A Call for Moral Leadership: Imagining a New Heroism

A Reflection on the 2007 Pew Research Center report about Muslims in America, by Professor Ingrid Mattson of Hartford Seminary.

Ingrid Mattson is also an ING advisor.

This week the Pew Research Center released a report about Muslim Americans. I was among a group of academics who were consulted by the Pew as they were preparing a list of questions to be included in their poll. We academic advisors had no control over the final shape of the questionnaire, nor over the final analysis offered by Pew. Over the next year, we will see a number of experts in polling challenge some of the methods employed by Pew as well as their conclusions. Most scholars of American Islam are convinced that Pew’s estimate of the number of Muslim Americans is extremely low. The study simply does not take into account the extent to which Muslims withhold identifying their religious identity out of fear that this information will be misused.

At this point, however, the most pressing concern is finding ways to contextualize the data. Pew presents comparative data in some cases, such as the finding that roughly the same numbers of Muslim Americans and Christian Americans think of themselves as “Muslim” or “Christian,” rather than “American” first. However, as Glenn Greenwald discusses in his analysis of the study on Salon.com (www.salon.com/opinion/greenwald/?last_story=/opinion/greenwald/2007/05/23/polls/) relevant comparisons for Americans’ approval of the use of violence for what they consider just causes are lacking.

It is these statistics that are the most disturbing. As a Muslim leader, I am disturbed that 7% of Muslim Americans say that “suicide bombings against civilian targets” are “sometimes justified.” How could those who claim to follow Muhammad reject his explicit teachings on this topic? And what am I to make of the fact that according to the University of Maryland, 51% of Americans believe that “bombings and other types of attacks against civilians are sometimes justified”? I am simply dumbfounded that according to a 2005 Pew poll, a majority of American Catholics and White Protestants think that “the use of torture against suspected terrorists in order to gain important information” can “often” or “sometimes” be justified. How could those who claim to worship Jesus, who was tortured by political authorities, accept the torture of human beings?

What all of this demonstrates, more clearly than ever before, is that at the beginning of the twenty-first century, the moral leadership of our religious and political leaders is clearly deficient. We have allowed the appropriation of sinful and immoral means for political ends. By abandoning faith for “necessity dictates exception” we have thrown ethical constraints to the wayside. We have made our “interests” into idols, obeying their demands and not the demands of our Creator. In our tribal zeal, we violate the God-given dignity of other humans. Our creative potential that could be directed towards resolving disputes is put to work to find ways to punish each other – with explosive belts, cluster bombs and electric shocks. The “enemy” does not deserve any mercy from us – they are “animals,” “uncivilized,” “infidels.” In our (American) hands detainees are deprived of the basic rights afforded by the Geneva Convention; in our (Muslim) hands prisoners are deprived of the protection afforded by the sacred law. As they say in the movies, “the gloves are off.”

The truth is, there has never been a ticking time-bomb and torture has never saved a city. This happens only on TV. In real life, there is only pain, agony, burning flesh, deep and abiding humiliation.

Now consider this scenario: A red-eyed, scruffy man set his sights on the enemy. For many years, he has been a disappointment to himself and his family. His life has never been the same since he was detained and mistreated by the enemy years earlier. He is bitter. For years he has not been able to hold a steady job. He can not provide a good home for his children. What kind of man is he? He has not been able to protect himself and he can not protect his children. He has no dignity, no honor.

But suddenly he has the chance to change that. He has a chance to be a hero. By a twist of fate, only he is positioned to strike at a vital power center of the enemy. This would be no ordinary operation. To succeed, he would have to sacrifice his life. He would have to fly his plane into the enemy stronghold. The exploding plane would destroy them. It would destroy him too. It would be worth it. He would become a hero. He had been a victim of aggression, humiliated, powerless. Now he was powerful. Now he could make an impact. A big impact. Everyone cheered his sacrifice. Only with his death did his life now have meaning.

The man on this suicide mission was not a Muslim. He was Russell Casse (played by Randy Quaid) – the disillusioned patriot who redeems his life with a suicide mission in the 1996 film Independence Day.

But this is just a movie. Real suicide bombings are not targeted at aliens (only “aliens”). The martyr and his target do not explode into the heavens with a glorious light. Rather, nails and screws pierce the eyes, hands, abdomens of children and elderly women whose flesh burns and lungs gasp for a last breath.

Everyone wants to be a hero. So much of popular culture gives us a demonically false narrative of heroism. For those of lesser means, there is the internet, where “martyrdom” narratives are constructed. In a world apparently out of control, the false hero takes control through unmitigated force. Here is the sin. False heroism is about the inflation of the ego. It is achieved by imagining oneself, over and over, at the center of a dramatic, violent story (we have seen this clearly with the Virginia Tech shooter).

Authentic religion teaches one to imagine the other – to consider another’s vulnerability and humanity. The beginning of ethics is this transcendent imagination. Exclusivist, triumphalist communal identities (religious or political) block this imaginative capacity.

In their primary debates, the Republican candidates, with one exception, eagerly supported the use of torture. Only John McCain, who did not need to engage his imagination, but only his memory of torture, rejected it. Our political leaders are failing as moral leaders. For their part, a number of popular preachers in the Muslim world demonstrate a similar lack of imagination. A clear violation of Islamic ethics in the acceptance of suicide bombing is easier for them to accept than an imaginative rethinking of communal identities.

We need to restate our position that “any means necessary” is not heroic, it is not manly, it is immoral and sinful. Moral leaders need to engage the imagination of their communities to, at the very least, understand what it would feel like to be the victim of torture, cluster bombing or a terrorist bombing at our (American, Israeli, Muslim) hands. Here, there is a perfect opportunity for cooperation and common ground between moral leaders and artists – secular or religious. We need their stories, their plays and their films that allow us to imagine being in the position of the other.

Here there is a complication. It is clear from the evidence left behind by the London suicide bombers that their imaginative capacity was fully engaged. They would imagine, over and over, what is would feel like to be a Palestinian youth humiliated at an Israeli checkpoint. They imagined how it would feel to be a Muslim prisoner at Gitmo, shackled and humiliated while the holy Qur’an was defiled. Filled with outrage and a zeal to act, they struck out.

What they did not imagine was how a young British girl would feel, when a bomb exploded in the underground and she burned to death. They did not imagine what it would feel like to be an elderly man choking on the smoke, despairing of dying in a dark tunnel. An ident
ity that denies the brotherhood of humanity leads to such demonic ends.

What this means is that our narratives – the narratives we tell from the pulpits and minbars – as well as from the politician’s podium – need to begin from the assertion of the God-given dignity of all human beings. Then we need to engage this imaginative capacity to call for a robust heroism that is fully-grounded in morality. The hero who resists oppression, not least of all, the oppression he is tempted to inflict upon others.