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Selling a Vision of Hope: A Refreshing Alternative to Armageddon

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U.S. President Barrack Obama takes part in a Town Hall meeting at Lindley Hall in London
By Roberta Rampton LONDON (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama is set to visit Hanover, Germany on Sunday to hold talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, one of his closest allies in dealing with a shaky global economy and security crises in the Middle East and Ukraine. It will be the last stop on a six-day foreign journey where Obama has sought to shore up U.S. alliances he views as key to grow trade, defeat Islamic State militants, and offset Russian aggression in Ukraine and Syria. Obama, who is in the last nine months of his presidential term, spent three days in London where he urged Britons to remain part of the European Union in a June referendum, a vote that could send shockwaves through the economy.

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Category >> religion
file under: terrorismreligionmoderate majorityextremism 16 Oct 2008 6:36 PM
Islam: A Religion of Peace? Posted by Nissim Dahan
I attended a debate recently. The issue: Is Islam a Religion of Peace, and is Shariah, or Islamic law, consistent with the U.S. Constitution? Arguing in the affirmative was Suhail, whom I would consider a moderate Muslim. Arguing in the negative was Frank, an American who considers Islam to be a threat to Western civilization. The following is an abridged version of the actual debate. See what you think.


Suhail: The U.S. Constitution protects us all from discrimination on the basis of religious belief. All faiths are American faiths, and are protected. There are no religious tests here, and American Muslims have integrated themselves into American life. They serve their country, even in the military. Muslims respect Jews and Christians as "people of the book," and all three religions worship the same God of Abraham. The vast majority of Muslims are peaceful, and play by the rules. Racists want hate, not the truth. They say that Islam is violent, but similar racist remarks were said about Catholics and Jews. Anti-Muslim is Anti-Semitism on training wheels. Many Muslims condemned 9/11. Racist rhetoric leads to violence, and we must not succumb to prejudice.


Frank: I look at this from a national security perspective. The U.S. Constitution is the supreme law of the land. Shariah law finds its roots in the Quran. There is a principle in the Quran called "abrogation" (Sura 2:106) by which earlier Quranic passages, which are more tolerant of other religions, are superseded by later passages. Therefore, the Medina passages, which are extreme and intolerant, are seen by the Islamic authorities as replacing previous passages. "Fight and slay the unbelievers where you find them." "Fight them, even the people of the book." "Take not the Jews or Christians for your friends..." The early, peaceful passages are superseded by these Medina passages, and are a part of the directive to assure the triumph of Islam. This is according to the 4 Sunni schools, and the Shia schools as well. It is God's will for Islam to rule the world and Jihad is the obligation of all Muslims. If you disagree, you are an apostate. Ultimately, Jihad will call for violence, but until that is possible, a "soft Jihad" is recommended, by which Muslim are to work from within to destroy Western civilization, so that Allah's religion is made supreme. Therefore, some Muslims are a 5th column which promotes the destruction of the Constitution in the form of Shariah law.


Suhail: "Abrogation" is generally not accepted, except by terrorists and racists. All religions contain perverse passages in Holy Scripture, exhorting people to violence. The Medina period was a time of war, which explains the Prophet's rhetoric. History proves that Islam was tolerant of other religions. Mainstream Muslims believe in peace. Shariah is interpretive law, and is not dogmatic. The word "Jihad" conflates Islam with politics, which is what Bin Laden wants. People who support terrorism do so for political reasons. People who oppose terrorism do so for religious reasons. We should not give our religion to the terrorists. We cannot allow the terrorists to set the agenda with regard to religious belief.


Frank: As part of its "soft Jihad" agenda, the Muslim Brotherhood seeks the following:

1. To dominate Muslims, to radicalize them, and to recruit them to Jihad.

2. To intimidate opponents.

3. To create parallel societies, with their own sets of laws, preferential arrangements, dress codes, etc., by which Shariah is used to subvert the U.S. Constitution.


Sahriah is a very strict regiment in 75% of U.S. mosques. The "stealth" or "soft" Jihad will eventually lead to violent Jihad.


Suhail: Terrorists are trying to co-opt Islam. I don't want to give them my religion. Mainstream Muslims are not extreme, and wearing a headscarf is no "soft Jihad." People should be able to practice their faith without being suspect.


Frank: Other religions, like Judaism and Christianity, acknowledge the national authority of the state. Shariah does not. All the recognized authoritative Islamic sources endorse using Shariah to displace secular law. Islam seeks to curb free speech in order to stop criticism.


Suhail: Islam is an interpretive law. You interpret it for the land you live in.


Frank: Shariah is not a matter on interpretation. Non-Muslims will have 3 choices: 1. Accept Islam, 2. Accept dhimmitude status, or 3. Die. It's not just Al Qaeda's whack interpretation. No. Al Qaeda reflects authoritative Islam.


Suhail: Is there a clash of civilizations? No. It's a clash between those who believe in civilization, and those, like the terrorists, who don't. Three Muslim countries elected women as heads of state. Most Muslims are comfortable with modernity. The terrorists are not manifesting Islam, and should not be allowed to set the agenda. When Jews were persecuted by the Christians, where did they go? To Muslim states. Many scholars interpret Shariah as consistent with the Constitution and with modernity.


Frank: Many moderate Muslims reject Shariah, but Wahabbis are winning in many areas. They will extinguish the moderate practice of Islam. Islam is waging Jihad against the civilized world. It's not just the extremists. The mainstream accepts this authoritative version of the faith. Just look at the authoritative texts. Our country is on the line.


Suhail: You see before you two worldviews, extreme and moderate. It's up to you to decide. Bin Laden, and other racists like him, foster hate. Terrorism is political, not religious. Faith brings strength to America, and all faiths should be allowed to participate in American democracy.


Frank: We are confronting a dangerous ideology bent on our destruction. A 5th column is working to do us in and we should fight back. This ideology wants to impose Shariah on the whole world. It's not just Bin Laden who says this. The authoritative interpretations of Islam concur. Our only hope is to mobilize the support of Muslim moderates against the supporters of Shariah.


Who do you think is right? Or could they both be right and wrong at the same time?

file under: religionpeacecommon sense 6 Apr 2008 1:10 PM
Edwin Just Called Me A "Deist" Posted by Nissim Dahan
In one of his comments on, Edwin called me a "deist."


A what? A "deist." Well, "them's fighting words," as far as I was concerned, but before reaching for the boxing gloves, I thought I'd better look up what the word "deist" means. It can't hurt to understand the insults, before getting insulted.


Deism is the belief in the existence of a God on the evidence of reason and nature only, with rejection of supernatural revelation and supernatural events such as prophesy and miracles. Um... Believing in God on the basis of reason, as opposed to prophesy, miracles, holy books, and the like.


Well, maybe Edwin is on to something. I do believe that we can ascertain the existence of God through reason. It goes something like this: Some 13.7 billion years ago there was a great explosion, appropriately called The Big Bang. Right before this calamitous event there was nothing; not even time and space. Right after, there was everything; the entire universe in all its glory.


Whatever caused that explosion to occur is indeed worthy of being called God, if the word God is to mean anything. Therefore, God is the Prime Mover, who caused the universe to come into being. To do that, He needed to use an infinite amount of all sorts of energy: heat, electricity, radiation, and even the energy of intelligence. Therefore, God, who is the Creator of all things, can be thought of as the sum total of all the creative energy in the universe. His energy flows through us, and our energy flows through Him.


It's just a thought. I'm not about to jump on a horse and kill you over it. But it's simply a way of trying to make sense of the mystery that is God. Does it help us to think of God as an infinite ocean of energy? Does it make sense to universalize the notion of God by using reason to ascertain His existence and His essence?


I say yes. I am not against religion. I believe that religion, properly understood, could be a legitimate pathway to God. But here's the problem. When we rely solely on our holy books, and the prophesies and miracles that are recounted there, we divide ourselves from one another. "My holy book says this and that, and you better believe it, or else."


And since we're talking about something as important as God no less, the divisions we create between us can run very deep indeed. And since a belief in God can move us to extreme emotion, and to absolute conviction, we can feel entitled, somehow, to take liberty with the lives of others, in defense of our deeply held beliefs.


However, coming to God through our power of reason, is different than coming to Him from our holy books. Reason, by its very nature, is less divisive. Two plus two equals four; here and in China as well. There is not much room for argument here. Reason underpins the universal notions of Common Sense. Common Sense is "common," because it is universal. Common Sense makes "sense," because it is logical, rational, and self-evident. Common Sense unites. Religion can often divide.


So if there were a way to come to God through the power of intellect, as guided by reason, and in conformance with universal notions of Common Sense; would this not be a less divided world? Could religious strife be neutralized to a much greater extent? Could there emerge a consensus with regard to a belief in God, which would then help people find common ground with respect to the more mundane matters of life, matters which beg for our attention even as we speak?


So Edwin, at a time when Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists are at each other's throats, over words written long ago, and about beliefs which may no longer be palatable to the modern mind; at such time, I don't mind being called a "deist," especially if accepting that label could hint at the possibility of peace. It may well be time, before time runs out, to find new sources of inspiration for our beliefs, and new pathways to God, even as we continue to embrace our religions. Using reason, and the common sense notions born of it, is a good bet, because whatever else He said or did, God certainly created a world that is capable of being understood, and being made sense of.

file under: religioncommon sense 23 Mar 2008 1:25 PM
Paradise Lost Posted by Nissim Dahan
A lot of people around the world have a lot of faith in paradise or heaven. In the Middle East, in particular, notions of paradise carry a lot of weight, as some feel compelled to kill and die for the sake of their ultimate reward in paradise. And others, in addition, are willing to tolerate the injustice of the present, and do nothing about it, for the sake of the justice that will be meted out in heaven.


Frankly, I choose to believe that paradise does not exist, for two reasons: one, because paradise makes no sense to me, and two, because a belief in paradise may do more harm than good.


Why does paradise make no sense? Every version of paradise that I can think of quickly devolves into the realm of absurdity. Let's consider the possibilities:


Reuniting with loved ones in heaven: Suppose, when we die, we reunite with our loved ones in heaven. Presumably we would have quite an extended family waiting for us up there, considering all the generations which have passed on. Now, consider just one question: Did you ever spend an extended period of time with your extended family? And if so, did you consider that experience to be a "heavenly" experience? I rest my case.


The Garden of Eden version of heaven: Suppose we imagine an enchanted paradise where all our needs are met, and where happiness reigns supreme for all eternity. Can you imagine such a place? Some of us picture 72 virgins attending to our every whim and fancy. Don't get me started. The cost of headscarves alone would probably break the bank. But I, for one, picture the Caribbean Islands: turquoise waters, sunny blue skies, palm trees swaying in the wind, luscious frozen drinks, a delicious international buffet, and a courteous hotel staff waiting on me hand and foot. Sounds heavenly, doesn't it? But consider the time factor...eternity. How am I supposed to drag this vacation scene out for eternity? How many mystery thrillers can I read already? And who will write them up there in heaven; some saintly best-selling author? Doesn't quite work, does it.


The heaven where the soul reunites with God: Suppose I die, and my soul drifts upward and reunites with my Creator. At this point, my soul has no body with which to function, no brain with which to think, and no memory with which to remember. In short, no nothing; no resemblance to human life. Therefore, the soul, whatever it is, is not me, and therefore it is not me up there in heaven, but rather a disembodied spiritual essence of me which I can't really relate to, try as I might.


So, paradise makes no sense to me, but why is a belief in paradise so harmful? Because a belief in paradise or heaven defers to the afterlife what needs to be done right here and right now. The justice we await in heaven should be the justice that is meted out here on earth. Believing in heaven can inhibit us from doing what we need to, today, to make this world a better place, and to make our lives here more purposeful and sustainable. And for all those fervent potential martyrs and suicide bombers out there; do you really want to gamble with the here and now, on the possibly false hope for things to come?


The truth is that heaven and hell are with us right here, and right now. We have it within our power, and in our own hands, to make this life a paradise on earth, or to render the possibility of paradise null and void by making our lives here a living hell. We have the potential for paradise right here and right now. All the necessary ingredients are already in place. But it is up to us to realize that potential, as is the case with all aspects of human potential. Which way do we go as a species?


Suppose I'm wrong. It could happen. I say we cease to exist when we die, like we were before we were born. That's not so scary, is it? You don't really worry about how it was for you before you were born, unless you're deeply in need of therapy. But suppose paradise does in fact exist. Wouldn't it make more sense to say:


"Well, since I don't know for sure, I choose to believe that my life here on earth may be all there is, and I will therefore make the most of my life, because my life, right here and right now, may well be all that I may ever have?" That way, if heaven does exist, it will be like the icing on the cake, to be enjoyed after living a full and happy life. If, however, heaven doesn't exist, then we will still have enjoyed a full and happy life.


You see how common sense works? It covers you coming and going. Any way you turn, it's right there, ready to guide your way along the path of life, like a moral compass you carry within you. It's that special gift, the gift that comes packaged in a box, the box of core truths and universal values.

file under: religioncommon sense 7 Dec 2007 5:06 PM
The Legitimacy of Belief Posted by Nissim Dahan
Sometimes I wonder: What is harder, waging war, or making peace?


Waging war is not all that easy. In war we kill, and die, and suffer the devastation of wartime injuries, both physical and psychological, not to mention the loss of national treasure. But to my mind, as hard as war is, making peace is that much harder. Why? In war, we fight for what we believe. And we all feel good about fighting for our beliefs. It gives us goose bumps just thinking about it.


But for peace to happen we often have to give up some of our deeply held beliefs, in a search for something we can believe in even more, like peace. And it's hard to let go of our beliefs. It's like letting go of a part of ourselves, because to a great extent, especially in modern times, we are what we believe. Not that it had to be that way, and not that it was that way for most of our existence as a species, but it is that way today.


And so it seems that our beliefs are at the heart of issues of war and peace. What we choose to believe will very much determine whether we head toward war, or toward peace. The question arises, therefore: What are the legitimate grounds for belief? Or put another way: How do we know that what we believe is true?


Would it be too much to suggest that most of us come to most of our beliefs by sheer chance? Let's take religion as an example, since religious beliefs are often a cause of violence and war. Isn't it the case that most of us adopt our religious beliefs due mostly to the families we happen to be born into? For the most part, we are Jews, or Christians, or Muslims, or Hindus, or Buddhists because our families are. A Jew could have been a Muslim if only he were born into a different family. Once in a while people convert, but for the most part, that is the exception, not the rule.


Does it make sense that the accident of birth confers legitimacy to our beliefs? And what kind of legitimacy are we talking about? We're talking about the legitimacy that would have us kill one another in God's name, no less, because somebody else's beliefs are different from our own. Is it just me, or is there something wrong with this picture?


Maybe we can point to other sources of legitimacy for our beliefs, sources which can truly confirm the validity of our beliefs. Maybe we can point to Holy Scripture as the confirmation of God's truth. The trouble is, however, that all religions contain scriptural passages which are not palatable to the modern mind. In Judaism, for example, the book of Deuteronomy tells us that if a man marries a woman, and she turns out not to be a virgin, he is supposed to kill her on her father's doorstep. I think it's safe to say that Jews, throughout the ages, chose to ignore this passage. Why? Because it makes no sense. That's why. And take a look at the Book of Revelation in the New Testament. That's a trip if ever I took one. And what about the "72 virgins" in Islam? If I'm not mistaken it's a mistake in translation. It's really "72 white raisins."


Why do I bring into question the legitimacy of religious belief? Am I against religion? No. I consider religion as a legitimate pathway to God. But as with all other pathways; we need to stick to the path to get to where we're going. And when we sense that we're heading in the wrong direction, we check our compass to get back on track. And to my mind, the best and only compass we have, when it really comes down to it, is the universal moral compass of Common Sense.


Because so much is on the line, we may no longer be able to afford the luxury of false belief, whether religious, or any other belief, for that matter. False belief will embolden us to go to war for the wrong reasons. We may have been able to get away with it in the past, but only at the expense of scores of millions of corpses left behind in the wake of false ideologies. But the potential devastation of modern weaponry makes the consequences of false belief too costly to bear.


And so, I submit to you, for your consideration, the possibility that there is only one source for legitimate belief, and that is our shared notion of Common Sense. If an idea makes sense to you, then believe in it. If it doesn't, then let it go. We can no longer afford to let the accident of birth, or the content of scripture, or the persuasiveness of religious leaders, to convince us of the truth, when deep down we know that the truth is to be found elsewhere.


As between reason and faith, I prefer to believe in what makes sense. And I have come to believe that only through the language of Common Sense does God actually talk to us. The rest is pretense. And pretense will give us only the semblance of truth, but never the real thing.

file under: religioncommon sense 11 Nov 2007 1:27 PM
Who is God? Posted by Nissim Dahan

As some of you may already know, I believe that the world is ripe for a new ideological framework; what I call An Ideology of Common Sense. Instead of believing what we want to believe, it may well be time to begin believing in what makes sense.


If the world is already coming together technologically and economically, it makes sense to come together ideologically as well, in order to pave the way for the unprecedented level of cooperation that a world economy will require. And so, I would like to devote a few posts to the idea of An Ideology of Common Sense, and with your kind indulgence, I begin with God.


It may not be politically correct to talk so openly about God. Who am I, after all, to even begin to explain the mystery that is God? And yet, we may have no choice but to begin talking about such things, because in the absence of common sense talk, people tend to grab hold of notions which make no sense, and which can easily threaten our very existence on this good earth. Some may say, "Let's blow ourselves up in God's name." I say, "Let God speak for Himself, and when He does, I suspect He'll use the language of Common Sense, as has been His custom since the beginning of time."


So we begin with first principles. Does God exist? I think He does. How do I know this? Well, scientists theorize that some 13.7 billion years ago there was a great explosion, appropriately named The Big Bang, which brought the universe into existence. Before The Big Bang there was nothing. And after, there was everything.


So to my mind; whoever or whatever caused that explosion to happen is certainly "godlike," in every sense of the word, and is therefore God. Call it The Big Bang, or a force of nature, or a random confluence of it what you will, but whoever or whatever caused the universe to come into being is God.


This mode of analysis is reminiscent of Thomas Aquinas' five proofs for the existence of God. I thought up of this proof myself, I want you to know, only to find out that Aquinas beat me to the punch some 700 years ago. Must have been quite an ambitious little fellow, God bless his soul.


What else do we know about God? Um...pretty much nothing. That's right folks, you heard it here first. We really don't know anything about God other than the fact that He created the universe. Listening to us talk, you'd think that we knew everything there was to know about God. But if we are true to ourselves, we really don't. And in that vacuum of knowledge, since we know nothing about God, we proceed to create Him in our own image.


Here's how this craziness works:

  • God created the universe.
  • As part of His creation, God created us in His image.
  • Therefore, we are creators as well.
  • As part of our creation, we choose to create God, in our image.
  • Since we are imperfect, we taint God with our imperfections, and fashion Him to suit our needs.

So what's wrong with this picture? By tainting God with human frailties, we can easily delude and manipulate ourselves into believing that God would have us do all sorts of crazy things, in the same way that we convince ourselves to act loony with respect to one another. And once we come to believe that we are acting in God's name, no less, how difficult it becomes to curb our enthusiasm for the nasty things we choose to do.


And so, I got to thinking: What concept of God would make more sense? In answering the question: Who is God; I would say, with all due respect for other opinions and beliefs, that I think of God as the sum total of all the creative energy in the universe.


In other words, since all we really know about God is that He created the universe, then it would make sense to associate Him with that creation, and with the various forms of energy that it took to bring that creation about, including: radiation, heat, electricity, kinetic energy, and of course, the energy of intelligence.


Does it help us to make sense of things to say that God is the sum total of all the creative energy in the universe? I think it does.


For example, if someone asks, "Do you have a personal relationship with God?" you could say, "I certainly do. His creative energy flows through me, and mine flows through Him."


If someone asks, "Why is there evil in the world?" You could say, "God is the Creator of all things. If He wanted to create good, He had no choice but to create the possibility of evil, because we could not know what is good without also knowing evil, good defining itself by its juxtaposition to evil."


If somebody says, "Let's kill one another in God's name," you could say, "Since God created each and every one of us in His image, when we choose to kill one another, aren't we, in effect, spitting at God's face?"


It is time to make sense of things. Don't you think? And the one thing we were given to bring about a semblance of order to this world is the notion and the language of Common Sense. 

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