Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Let There Be Southern Rawk

Ann and I recently returned to Athens for the city’s annual music festival, Athfest. And despite arriving in town to find our apartment flooded and most of our friends either out of town or getting married, we lucked into a series of great shows.

We tried to prepare ourselves for the festival by reading Flagpole and listening to the annual Athfest CD, a compilation of Athens bands most of whom, purportedly, would be playing over the weekend. Unfortunately, Flagpole music critics have terrible taste in music and only a minority of groups on the double CD were performing over the festival weekend. But some of our top choices were there and, with some serendipity, we found a number of excellent bands.

We started our weekend with a hearty dose of Part Bear, an Athenian rock/classic rock trio with a hyper-energetic lead guitarist who seemed to channel the hybrid spirit of Stevie Ray Vaughn and George Thorogood. The set served a medley of guitar-driven, fast paced songs that kept smiles on our faces despite the rancid bite of an unexpectedly bad Sweetwater Blue.

But perhaps the most humorous encounter of the weekend was our subsequent, and initially failed, attempt to see Venice Is Sinking at Little Kings. The previous act’s draw had overwhelmed the bar and its patio to the point that a backup of people blocked the door and a thickening press of people crowded the fence separating sidewalk from stage. As the police moved in, threatening to break up the crowd and shut down the club, we were told to disperse. Not to be defeated, Ann and I walked around back to where, not-so-secreted in the alley behind the bar, we found a six-foot wide hole in the bar’s patio fence guarded only by a few drunk bar patrons playing with bean bags. We looked at it for while, unsure it it was real or some beer-fueled delusion – why would so many people be crowding around the fence and windows on the other side of the bar if there was a huge opening in the side of the patio right there off the street. But when no bouncers or trip wires revealed themselves, we slipped in (rather, we indiscreetly sauntered in). We were rewarded by a run-in with some old History department colleagues and a great, intimate performance by Venice Is Sinking, an indie-rock / alternative group that blends male and female vocals, electric and classical string instruments. I was most impressed by the bassist’s impromptu rap, entertaining the crowd during a soundboard troubleshoot, and the keyboardist’s knack of playing the keys with one hand while fingering a trumpet with the other.

Our enthusiasm was tempered by Saturday’s oppressive heat and humidity. Why Southerners plan their festivals in June instead of May continues to amaze me. If it weren’t for the shaded, beer-cooled presence of the stage-front beer garden we would never have made it to the night’s headline performance by the Whigs. But the surprise of the night was Birds & Wire’s intimate show at Farm 255. Ann, Lesley-Anne, and I squeezed in along the side of the stage, along the edge of a roach-infested retaining wall overlooking Caledonia’s gloomy courtyard down the hill. Between feverish glances at the bug wall, though, we soaked in Birds & Wire’s jazz-altcountry-rock mix. I suppose it can’t hurt to point out that the band’s lead guitarists and vocalist, Lera Lynn, was a delight to both the ears and the eyes. I think Ann smacked me once or twice during the show for that observation.

But, by far, the best of the weekend was Sunday’s headline performance by Drive-By Truckers. After another hot, sticky day at the open stage – where groups like Passafire and Kimberly Morgan & The Everlovin’ Band outperformed our expectations – we finally got to see Athens's most recent iconic band.

We’d tried to see the Truckers months before when they had rolled through Athens on an acoustic tour. We were first exposed to the band through several enthusiastic UGA history department colleagues (including one of our most respected professors) and last year’s Athfest CD. But what we’d heard was enticing. I’d come to love their melancholy but defiant “The Living Bubba,” a song the Truckers wrote about a man with AIDS only a week before his death (a revelation that made all the more poignant the song’s lyrics, “I’m here to stay (at least another week or two) / I can’t die now cuz I got another show to do.”

The show rocked. It was loud, powerful, energetic, and the audience was wild. Ann and I appeared to be the only ones there who weren’t prepared to sing along to the “Let There Be Rock” and who were surprised by the band’s raucous encore performance of the Jim Carroll Band’s “People Who Died.” I’ve had trouble describing the band to others since the show. Guitarist and vocalist Patterson Hood’s lyrics remind me of Johnny Cash while his thick Alabama accent and raspy vocals harken back to Lynyrd Skynyrd and The Allman Brother’s Band (a connection reinforced, for good or for ill, by Drive-By Trucker’s Skynyrd-themed concept album, Southern Rock Opera and their trio of lead guitarists). I now understand what all the fuss about the Truckers is about – it was one of the most energetic shows we’ve seen in ages. Suddenly that guy wearing the “Hood, Cooley ’08” tee doesn’t seem quite so eccentric.

Friday, June 1, 2007

Can a Good Muslim be a Good American? (A Rebuttal)

I want to take a second and respond to a recent mass-email that came across the Net my way – an email that purports to answer the question “Can a Good Muslim be a Good American?”

As a concerned American, I found it very offensive. As a student of Middle-Eastern and Islamic history, I found it factually incorrect at nearly every level. Thus, I felt it was my duty to correct the inaccuracies propagated in the email. I am not a Muslim. Nor am I un-American. But if we are to have a healthy dialogue in this country about the relationship between the West and the East, and, most importantly, our secular system and Christian tradition's relationship with the many flavors of Islam, then I think that the dialogue needs to be based on facts.

Before I get into the email, though, I want to make a brief point – a call to action, of you will. The following email is only one example of a genre of uninformed mass communications that litter the e-space. Often they are na├»ve and innocent enough: chain letters or noble remembrances of our patriotic dead. But this email is an example of a more peculiar breed of uninformed mass communication – a kind that harms. Often offended readers simply delete such emails. But I would ask anyone who receives such an email – regardless of your political leaning – to henceforth step up and respond to it. Let the senders know what they’re distributing. Let them know the fallacy of it. We must make it our mission to inject the national debate on any contentious issue with fact, not fear.

This email represents the first time I have so responded. I can thank Ann for setting a good example and I hope my words now ring as true as hers have before.

The text appears to have originated with a August 1, 2006 article at the Conservative Voice.

Can a Good Muslim be a Good American?
(my response is indicated in italics)

Interesting questions for the Muslim Community to discuss & for research on our part also.

Can a good Muslim be a good American? I forwarded that question to a friend who worked in Saudi Arabia for 20 years. The following is his forwarded reply:
It is worth-wild to note that Saudi Islam neither represents mainstream Sunni or Shia belief. Sunni Wahhabism (the faith of the Saudi monarchs and Osama bin Laden) is a radical interpretation of Islam and one not held by the vast majority of Muslims. So the experience of an American in the Kingdom does not reflect well the religious attitudes of the other billion Muslims in the world. Nor should the attitudes of any one Muslim, or of any one Muslim state, be taken to reflect the worldwide whole any more than a radical Christian’s attitude accurately reflects the whole of Christendom.

Theologically - no. Because his allegiance is to Allah, the moon God of Arabia. Religiously - no. Because no other religion is accepted by his Allah except Islam (Quran, 2:256)
Two points here. First, Allah is not a moon god. The moon symbol associated with Islam is actually the old symbol of Constantinople, the seat of Ottoman power. During Ottoman dominion over the Muslim world, state sponsored mosques bore the crescent to represent the authority of Constantinople. After the fall of the empire, the symbol remained as a traditional emblem in many, though not all, quarters. Second, the Quran explicitly acknowledges the righteousness of all Jews and Christians, assuring them both of their place in the Muslim world and in Heaven. Jesus, after all, is the "most beloved" of God, the result of a virgin birth, second only to Mohammed as a prophet, and the judge who will measure the living and the dead on the Last Day. We are all (Jews, Christians, and Muslims) the People of the Book – the children of Abraham who follow God's sacred path. And while several Islamist regimes (notably the radical regimes of the Saudis and the Iranians) have been hostile to Christians and Jews within their countries, these are typically political, not religious, progroms. Muslim-Jewish hostility is, of course, a whole other issue. But the author's decision to quote Sura 2, verse 256 is an interesting one. That particular verse does not condemn other faiths. In fact, it is the most frequently quoted verse by Muslims of the West who interpret its statement, "There is no compulsion in religion" to imply religious freedom and tolerance.

Scripturally - no. Because his allegiance is to the five pillars of Islam and the Quran (Koran). Geographically - no. Because his allegiance is to Mecca, to which he turns in prayer five times a day.
Neither of these points make sense. The five pillars (profession of faith, ritual prayer, alms tax, fasting during Ramadan, and pilgrimage to Mecca) are in no way diametrically opposed to democracy, secularism, or Christianity. In fact, these are many of the same fundamental tenets of Catholicism (though the details of prayer are, of course, different). And the "allegiance" to Mecca is a non-issue in the "loyalty" context. Catholics have more loyalty to Rome that Muslims do to Mecca (Mecca doesn't have a governing or authoritative body that renders decisions on behalf of the Muslim followers, either) and Jews pray every Passover to see the “next year in Jerusalem.” If we’re going to criticize Muslims for praying toward Mecca than we should look with suspicion on church builders who aim their cross-shaped narthexes squarely at Jerusalem.

Socially - no. Because his allegiance to Islam forbids him to make friends with Christians or Jews. Politically - no. Because he must submit to the mullah (spiritual leaders), who teach annihilation of Israel and Destruction of America, the great Satan.
Again, the Quran accepts Christians and Jews as fellow devotes of Allah (the same God we worship) and encourages friendship with any just and righteous people, regardless of faith. Political submission to the Mullahs is a phenomenon really only seen in Iran (it is, after all a Persian term) where Mullahs make up the government and the ruling elite. The question of popular loyalty to these Mullahs is presently in question. As to the rest of the Muslim World, individuals owe no more loyalty to their "Mullahs" (usually, the leader of a large mosque) than we do to our priests and ministers. It is a communal, not political, relationship. It is true, though, that some madrassas (usually, but not exclusively, mosque-affilliated schools) teach anti-Israeli and anti-Western messages. This appears to be true of many Wahhabi schools, Iranian Shia schools, and those of the Palestinians and Lebanese actively engaged warfare with the Israelis. All of these propaganda programs, however veiled, are politically motivated, however.

Domestically - no. Because he is instructed to marry four women and beat and scourge his wife when she disobeys him (Quran 4:34).
Two points. First, the Quran does allow for as many as four wives on the strict condition that the husband be able to provide for all of them equally and that he love them all equally. In practice, very very few Muslim men have more than one wife. Many Muslim countries forbid polygamy. Second, in regard to beating and scourging his wife, the Quran's instructions for the use of domestic violence are pretty much the same as exist in the Torah and the Bible (except the Quran has arguably better treatment for slaves than the other two). The Quran also enumerates many more rights for women than the Torah and the Bible. And, as before, the author’s choice of verse is questionable. Indeed, Sura 4, verse 34 does authorize men to punish their wives, but only after saying “Men are (meant to be righteous and kind) guardians of women.” Physical punishment for disloyal wives is only authorized after admonition and separation have failed to restore domestic order. At the last, husbands are instructed, “if they obey you, then seek nothing against them.” This is a premodern chauvinistic system – as are those of Moses, Aaron, and Jesus in retrospect – but it does not prescribe abuse.

Intellectually - no. Because he cannot accept the American Constitution since it is based on Biblical principles and he believes the Bible to be corrupt.
The Constitution, while written by Christians and American Deists, technically makes no mention of Jesus or any particular Christian sect. In many corners of the Muslim world, and despite our nation's growing antagonism to the Middle East, the U.S. Constitution and our system of religious freedoms are seen as the greatest protection for Muslims of every creed (especially compared to their treatment at the hands of European governments and conflicting Islamic sects in the Muslim world).

Philosophically - no. Because Islam, Muhammad, and the Quran do not allow freedom of religion and expression. Democracy and Islam cannot co-exist. Every Muslim government is either dictatorial or autocratic.
Yes and No. The Quran does not advocate religious freedom for any groups other than Jews, Christians, and Muslims with the Islamic faith obviously taking precedent. Polytheists and “unbelievers” in particular are condemned. The democracy issue is a thorny one. The ancient Arab tribes operated on a semi-democratic system (like the ancient German tribes) but for the majority of the history of the Muslim world democracy has been nonexistent and empire the rule. Of course, the same can be said of the West (a hundred years ago, there were only two solidly democratic nations in the West!). But currently there are two genuinely democratic "countries" in the Middle East (Turkey and Palestine – Turkey even has a secular government) with several other countries that have pseudo-democratic governments that often fare better than some Eastern European "democracies." (Putin, I'm looking in your direction … but please don’t kill me.)

[Update (Oct 2010): Expanding on the issue of Muslim democracies, there are, in fact, more than two. As of 2009, U.S.-based organization, Freedom House, considers Indonesia and Mali as the only Muslim-majority countries that are fully-fledged free electoral democracies. But there are several other Muslim states that are either democratic states which recognize Islam as the state religion (eg. Malaysia, Pakistan, Algeria) or are democratic states which endeavor to institute Sharia—the so called as Islamist democracy (Which Iran is in theory, but not practice). Additionally, the Economist recently identified some Muslim states, notably Palestine, as flawed democracies (Israel was also in this category) and others (Iraq, Lebanon and Turkey) as hybrid regimes with authoritarian elements. And there are even two Western-imposed democracies, Iraq and Afghanistan, to further complicate this answer).]

Spiritually - no. Because when we declare "one nation under God," the Christians God is loving and kind, while Allah is NEVER referred to as heavenly father, nor is he ever called love in The Quran’s 99 excellent names.
The most common reference to Allah in the Quran is as "most gracious, most merciful" – every single sura has it. And, technically, Allah is the same God to which we direct our prayers (Allah is merely Arabic for “the God”). The gods of Jesus and Mohammed have far more in common than either of them do with the god of Abraham (as described in their holy texts). He is, in Quranic scripture, the lord of heaven, the lord of all the living and the dead and of all things on Earth. He is an active, loving participant in the lives of his followers. He is virtually indistinguishable from God the Father of Christianity. And as to the 99 names of God in Islam? Here’s a serving of the most loving terms Muslims have for their divine benefactor (see if any of them ring familiar): the Most Merciful, the Peace and Blessing, the Almighty, the Creator, the Utterly Just, the Subtly Kind, the All Forgiving, the Grateful, the Nourisher, the Majestic, the Responsive, the Truth, the Protecting Friend, the Giver of Life, the Self Subsisting Sustainer of All, the Most Kind and Righteous, The Pardoner and Effacer of Sins, the Compassionate, the Light, the Patient…
…and, of course, the Loving and the Kind (Al-Wadood)

Therefore after much study and deliberation.... Perhaps we should be very suspicious of ALL MUSLIMS in this country. They obviously cannot be both "good" Muslims and good Americans.
The same could be said, based on the author’s logic, of any devout person of any faith.

Call it what you wish..its still the truth. You had better believe it! If you find yourself intellectually in agreement with the above statements, perhaps you will share this with your friends. The more who understand this, the better it will be for our country and our future. Pass it on Fellow Americans. The religious war is bigger than we know or understand.

And, added by another author:

And Barack Hussein Obama, a Muslim, wants to be our president!!!
I’m probably not going to vote for the guy...but I should point out that he's not a Muslim. He's a member of the United Church of Christ. His dad was a Kenyan atheist raised in a Muslim community.

If you agree that the original August 1, 2006 article at the Conservative Voice is a condemnable piece of "journalism" please head over and leave a note or two (or ten) on their boards. I mean, seriously...."moon god"?