relative to your blog both here and in response to the re-pub of the blog in the Huffington Post. So far I'm coming up empty as to the reasons for what's going on and what can be done about it. No matter how much I dig, the hole only gets deeper and darker which only obscures what's going on and I can't be sure what's happening in the bright light outside the hole either. Near as I can tell, all the hate, distrust, and polarization taking place is not helping. Keep up you positive words and thoughts.

Pedro Jiménez said... [Reply]

Thank you. Very well written.

A few years ago a question was made to Dr. Ravi Zacharias about a comment he made in one of his lectures, were he said that the Islam wouldn't be able to create a country like the United States.

Here is the link to his answer. I think is worth listening to his response:


Please. Write your own stuff.