We hate him. Which is what he wants. The more we hate him, the more powerful he becomes. It simply amazes me that we haven’t yet figured that out, that this guy has been custom manufactured to destroy America’s influence, if not America itself, and that his greatest tool is our own ignorance and hatred. Obama’s conciliatory olive branches to the Islamic world may make him a target here at home. The greater threat to this nation is not the Islamic extremists but the so-called “Christian” extremists here at home intent on provoking a “holy” war.

For most of my childhood,
I was convinced I was going to hell.

Click To Play

I grew up in a very conservative apostolic church which taught me speaking in tongues was the only evidence of the indwelling of the Holy Ghost and without the Holy Ghost I was lost for eternity. They taught me belief in Jesus Christ wasn’t enough, that there needed to be evidence of my faith. For literally years I attended these all-night tarry services where you beg and scream and froth at the mouth, pleading with God to save you. And, when nothing happened, the church mothers would tell you it’s your fault: that there is some sin in your life that is preventing this miraculous sign from coming forth. I was scolded and denounced and dragged back to church again and again. There were songs I was not allowed to sing. This choir song, “I’m Saved And I Know That I Am," I was warned to not sing that because, for me to sing that song was blasphemy and God might strike me dead. I wasn’t saved. I hadn’t yet broken through, and my breakthrough was not forthcoming because I was a sinner and a liar. damned for all eternity.

When I was thirteen years old, I was sent to a summer camp run by white fundamentalist evangelicals in the Adirondack mountains where I was told salvation came by faith alone and that I need only prove that faith to God—not to anyone else. These white teenagers opened the bible to me—a strange version called the “Living” bible which was not the cryptic King James. I could understand their bible, which made me fear it. I couldn’t trust their bible because it was written in plain language and was easy to comprehend. So they opened my own bible, an authorized King James with children’s pictures in it, and showed me. “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God…” [Ephesians 2:8] “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house. [Acts 16:31]. Salvation, these folks said, came simply by repentance and belief. Becoming born again had nothing to do with spiritual gifts.

It took them nearly two weeks to convince me that I was born again, that I’d become a child of God the moment, the very second, I’d chosen to seek Him and invited Him into my life. The religious ignorance was so deeply embedded in my DNA, I was so devout and so orthodox a Christian, that I’d actually begun hating myself and blaming myself, even as I pointed fingers and sent others to hell.

This is how religious fanaticism works. Religious fanaticism is most often anti-intellectual and anti-educational because education is seen as The Great Satan. Only religious training, usually at the hand of other fanatics, has any truth or value, and that training is threatened by an unfiltered stream of information. Information from outside of our orthodox belief—even Christian information—was considered blasphemous and idolatrous: tricks of the enemy. We trusted only our pastor, whom we worshipped as we worshipped God Himself. We gave him all of our money and all of our time and we never questioned a word he said. We questioned only our lying eyes when we saw him enriching himself on our offerings, driving luxury cars and carrying on with women. To question the pastor was to question God himself.

The church of my youth had a practice of sending deacons, in pairs, to sit in cars outside of members’ homes on surveillance watches of suspected fornicators and adulterers. I was required to be at the church five days a week to set up and break down the church’s P.A. system and musical equipment, to help sweep up and wash the pastor’s car. I and many others were virtual slaves to a cult, working our way to heaven by frying chicken and mopping floors. We’d arrive at church at around ten a.m. Sundays and would be wailing away in prayer, again, begging God for His forgiveness and pleading with Him to save us. The pastor would come strolling in sometime around noon, a deacon carrying his briefcase, and he’d go into his office and eat breakfast and read the paper, coming out around one p.m. where he’d spend a half hour with pastoral observations before beginning his rambling, disorganized sermon—which usually comprised of two hours of screaming at us and telling us what miserable wretches we were. We’d be done somewhere between three-thirty and four p.m., at which point we’d take a dinner break and be required to be back in prayer no later than six. The pastor would then stroll back in sometime around seven thirty and begin the evening service, which would let out around ten p.m.

This was church to me. This was who God was: a vengeful, selfish god who’d given me over to this evil, fat, selfish, lying bastard.

Sadly, this nonsense, or some form of it, goes on to this day. Many people, within the reach of these words, still worship their pastors—which offends God. Still equate suffering with good works, even when that suffering is mostly about lining the pastor’s pockets. Still view oppression and misogyny as somehow godly. The main reason for this is simple: a lack of education. Most people stuck in religious cults—even Christian cults, which is what these oppressive, tin-pot regimes actually are—remain in bondage to these ignorant, evil men (and women) because they themselves know nothing about the bible and lack a proper foundation for spiritual discernment. In other words, most of us are simply lazy and don’t read. Worse than not reading the bible is not studying the bible. It’s not enough to read it: you’ve got to study it. You’ve got to understand the context, both theological and historical, to understand what God is saying to us, what Paul is saying to us and, most importantly, the difference between the two. 90% of Christian cults rely on the ignorance of their adherents to keep going, which is why they fight so hard against education or information from outside of their cult. The adherent is trained to listen only to the pastor, to read only the materials the cult hands out, and to be wary of outsiders and outside teaching.

Welcome to the world of radical Islam.

This is a culture most westerners do not understand. Islam includes many religious practices. Adherents are generally required to observe the Five Pillars of Islam, which are five duties that unite Muslims into a community. In addition to the Five Pillars, Islamic law (sharia) has developed a tradition of rulings that touch on virtually all aspects of life and society. This tradition encompasses everything from practical matters like dietary laws and banking to warfare and welfare. Almost all Muslims belong to one of two major denominations, the Sunni (85%) and Shi'a (15%). The schism developed in the late 7th century following disagreements over the religious and political leadership of the Muslim community. Islam is the predominant religion in much of Africa and the Middle East, as well as in major parts of Asia. Large communities are also found in China, the Balkan Peninsula in Eastern Europe and Russia. There are also large Muslim immigrant communities in other parts of the world, such as Western Europe. Of the total world Muslim population, about 20% live in the Arab countries (where Muslims comprise majority populations, with Christian and other religious minorities of differing sizes by country), 30% in the countries of the Indian subcontinent, and 15.6% in Indonesia alone, which is the largest Muslim country in absolute numbers. [Wikipedia]

President Obama, who spent part of his childhood in Indonesia, underscored his personal connection with Muslim culture and said the United States seeks "broader engagement" with the Muslim world than just the fight against Al Qaeda. "We will listen carefully, we will bridge misunderstanding, and we will seek common ground. We will be respectful, even when we do not agree. And we will convey our deep appreciation for the Islamic faith, which has done so much over centuries to shape the world — including in my own country," Obama said. "The United States has been enriched by Muslim Americans. Many other Americans have Muslims in their family, or have lived in a Muslim-majority country — I know, because I am one of them." He added: "This is not where East and West divide — this is where they come together." [Fox News©]

Changing America's Intolerant Tone: The speech white racists continue to characterize
as "Obama's Apology Tour."

Islam In Black & White

I don’t know if black people understand Islam any more than white people do, but I would guess most black Americans have a higher comfort level with their Muslim neighbors than most white Americans do. I would speculate that most urban blacks have a personal relationship with at least one person of Muslim faith, and that that person is welcome in his home, at his place of business, and, yes, at his church. I have friends and relatives who are members of the Nation of Islam. I have no quarrel with them. I do not believe them to be evil or violent, and, despite the schism in our religious beliefs (see Isaac And Ishmael, above), we are not in conflict with one another. Both Islam and Christianity have roots in Abrahamic monotheism (faiths which recognize a spiritual tradition identified with Abraham), but Islamic tradition denies the deity of Jesus Christ and holds that Jews and Christians distorted the revelations of God by either altering the text, introducing a false interpretation, or both. I am willing to guess I am likely much more comfortable around persons of Muslim faith than many whites who not only have no Muslim friends but no black friends. In the Nation of Islam they see only violence and hate, in spite of the fact the Nation tends to serve the community even moreso than many Christian groups do. But this is the Republican (if not the American) party line: Muslims are evil, dangerous people out to kill us, an irrational fear and hatred that is every bit as wrong as those taught in Islamic madrassas all over the globe: America is evil and dangerous and out to kill us.

So, how do we stop this idiocy? President Barack Obama will likely be harshly criticized for turning down the anti-Islamic rhetoric this country has grown accustomed to. While claiming to embrace “our Muslim citizens and neighbors,” President George W. Bush has, singularly, caused more harm and death to civilian noncombatants in the Muslim world than all other U.S. presidents combined. He has also done more to empower radical elements in the Islamic world than any other president, simply by virtue of his lack of education about Islamic culture.

For more than four decades, the United States, in particular, has misread and demonized this culture, perhaps most notably with the Iranian hostage crisis where radical Islamic students took over an American embassy on November 4, 1979, holding 50 U.S. citizens hostage until President Ronald Reagan was sworn into office on January 20, 1981. America being a land of cowboy movies and John Wayne, the nation embraced Reagan’s simplistic, black-and-white distortion of the complex issues surrounding that protest action—which I am not here to defend other than to state its origins were far more complex than simply “bad” people taking “good” people hostage. The United States had, for decades, backed a corrupt and repressive regime in Iran, which created the environment for religious extremists to gain favor among the Iranian people.

The worst thing an oppressive dictator can do is neglect education. Yet, most petty dictators do exactly that, buying bullets instead of books. Education is the most powerfully motivating force of any society because, what we learn shapes what we believe. The U.S.-backed Iranian Shah jailed and murdered dissidents and spent more time and money shooting people than educating them. As a result, impoverished Iranians could turn only to religious schools, called madrassas, for free education. Only the madrassas, like my old, ignorant pastor, provided limited education along narrowly strict religious guidelines, and usually provided that education only to boys. These fundamentalist schools taught a radical interpretation of the Holy Quran in the context of a warped a political view of America. The Shah was evil, America backed the Shah, therefore America was evil. And America has spent nearly half a century proving these teachers right.

The Iranian hostage crisis has been described as the "pivotal episode" in the history of U.S.-Iranian relations. The notion that America is evil has so taken root in the Islamic world that I don’t harbor much hope we, as a nation, will ever overcome it. George Bush’s unnecessary and tragically unproductive “war on terror” has cost a hundred thousand Islamic civilian lives [http://www.iraqbodycount.org/]. Even worse, it has created perhaps millions of Islamic orphans who may have possibly hated America before we killed their parents, but certainly despise us now. Millions of orphaned boys and girls who have sworn oaths to destroy America. Sleepers, waiting to grow old enough to find the opportunity to kill as many Americans as they can.

This gathering storm is the product of our own ignorance and racism. Our own hatred of non-white, non-Christian people. I’m sure this goes farther back than the Shah and Ayatollah Khomeini, but the Iranian hostage crisis is certainly where the notion of Islam = evil came from. Islam is not evil. Islam has never been evil. Islam is a religion of peace. It denies the deity of Jesus Christ and is, therefore, not a faith I can embrace, but the faith, in and of itself, is not evil. Conflict between Muslims and Jews and, to a lesser extent, Muslims and Christians, is, however, part of biblical prophecy [Genesis 16:12], a conflict which I fear will go unresolved until Christ's second coming.

It is important that we, as Christians, keep our eye on the ball. That we model the personal example of Jesus Christ, who took issue more with Jews than with non-Jews. Christ's harshest words were for religious phonies who claimed to love Him. Quarreling with Muslims (or Buddhists or atheists for that matter) is not our job. Our job is to show God's love and to proclaim His truth. It is in that service that I respectfully disagree with my Muslim brother without hating him and without disrespecting him, as many radical Christian extremists tend to do. Ours is not a Holy War against Islam, as I believe George Bush espoused. Our struggle is against principalities and powers of darkness, a struggle won easily by our simply being the people God wants us to be. There's a theory out there that former president Bush acted to hasten the Armageddon. That some part of his vision—what little he may have had—of the Middle East was evangelical: to bring peace by means of weapons of war and remake the Middle East into western-style democracy. Whatever merit such an idea might have, it is childish and dangerously naive, the idle thoughts of a dilettante. The quarrels in western Africa (what we euphemistically and perhaps racistly call the "Middle East") are centuries old, deeply embedded into the region's DNA. Those conflicts will outlive us all. The only real solution to any of it is God sorting all this out. Between now and then, the best anyone can hope for is that which is so severely lacking on all sides of the equation: patience, respect and compromise: three qualities often lost in the rhetoric of religious fervor.

Are there evil people who embrace Islam, who use Islam, to further their political purposes? Absolutely. But what makes those guys materially different from the late Jerry Falwell or even Jim Dobson? A religious zealot is a religious zealot. The only difference are the rules of his particular hustle. But, are all Christians bigoted, reactionary, ignorant repressive nut jobs? No. But, isn’t that how most of us are seen by non-believers?

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the charismatic President of Iran, dresses in western clothes and usually speaks in rational, even tones that seem reasonable to the Islamic world. His youthful appearance appeals to the moderate and liberal Muslim youth, even though Ahmadinejad unquestionably represents the political position of the religious leaders who actually run Iran. Many see Ahmadinejad as The Great Satan, the antichrist, because he comes from the East, because he is so charismatic and seemingly reasonable. He is the perfect front man for Islamic extremism because he himself does not come across as extreme. He comes across as rational, with sober and reasonable complaints against western governments. Complaints America has a hard time dismissing, if only because Ahmadinejad understands the language of diplomacy and the power of the media. He is a creature of the powerful Muslim clerics whose goal is not at all secret: to depose the Vichy governments in the Mideast (including the royal family running Saudi Arabia) and purify the holy lands of their ancestors. This includes wiping Israel off the map, which is, perhaps, America’s second concern after our number one reason for even caring what happens there—Mideast oil.

They'll Like Us Better When We Win: A brilliant argument against cowering from radical Islam.

Religious Extremism's Best Friend

In terms of the mission of Islamic extremism, George Bush has been the best friend Islamic extremists could ask for. His Iraq war—which has killed at least 30 times as many innocent non-combatants as were killed during 911 and has created millions—with an *M*—of radical Islamic zealots—has done more to advance the goals of radical fundamentalism than any radical cleric. War is good business for extremists, be they Muslim or Croatian or Catholic. People get killed. Extremists can then rally the faithful, playing on their loss and misery. America still seems to have this insane notion that, because we have the atomic bomb, we can do whatever we want. Ahmadinejad’s most powerful weapon against the United States is his rationality. His reasonableness. His smile. His unassailable complaints against us. He’s not frothing at the mouth, ranting and accusing. And we hate him. Which is what he wants. The more we hate him, the more powerful he becomes. It simply amazes me that we haven’t yet figured that out, that this guy has been custom manufactured to destroy America’s influence, if not America itself, and that his greatest tool is our own ignorance and hatred. The worst thing we could do is shoot this guy. Or nuke Iran. Or whatever other nutty Bush-era solution we arrogantly presume will solve this problem.

Truth is, there may be no solving of this problem. This is not a political problem but a cultural one. It is deeply embedded in the DNA—theirs and ours. We see them as ignorant and evil, therefore we continue to stumble ass-backwards through the region, offending and murdering innocents. Which only empowers the extremists who pray, each and every day, for an opportunity to set off a nuke in midtown Manhattan.

President Barack Obama’s conciliatory olive branches to the Islamic world may make him a target here at home. The irrational, rednecked ignorance growing here at home frightens me a lot more than Ahmadinejad does. I’ve had many conversations with people who hate—hate—Obama. I disagreed with President Bush. I didn’t particularly like President Bush or his policies. But I didn’t hate him. Former Vice-President Dick Cheney has put a face to Obama Hatred, a grass-roots movement I find terribly disquieting. I pray for the president’s safety every day because, the same vile, ignorant, irrational evil we complain about in the Islamic world exists here at home. Barack Obama may be the best shot we’ve had in a very long time at diffusing the hostility between the U.S. and the Islamic world, and our own home-grown extremists despise him for it.

Obama’s rock star power likely supersedes Ahmadinejad’s charm. Obama is not likely to fall for Ahmadinejad’s “Gosh, me so rational” façade, but the president is also not likely to simply hate the man on spec, either. If Jesus taught us nothing else, He taught us hatred gets us nowhere [James 1:19-20]. Our strongest weapon against radical Islam is not our weapons of war but our commitment to peace.

I find it simply horrifying that the greater threat to this nation is not the Islamic extremists but the so-called “Christian” extremists here at home who invoke racist violence against our own president in order to perpetuate hatred and murder in some naive oil-grab or, worse, religious “holy” war. Which is not to suggest we give Ahmadinejad the keys to Disney, either. Only that we've spent a decade using hate, death and violence to solve a cultural problem the bible itself says won't be solved until Christ returns. Maybe it's time for a more enlightened approach. People who despise the qualities of God—love, patience, joy, peace—are simply evil. No matter what they call themselves.

Christopher J. Priest
17 May 2009