Authority and Taqwacores: Boxes Too Small 2

Michael Muhammad Knight
(Wikimedia Commons)
We need the authority of individual conscience, and we also need religious teachers as guides and companions on the spiritual path to help us see our own delusions and mind-traps. Only by nailing individual conscience together with accountability to our guides and companions do we have any chance of breaking out of boxes that are too small for the grandest possibilities of life – possibilities we can but dimly sense and cannot concretely imagine.

We need authoritative teachers and leaders that we trust -- but not so much that we shut down our own conscience. We need to trust our own conscience -- but not so much that we shut out religious and spiritual leadership that can help us see where our egos lead us astray.

Lasting, healthy faith community will recognize each person's divinity and authority -- and the members will recognize the value of legitimate community leadership. The test for any authority – the internal authority of your conscience, or the external authority of a leader and a community, is this: is it maintaining a small box for spiritual truth, or is it working to expand, or explode, the box?

Our project -- the project of liberal religion -- is the difficult and fragile task of community with diversity and taking seriously the work of spiritual development. We live in that creative tension which plays out in many ways.

So let me illustrate that with a story about a very different context.

Michael Knight was born in 1977 in West Virginia. When Michael was age 2, his mother, Irish Catholic, took him and fled from Michael’s father, who was Pentecostal and also mentally ill and abusive. When Michael was 13, he heard about Malcolm X in the lyrics of the hip-hop band, Public Enemy. He started reading more about Malcolm X, and about Islam, converted to Islam, and, at age 17, went to Pakistan to study Islam at Faisal Mosque. Now named Michael Muhammad Knight, he spent several years in Pakistan. He grew gradually disillusioned with orthodox Islam. After returning to the US, he wrote The Taqwacores -- a novel about a group of Muslim punk-rockers living in Buffalo, New York. He imagined the book as his "good-bye," to Islam.

In the novel, the narrator, Yusef, draws parallels between Islam and punk:
“I stopped trying to define punk around the same time I stopped trying to define Islam. They aren’t so far removed as you’d think. Both began in tremendous bursts of truth and vitality but seem to have lost something along the way – the energy, perhaps, that comes with knowing the world has never seen such positive force and fury and never would again. Both have suffered from sell-outs and hypocrites, but also from true believers whose devotion had crippled their creative drive. Both are viewed by outsiders as unified, cohesive communities when nothing can be further from the truth.”
Originally, Michael Muhammad Knight was giving away photocopied spiral-bound copies of The Taqwacores. Then in 2003 it was picked up and published by a punk record label. The characters include:
  • Yusef, the first-person narrator, a fairly straightlaced US-born son of Pakistani parents. He has come to Buffalo to study engineering, and his Muslim parents thought it would be more wholesome for him not to live in the campus dorms.
  • Umar, a Straight-edge Sunni Muslim who tries to enforce Islamic rules.
  • Jehangir, a hard-drinking, dyed-red-mohawk-haircut-wearing Sufi punk who announces morning prayers with an electric guitar on the roof.
  • Fasiq, an Indonesian skateboarder.
  • Amazing Ayyub, a shi’a skinhead.
  • Rabeya, the house’s only woman, who wears the full-scale body-tent style of burqa and studies feminist Islam.
And various other comers and goers.

A 2010 film was made from the book
What these kids are doing might not look like Islam to the Ayatollah Khomeini, but they call themselves Muslim, study the Koran, debate about how to interpret it as a guide for their lives, and say their prayers facing Mecca. Some of them drink a lot, smoke hashish, and engage in casual sex. Others of them are in the “straightedge” camp and eschew all those things.

The Taqwacores, became a blueprint for a movement. As a New York Times article explained: Many
“young American Muslims, stigmatized by their peers after the Sept. 11 attacks, [felt] repelled by both the Bush administration’s reaction to the attacks and the rigid conservatism of many Muslim leaders.” (New York Times, "Young Muslims Build a Subculture on an Underground Book," 2008 Dec 22)
So they made their own form of Islam.

Next: Punk Islam Confronts the Tolerance Paradox.

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This is part 2 of 4 of "Boxes Too Small"
Previous: Part 1: Nailing Things Together


This Week's Prayer

Dear Beat, rhythm and Beatitude of life and being, pulse of existence,

Everything we have ever known and will ever know is one.

We wonder, with Kerouac, “what God had wrought when he made life so sad,” even as we also sense that “life is holy and every moment is precious.”

We grieve the violence that killed journalist James Foley and so many others.

Our hearts go out to the kidnapped, to the long-term disappeared, to the survivors of kidnapping;

to the rescuers combing through the site of landslides triggered by rain in Hiroshima, Japan, desperately wishing not to find more bodies;

to those clearing up from the flash flooding in Arizona and those enduring severe drought in California;

to the scientists working to learn and tell us about the world’s weather;

to the tourists being evacuated in parts of Iceland, as another volcano threatens to erupt under the largest glacier;

to those who try to predict seismic events, things present and things to come, and thereby save lives;

to those in Western Africa suffering the Ebola virus or living in fear of it, and to the doctors and medical staff caring for them;

to those who teach and those who desperately, determinedly, seek an education that the sum of human understanding may grow – and to those who deny learning for themselves and others;

to those rioting in Missouri and to those harmed by the rioting; to the families of all those who never deserved to be killed by a police officer and to the officers wrestling with their demons and fears and inadequate training;

to all those who mourn.

May we all find a path to healing, to the holiness and preciousness, to the oneness of all we know.

May justice create the space for all beings to dance exultant joy to the universal beat.


Nailing Things Together: Boxes Too Small 1

Comedian George Carlin – a muse to whom I often turn – said back in 1972:
“You can buy anything in this country. Anything you can think of! You can probably buy a left nostril inhaler if you look around long enough. With your state motto on it. Glows in the dark. Anything, man. If you nail together two things that have never been nailed together before, some schmuck will buy it from you.”
Call it American innovation or call it American hucksterism.

Peanut butter and jelly – slapping together two things that had never been put together before. It’s a combination you will rarely find anywhere outside America. The smart phone is basically the result of taking a cell phone, and nailing lots of other things to it. I can’t wait until it’s also my garage door opener, my TV remote control, and an electric razor. Is there an ap for that?

Pilgrims and puritans came here seeking a place to build the city of god. Then there were a lot of other Europeans that arrived on these shores because the British, French, and other colonial empires used North America as basically a penal colony. In the 18th-century, 50,000 British convicts were sent to colonial America. The two main strands from Europe that formed American culture were the churchy types who liked rules and the criminal types who really didn’t get along with rules. We’re a nation created from nailing together very different things.

Unitarian Universalists also nail together things that are generally regarded as very different – like diverse beliefs worshiping together as one faith. How about these two: Punk rock and Islam. Surely those haven't been nailed together? They have!

There have been Muslim Punk bands since at least 1979, in fact. I had no idea – until I came across a reference to a 2003 novel, The Taqwacores by Michael Muhammad Knight. That novel, I since learned, sparked a Punk Islam lifestyle movement. I want to talk about that today because I thought it was bizarre and strange – yet also compellingly illustrates what we’re all up against.

We’re trying to nail together two things that often seem at odds. The need to do that keeps arising because of the inevitable tendency to do what some call putting God in a box, what we might also call relying on rules and formulas instead of being open in each moment to possibilities we never had previously imagined but which creatively reveal new ways to understand, to love, and to connect.

Unitarian Universalism is all about nailing together individual responsibility and community. We Unitarian Universalists come out of what is called the left wing of the Protestant reformation, or the radical reformation, begun by Martin Luther in 1517. Luther undermined the entrenched priestly hierarchy by proclaiming the priesthood of all believers. Unitarians went a little further, explained our theologian James Luther Adams, and also proclaimed the prophethood of all believers.

Five hundred years ago, Luther was indicating each of us is of the priesthood, no one can make your spiritual truth but you. No one but you can do that work. It's up to you to open yourself to grace, which then takes over. That’s a hard basis to make community upon. Not impossible, but not easy.

The call to individual responsibility militates against the tribal tendency of religion. Emphasis on each individual's responsibility to make or find her own spiritual truth makes community-building more difficult. Nevertheless, I believe that only a community that recognizes each person's divinity and authority has a chance of lasting.

As long as there are external authorities, there will be competition among them and rebellion against them. That doesn't mean that rejecting all religious authority ends the competition and rebellion. It goes on internally. Within each psyche, impulses compete with and rebel against one another.

The divine, spiritual truth, God, the ground of healing and wholeness that we call by many names -- whatever we call reality at its most inclusive -- is too big to fit in the box of what any one authority -- person or doctrine -- decrees.

External authority is one box too small. The internal authority of our own egos is another box too small.

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This is part 1 of "Boxes Too Small"
Next: Part 2: Authority and Taqwacores


Go 90: Intercultural Sensitivity 5

The fourth stage in the development of intercultural sensitivity is acceptance. At this stage, there is nonjudgmental openness and curiosity about differences but a lack of skills for entering into the other cultural.

People at the acceptance stage may say such things as:
  • "The more difference the better -- more difference equals more creative ideas!"
  • "You certainly wouldn't want to have all the same kind of people around -- the ideas get stale, and besides, it’s boring."
  • "I always try to study about a new culture before I go there."
  • "The more cultures you know about, the better comparisons you can make."
  • "Sometimes it's confusing, knowing that values are different in various cultures and wanting to be respectful, but still wanting to maintain my own core values."
  • "When studying abroad, every student needs to be aware of relevant cultural differences."
  • "I know my homestay family and I have had very different life experiences, but we're learning to work together."
  • "Where can I learn more about Mexican culture to be effective in my communication?" 
At the acceptance stage, the needed learning is learning the skills: study the differences and practice, practice, practice.

People at the adaptation stage (the fifth stage) might be heard to say such things as:
  • "To solve this dispute, I need to change my behavior to account for the difference in status between me and my counterpart from the other culture."
  • "I know they're really trying hard to adapt to my style, so it's fair that I try to meet them halfway."
  • "I greet people from my culture and people from the host culture somewhat differently to account for cultural differences in the way respect is communicated."
  • "I can maintain my values and also behave in culturally appropriate ways."
  • "In a study abroad program, every student should be able to adapt to at least some cultural differences."
  • "I'm beginning to feel like a member of this culture."
  • "The more I understand this culture, the better I get at the language."
For people at the adaptation stage, there is always the further learning of: (1) getting better and better at more and more other different cultures, and (2) learning how to function as a bridge – a sort of translator for two people of different cultures neither of which is able on their own to adapt to the other.

In some versions of the DMIS (Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity) there is a 6th stage, "integration." Integration is a matter of increasing skill and fluency at adapting to other cultures.

At what stage do you think you are? Most people identify themselves at a stage higher than they actually are. People at "defense" will tend to self-report as being at "minimization." People at "minimization" will tend to self-report as being at "acceptance." We do tend to hide our own attitudes and abilities from ourselves. On the other hand, the good news would be that higher stages are attractive. In our wishful thinking, we imagine we are already at a higher stage -- which reveals, at least, that we do want to be more interculturally sensitive.

Most Unitarian Universalists are in the middle – at the minimization stage. We love to say people are basically the same. The Golden Rule itself – "do onto others as you would have them do unto you" –  is a minimization because, in reality, what you would have done unto you might not be what someone of a different culture would want or need. After the Golden Rule comes the Platinum Rule: do unto others as they would be done unto. Doing that requires learning a lot about their culture so you can see what will work for the other person.

1. From Denial to Defense: the person acquires an awareness of difference between cultures
2. From Defense to Minimization: negative judgments are depolarized, and the person is introduced to similarities between cultures
3. From Minimization to Acceptance: the subject grasps the importance of intercultural difference.
4. From Acceptance to Adaptation: exploration and research into the other culture begins
5. From Adaptation to Integration: subject develops empathy towards the other culture.
Source: Wikipedia

When I taught public speaking and communication classes, I would stress to my students, you can’t assume that communication is a 50/50 business. When you’re speaking, you have to assume that 90 percent of the job of clearly communicating your message and being understood is up to you. When you’re listening, you have to assume that 90 percent of the job of figuring out what the speaker means is up to you. That still leaves 10 percent room for holding your listeners a little responsible for listening -- and for holding speakers a little responsible for speaking coherently. But always assume 90 percent of the job is yours.

Don’t meet them halfway. Go 90 percent. People at the adaptative stage have the skills to be able to go most of the way toward the other person – and not demand that the other person come to them – or even halfway toward them because we all tend to think we’ve gone halfway when really we’ve hardly budged.

As for me, I cannot claim to be at the adaptive stage. After all, I live in a county where 22 percent of the population is Hispanic, yet I cannot speak Spanish. I think I’m usually pretty good about being open and curious about differences, but under stress I’m going to fall back into assumptions that there is such a thing as universal reasoning and that I can recognize universal needs. I spend most of my time in a cultural bubble of NPR, the New York Times, and my fellow Unitarian Universalists. On the plus side, this culture I'm in does tend to be a culture that's interested in learning, including learning about how different other cultures are and how to get along with them better.

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This is part 5 of 4 of "Intercultural Sensitivity is Hard!"
Previous: Part 4: Denial, Polarization, Minimization
Beginning: Part 1: Juneteenth