Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Islamic reform. Is it possible? Can Islam be the “religion of peace” some tell us it is, or is meant to be?

This idea is repugnant to many on the right. Small wonder what with radical Islam’s hold on the world, the rampant terror, terror that is too ugly to read, speak, or even think about much of the time.
Not to mention, terror, when it occurs, is almost invariably committed by Muslims.

None of this, however, precludes the possibility that a different Islam exists and can take hold, as long as we don’t squelch it with preconceived notions.

I had a dear friend, Robert Werdine, who was a devout Muslim, who saw me as the big sister he always wanted. He believed in Islamic reform. He was a brilliant scholar of history and of Islam and could have done great things with his life. Alas, he was not blessed with good health and died much too young of complications due to diabetes.

Whenever he landed in the hospital, and this was often, he’d insist his mother let me know he was okay, so I wouldn't worry. I was not surprised when his nephew, someone I’d never met, took the trouble to inform me, by private message, that Robert had died. He was thoughtful that way, always taking time to wish his Jewish friends a happy holiday before each and every Jewish festival.

I thank God/Allah for having met Robert, who defended me against the worst haters, who explained the other Islam to me—the one no one believes can exist—and who believed in Muslim coexistence with the Jews.

Robert not only believed this, but actively worked to spread these views, giving lessons to children in his local mosque, helping them to use their critical thinking skills and apply them toward the question of how Islam sees the Jews.

Robert told me that his great grandfather had been a sheikh in Lebanon who worked for coexistence with the local Jewish community. He also explained to me that Arabs were late to become literate, and that when they could finally read, the only religious tracts available for purchase were those commentaries written by awful, violent clerics. That is how this awful, violent form of Islam took hold.

Robert explained to me that where Islam speaks of Jews as “pigs and monkeys,” it is speaking only of those Jews who scorn their own religious tenets. Jews who turn away from the Torah.

The Jews are the People of the Book, and the Bani Isra’il, the Children of Israel. They have a right to their land. This is enshrined in Islamic religious texts, in the Quran. Islam, in this light, is pro-Israel. 

As was Robert. To the bone.

Robert was well aware of the scam of the Arab “refugees” accusing Israel of occupation. He saw straight through Linda Sarsour and termed her “dreadful.” He hated the New York Times piece, Linda Sarsour Is a Brooklyn Homegirl in a Hijab, and called it “a fluff piece masquerading as an in depth profile.”

When Robert felt well, he’d send me brilliant pieces he’d written (apparently just for me), all footnoted and sourced, explaining Islam from its kinder, more peaceful perspective.

Here is what I learned: just as Judaism has different arbiters of the law, so does Islam (l'havdil).

And people can choose to follow a harsh taskmaster or a kind and merciful one.

There is no contradiction here.

The long pieces Robert wrote for my benefit were the reason we took our correspondence from Facebook private messaging to email correspondence. And that's when our friendship really bloomed and my understanding of Islam grew.

Yes. I have read the history books by Bat Ye’or. I am not ignorant of how Muslims treated the Jews in the past—making them wear bells, walk in the gutter, and wear two different shoes; making them pay tribute; raping them; kidnapping them; and stealing their homes, their land.

Yes. I know that Haj Amin El Husseini was in cahoots with Hitler. I know of the slaughter, prejudice, and maltreatment. Do you think that I and my family have been immune from first hand knowledge of such things?

But I also know that it doesn’t have to be this way. That Islam can coexist with Judaism. I know that because of Robert. I know that because of my work with Rabbi Avi Feld. I know it because of other friendships I have had with Muslims.

I know it because of clips like this that come out once in a blue moon.

I don’t care how many people tell me there is only this one, horrid Islam. I know otherwise. Because of my friend Robert.

And I don’t know why God didn’t bless him with good health, so that he might have amplified his views and his work. I don't know why he suffered so much, though he was such a thoroughly good person. 

But I do know there is a bigger picture.

Perhaps the world wasn’t ready to believe what I believe: that there can be a different, kinder Islam. And so Robert died, his work unfinished, undone.

But whenever I despair, I think of Robert Werdine, of blessed memory, whose Arabic name was Sharif, and I believe, no I know, that things can and will be better.

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