Monday, November 29, 2010

Do sting operations help to deter terrorism?

Does anyone seriously believe that the FBI sting operations that entrap young, often confused Muslim men really help to thwart terrorism? Or is this just another effort at fear mongering on the part of the national security state?

There is apparently no evidence linking the 19-year-old Mohamed Osman Mohamud with any terrorist group. He became an FBI target because of his fascination with violent Islamist websites. This has been the story with other young Muslim men singled out for these high-profile stings.

What is the real purpose of these stings? As the old saying goes, follow the money. There is a lot of money to be made in the national security business, just as there is a lot of money to be made in the so-called "war on drugs." Those who stand to profit from these highly profitable wars are law enforcement officials, judges, prison guards, not to mention the shadowy figures involved in sting and entrapment operations.

Why Portland, Oregon? Could it be because the city council of Portland was skeptical about the war on terrorism and voted five years ago not to give homeland security its unconditional support. See

Now of course, the city council will cooperate fully and pony up whatever funds are necessary for its share in protecting its citizens from non-existent threats.

Does tempting a young man to become a terrorist deter terrorism?

If the man had a prior history of involvement, and there was no other way to prove his involvement other than by means of a sting, a case could be made for such a tactic being effective. (Whether such a tactic is moral or ethical is another matter.)

Imagine if the FBI tried to fight bank robbery using stings If a fake FBI gang went into poor neighborhoods and tried to recruit young men who were not gang members, but fantasized about being part of a gang, would this help reduce the number of bank robberies? Or would it convince young men that the FBI couldn't be trusted, and system was out to get them, and perhaps induce them to join a real gang?

I suspect that stings and entrapment will not reduce the threat of terrorism but actually increase it. Young men who are smart and want to become terrorists will simply be more careful when someone offers to recruit them. The Muslim community will be less likely to trust the FBI and support its legitimate activities.

But of course the whole purpose of the national security state is not to reduce terrorism, but to intimidate citizens into financing expensive schemes that perpetuate rather than solve the problem.

Let me conclude with a Sufi story about that wise fool Nasruddin.

Nasraddin was seen spraying his back yard every day and his neighbor was curious about why he was doing this.

"I am spraying my yard with tiger repellent," said Nasruddin.

"Tiger repellent?" said his neighbor. "There are no tigers for a thousand miles from here!"

"See," said Nasruddin, "It's working!"

The same may be said about most of the efforts to reduce terrorism here in the USA.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

William Penn and the Indians

One of the myths of America is that the Pilgrims and the Indians had a "kumbaya" moment during the first winter after the Mayflower landed at Plymouth rock. The reality is that the Puritans were aggressive and hostile towards the local Wampapoags even as the first people made every effort to be hospitable and welcoming. Miles Standish even beheaded an Indian and committed other atrocities, for which his descendent has apologized to the Indians. The word "Thanksgiving" was used by the Puritans only after a military victory in which Indians were slaughtered. For the true story of the Pilgrims and Indians from an Indian perspective, see

The story of the Quaker encounter with the Indians is less well known. In fact, it is hardly known at all by most Americans, and is never told in schools. Nonetheless, it is very instructive and much more hopeful.
The icon of the encounter between Quakers and the Indians is Edward Hick's "Peaceable Kingdom." In the foreground it shows the scene from Isaiah in which the lion lies down with the lamb, and the child can handle snakes and other animals without harm, and there is peace in all of God's creation. In the background, Penn is signing a peace treaty with the Indians--a peace treaty which, unlike virtually all others whites made with the Indians, was never broken. The message: the Peaceable Kingdom requires us to have peaceful and just relationship with the first people of North America (whom Penn equated with the lost tribe of Israel). This belief is at the heart of our Quaker faith.

Penn wrote a letter about his encounter with the Indians which ironically begins by saying he was treated with more kindness by the Indians than by many people in England! Penn along with other Quakers went to prison for his religious beliefs, and many Quakers fled to Pennsylvania to escape persecution.

Pennsylvania was not only a place safe for Indians, it was a haven for people of all faiths. (That is, until non-Quakers came and began fighting the Indians.)

Penn took pains to learn the language of the Indians and study their culture. He not onlythought the Indians were the lost tribe of Israel, he also believed the Indian language was similar to Hebrew. He describes the Indians and their customs in great detail and with much sympathy, which I think you'll find fascinating.

Here's the link:

This was written ten years after the "King Phillip's war," in which the Puritans massacred the Indians--perhaps as many as 27,000, leaving only a remnant (3,000) alive.
I hope we take to heart what really happened when whites and Indians encountered each other, and listen to what the first people have to tell and teach us.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

What's Wrong with Thanksgiving?

It may seem churlish to fault with a holiday that brings families together, encourages interfaith worship, and depicts Indians and Pilgrims getting along peacefully. Yet I have mixed feelings about Thanksgiving and couldn’t put my finger on why until I began to dig deeper into history and into myself.

First, I have long been troubled about the way we sanitize the story of the Puritans and Indians for our children. It is true that when the Pilgrims arrived, they were befriended by the local Wampanoag tribe and celebrated a Thanksgiving meal together. But this period of tranquility didn’t last long. Unlike the Quakers in Pennsylvania who believed that there was “that of God” in every person and treated the Indians with respect, the Puritans believed that the Indians were heathen savages and treated them accordingly. The Puritans broke their treaties, stole land, and massacred the natives. Very few Indians survived the Puritan invasion.
Our sanitized view of Thanksgiving reflects the Pilgrim perspective and the way we American like to view ourselves—as friendly, likeable people, not as invaders and conquerors. To understand the whole story, we need to look at the arrival of the Pilgrims from Indian point of view as well as the white man’s. William Apes (1798-1839), a Pequot Indian, wrote the following:

In December, 1620, the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth, and without asking liberty from anyone, they possessed themselves of a portion of the country, and built themselves houses, and then made a treaty and commanded them [the Indians] to accede to it.... And yet for their kindness and resignation towards the whites, they were called savages, and made by God on purpose for them to destroy....”

Apes details the atrocities committed by the Puritans over the next couple of decades. Of course, Apes was biased. The Puritans tried to eradicate the Pequots in 1637 and slaughtered women, children and old men in a famous battle in Mystic, Connecticut. If we want our children to grow up with a complete and accurate view of American history, we need to share with them this Indian perspective.
I am not suggesting that we wallow in guilt about our treatment of the Indians. What we need to do is listen, really listen to what the native people, the First People, are trying to tell us, and teach us. Over the years, I have made it a practice to try to find and connect with Native peoples wherever I live, whether it’s New Jersey, Pennsylvania, California, or wherever. Millions of Native people live among us (sometimes next door) and they have a perspective that we seldom hear, but need to take seriously.

I am deeply grateful for what I have learned from Native people. Thanksgiving seems a good time to express that gratitude.

This year I was especially moved by the words of Jacqueline Keeler, a member of the Dineh (Navaho) Nation and the Yankton Dakota Sioux, who works with the American Indian Child Resource Center in Oakland, California. She wrote a moving essay called “Thanksgiving from an Indian Perspective” that begins:

I celebrate the holiday of Thanksgiving. This may surprise those people who wonder what Native Americans think of this official US celebration of the survival of early arrivals in a European invasion that culminated in the death of 10 to 30 million native people. Thanksgiving to me has never been about Pilgrims. When I was six, my mother, a woman of the Dineh nation, told my sister and me not to sing "Land of the Pilgrim's pride" in "America the Beautiful." Our people, she said, had been here much longer and taken much better care of the land. We were to sing "Land of the Indian's pride" instead. (See )

Jacqueline proudly describes some of the things that the Native people have given to the world, and for which we should all be thankful. She lists lots of foods, including potatoes and tomatoes, but for some reason leaves out chocolate (my favorite). At my wife’s church, we have long made it a practice to thank the Native people for their gifts during our worship service from time to time. It is a good exercise, one that I recommend. Why not try it at your Thanksgiving meal this year?
Jacqueline concludes her essay with a story that helps us to look deeper into our own hearts for the seeds of violence that has darkened our history from the time of the Puritans to the present:

By 1623, Mather the elder, a Pilgrim leader, was giving thanks to his God for destroying the heathen savages to make way “for a better growth," meaning his people. In stories told by the Dakota people, an evil person always keeps his or her heart in a secret place separate from the body. The hero must find that secret place and destroy the heart in order to stop the evil. I see, in the "First Thanksgiving" story, a hidden Pilgrim heart. The story of that heart is the real tale than needs to be told. What did it hold? Bigotry, hatred, greed, self-righteousness? We have seen the evil that it caused in the 350 years since. Genocide, environmental devastation, poverty, world wars, racism. Where is the hero who will destroy that heart of evil? I believe it must be each of us.

Sad to say, we white Americans are still inclined to hide our hearts in a secret place and to sanitize our motives. Only when we look within ourselves and acknowledge our human weaknesses can we be healed and become whole human beings, capable of love and truthfulness.

We should be grateful to our Indian brothers and sisters for trying to teach us this important lesson. It is a lesson that we need to take to heart and to share with our children on this day of Thanksgiving.

Monday, November 22, 2010

The Tao of Quakerism

Since returning from my trip to the East Coast, I have been editing one of the hidden masterpieces of Quakerism: Herrymon Maurer's translation of the Tao Teh Ching, with a Quaker/Hasidic Jewish commentary. Herrymon was my mentor and friend when I first came to Princeton Meeting in the early 1980s. He was a "recorder minister" and a sage who kept a low profile for reasons I explain in my article on Herrymon and the Tao of Quakerism. See

I'd be very interested in your thoughts about my article or about Herrymon's commentary on the Tao Teh Ching. He has written over a hundred pages by way of introduction, with a powerful prophetic critique of our society, from the standpoint of Taoism and Quakerism, or as Herrymon would say, simply The Way. I am submitting this for possible publication by Quaker Universalist Fellowship, or perhaps a trade publisher. It needs to be back in print!

The Tao/Virtue Classic Commentary

1. Tao Can’t be Taoed

If Tao can be Taoed, it's not Tao.
If its name can be named, it's not its name.
Has no name: precedes heaven and earth;
Has a name: mother of the ten thousand things.

For it is
Always dispassionate:
See its inwardness;
A!ways passionate:
See its outwardness.

The names are different
But the source the same.
Call the sameness mystery:
Mystery of mystery, the door to inwardness.

Beyond words is Tao! The opening passage of the Tao Teh Ching has the vigor of the first sentence of the book of John: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." But here majesty is admixed with paradox and humor. The impact of the first line is multiplied by an additional meaning that hinges on a divine pun, "If the path can be followed, it's not the path," and also by a derivative meaning with the sense of "If God gods it, he's not God."

In the original, the word constant modifies the second use of Tao in line one (and in line two the second use of name). It has been omitted in translation because the impact of the rhythm of the sentence, as significant as the sense, is upset, and because the Western reader is not likely to imagine Tao as anything but an absolute. In Chinese, Tao also means Path or path, since ancient times its primary meaning, and the modifier constant is needed to differentiate the extraordinary from the ordinary. (Except, of course, that the ordinary is more extraordinary than the extraordinary.)

The phrase ten thousand things is usually rendered as all things and the phrase heaven and earth as the universe. Chinese ideographs encourage concreteness.

2. Takes No Credit

When all beneath heaven
Know beauty as beauty,
There is not beauty.
When all know good as good,
There is not good.

For what is and what is not beget each other;
Difficult and easy complete each other;
Long and short show each other;
High and low place each other;
Noise and sound harmonize each other;
Before and behind follow each other.

Therefore the sage
Manages without doing,
Teaches without talking.
He does not shun
The ten thousand things:
Rears them without owning them,
Works for them without claiming them,
Accomplishes but takes no credit.

Because he does not take credit,
It cannot be taken from him.

Beyond opposites is Tao! Often assumed to be a statement of the relativity of values, this chapter is actually a song of praise to the beyond-everything wholeness of Tao. Any thing less than Tao is so immensely less that the differ ences between anything less and its opposite are of little significance. A turning from ordinary differentiation enables the sage to find closeness to Tao and enables him to accomplish but take no credit.

An eighteenth-century Hasidic teacher, Yehiel Michal of Zlotchov, noted that "if there were no evil, there would be no good, for good is the counterpart of evil. Ever lasting delight is no delight. .. the fact that evil confronts good gives man the possibility of victory." [Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim: Early Masters, New York, Schocken Books, 1947, p. 144]

Beneath heaven is typically translated as the world, a place of many meanings and a term of no location. There fore, in classical Chinese, means simply that there is a link 'between what goes before and what comes after, but not , that there is a causal or even sequential relationship. The logic of the Chinese language includes an indeterminism of intermingling happenings, which are not strictly causal. In this translation, for, hence, now, so, also, and thus often substitute for therefore.

3. Doing Nothing-doing

If you don't exalt the worthy:
People then will not compete.
If you don't prize rare goods:
People then will not steal.
If you don't show what is covetable:
The people's hearts won't be upset.

Thus, when the sage rules,
He empties hearts
And fills bellies,
Weakens ambitions
And strengthens bones.
He leads the people
To not-know and not-want,
And the cunning ones
To dare not do.
By doing nothing-doing,
Everything gets done.

Setting an example of contention is a typical occasion for contention. Quaker John Woolman, writer of journals and worker against slavery, wrote in the eighteenth century about "ways of living attended with unnecessary labor. .. which draw forth the minds of many people to seek after outward power and to strive for riches, which frequently introduce oppression and bring forth wars." [Considera tions of Pure Wisdom and Human Policy, 1768]
Isaac Penington, a seventeenth century devotionalist, wrote about the value of not knowing: "Be still and wait for light and strength and desire not to know or compre hend …” [Letters, John Barclay edition, p. 173]

When the sage empties hearts and fills bellies, he meets needs but shuns covetousness. He
also encourages humility. In Chinese, empty-hearted means humble. As for the full belly, eating at a shared table has long been held as worshipful among Chinese as it has among Jews.
The famous adage of wei wu wei, here translated as doing nothing-doing, is the positive form of wu wei, literally not-do, and thus signifies do not-do. Its full meaning, to be grasped only in context, embraces not alone the wisdom of non-interference but in addition the forcefulness of taking action in the realm of the inward: i.e., the realm of nothingness that is accessible only through humility. In this realm, humility is positive and passivity is dynamic; purposive action is static. Nothing -doing gets things done; something-doing does not.

3. Use Emptiness!

Tao is empty! Use it
And it isn't used up.
Deep! It seems like
The forebear of
The ten thousand things.
It blunts edges,
Unties tangles,
Harmonizes lights,
Unites all dusts.
Submerged and existent!
I don't know whose child it is.
It looks to be the source.

Apparently different in manner and meaning from Lao Tzu's hymn of praise is the hymn of praise of the later Isaiah, but the common sense of awe is nearly identical.

Who ever measured the waters in the hollow of his hand
or ruled the skies off with a span,
or held the dust of earth inside a measure,
or weighed the mountains in a pair of scales,
the hills within a balance?
Who ever moved the mind of the Eternal,
or gave him lessons and advice?
Who ever was called in to give him counsel?

Who ever taught him how to act, or showed him
what to do? [Isaiah 40: 12-14, Moffatt translation.]

Differences in the outer clothing of words are swallowed up in wonder at the pervasiveness of the Undefined, the Unknown, the Ever -present, whether the nameless and inexplicable YHVH or the nameless and inexplicable Tao. John Woolman says:

"There is a principle which is pure, placed in the human mind, which in different places arid ages hath had different names. It is, however, pure and proceeds from God. It is deep and inward, confined to no forms of religion nor excluded from any where the heart stands in perfect sincerity. In whomsoever this takes root and grows, of what nation soever, they become brothers in the best sense of the expression. Using ourselves to take ways which appear most easy to us, when inconsistent with that purity Which is without beginning, we thereby set up a government of our own and deny obedience to him whose service is true liberty." [Considerations On Keeping Negroes, Part Second, 1762]

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Becoming a Friend of God: the Path of Sufism and Quakerism

I have been busy these past few months working on a pamphleet/booklet about Sufism and Quakerism, two mystical paths that I have walked in my life and want to share with others. So far, I've written nearly 15,000 words and plan to keep writing as long as Spirit leads. It's been a joy to plunge into the ocean of mystical writings associated with Sufism and to discover many unexpected affinities with Quakerism. I will post my work as it evolves and would appreciate your feedback. My hope is to publish this work as a follow-up to my pamphlet "Islam from a Quaker Perspective."

Outwardly, Quakerism (the mystical branch of Christianity) and Sufism (the mystical branch of Islam) may seem worlds apart. Sufism is associated with dervish dancing, exotic Middle Eastern music, and the ecstatic poetry of Rumi. Quakerism is associated with peace activists, plain-dressed people sitting in silent worship, and William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania, and the icon of oatmeal. But there are deep affinities between these two spiritual paths, and it is no accident that Quakerism and Sufism refer to its practitioners as “Friends.”

In this collection of short essays I explore the similarities between these spiritual paths and suggest how they can help us to become more intimately connected with our true selves and with Reality. These mystical paths also have a prophetic dimension—a social witness against materialism and injustice--that is much needed in today’s world. We live at a time when most people in the industrial world inhabit a “virtual reality”—a world of television, movies, and the internet—a world where we are defined by what we buy rather than who or what we are. In this unreal world of compulsive consumerism we become addicted to our desires, and eventually become prey to fears and anxieties. These fears become the seeds of bigotry, violence and war.
Mysticism, as practiced by Quakers and the Sufis, can help free us from our fears and our addictions and lead us onto the path of true freedom. As we come to know who we truly are and become acquainted with our true self, we can also form deep, life-transforming relationships with others, based on the realization that each person is sacred and therefore worthy of our deepest attention and respect. This is the way of Friends.

Sufism is the mystical heart of Islam. It emerged in the 8th century CE as an Islamic ascetic movement. Some scholars see connections between Sufism, Buddhism and Christianity and no doubt such connections exist, but most Sufis see their practice as deeply rooted in Islam. Early practitioners of Sufism include Hasan al-Basri (642-728) and Rabiah al-Adawiay (d. 801), the first great female Sufi teacher and poet. Perhaps the most famous Sufi is Jalal a-din Rumi who founded the Mevlevi order (known as whirling dervishes) and has become the most popular poet in America, thanks to Coleman Barks’ imaginative translations. Sufis played a political role in Islamic history, often standing up for the rights of the poor and oppressed. Sufism has also encouraged women to be spiritual teachers and leaders.

Quakerism began in the 17th century in England as part of the Puritan movement to reform Christianity by restoring it to its primitive roots. Quakers believe that each person can have direct access to God or Christ through the Inward Light and the practice of silent worship. Quakers are perhaps best known for opposing war and for championing the rights of women, African-Americans, homosexuals and other oppressed groups. Like Sufism, Quakerism is a mystical faith that emphasizes the direct experience of the Divine Within rather than outward rituals or the words of scripture.

I became a Friend, that is, a Quaker, in 1984 at about the same time that I encountered my first Sufi, a spiritual teacher from Sri Lanka named Bawa Muhaiyaddeen (who was known as “Bawa” to his followers). Coleman Barks, a student of Sufism known for his brilliant translations of Rumi, described Bawa as “one living in the state of union… and totally present in each moment… It was exhilarating to be there where he sat on his bed in Philadelphia, like breathing ozone near a waterfall” (Rumi, The Book of Love, p. 118).

I met this Sufi saint in Philadelphia, where he was well known and much appreciated by many Quakers. Some Friends even joined his Fellowship.

At that time I was editing a multi-faith publication called Fellowship in Prayer (now called Sacred Journey). The pay was modest, but the perks were priceless: thanks to this job, I had the opportunity to interview and worship with a remarkable array of spiritual teachers from various faith traditions.

One of my assignments was to interview Bawa, who first came to the United States in 1971 and established the Bawa Muhaiyaddeen Fellowship in Philadelphia. This Fellowship grew to over 1,000 followers in the Philadelphia area, with branches spreading throughout the United States and Canada, as well as Australia and the UK. I knew very little about Sufism at this time, but I was eager to learn more about it. Having just earned my Ph. D., I asked one of Bawa’s followers a decidedly academic question:

“I have heard that Eastern religion emphasizes union with God, while Western religion emphasizes communion with God. What does Sufism emphasize?”

The man smiled, paused to reflect, and then replied, “If a plane is flying at 30,000 feet, and another plane is at 20,000 feet, but you are on the ground, what difference is it to you the altitude of the planes?”

This zinger was just what I needed at this point in my spiritual journey. I realized that to understand Sufism (or any other mystical practice), it wasn’t enough to ask academic questions. I would need to walk the path, or at least one very much like it.

I’m not belittling academic studies. I have the utmost respect for scholars of religion, particularly ones like Huston Smith and Karen Armstrong, who have dedicated their lives to promoting interfaith understanding. If you want to know about Sufism, I heartily recommend the work of Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Laleh Bakthtiar, Carl W. Ernst, Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, Idres Shah, Hazrat Inayat Khan, Kabir Helminksi, and Annemarie Schimmel. I have also provided a short list of books by and about Sufis for those who want to delve more deeply into this topic.
But books alone will not give you a taste of Sufism, any more than cook books will give you a taste of haute cuisine. To understand Sufism, or any other religious practice, you must acquire first-hand knowledge and experience. As the Psalmist says: “Taste and see!” (34:4). Fortunately, if you are interested, you can easily find opportunities to connect with Sufism and Quakerism and taste the Truth they seek to embody. The appendix lists some of the leading Quaker and Sufi organizations here in the United States.

For the past twenty five years, I have practiced Quakerism and had close friendships with Sufis who have opened my heart and mind to what it means to be a “Friend of Truth/God.” During this time, I also followed the example of Huston Smith and learned about various religions by practicing them. For nine months, I lived in a Zen Buddhist center in Providence, RI, and practiced meditation.

I also spent a year at Pendle Hill, a Quaker center for study and contemplation near Philadelphia, where I studied with many outstanding Quaker teachers, such as William Taber, Sonya Cronk, and William Durland.

Since 9/11, I have adopted many Muslim practices, such as fasting during Ramadan, praying five times a day, and worshipping with Muslims whenever I have the chance. I also make it a daily practice to read the Qur’an or some other Muslim devotional work along with the Bible.
Prior to 9/11 I didn’t have a single Muslim friend, but today many of my dearest and closest friends are Muslims and I have come to feel a part of the Muslim “family” here in Los Angeles. I owe an eternal debt of gratitude to kindred spirits such as Shakeel Syed, John Ishvardas Abdallah, Sherrel Johnson, Noor Malika Chishti, et al.

In 2002, I published a pamphlet called Islam from a Quaker Perspective which attempts to explain Islam to Quakers, and Quakerism to Muslims, in the most succinct possible way. This pamphlet was co-published by three Quaker organizations—Friends Bulletin, Wider Quaker Fellowship, and Quaker Universalist Fellowship—and circulated over 5,000 copies in 100 countries. It was even translated into German.

In this pamphlet, I focused on mainstream Islam and showed that there are many parallels between mainstream Islam and Quakerism. I deliberately omitted any reference to Sufism, however. I did this in part because I wanted to explain what the majority of Muslims believe and practice, and thereby help readers appreciate what James Michener called “the world’s most misunderstood religion.” In this current work I go deeper and explore the inner world of Islam and Christianity as I have experienced it through my study and practice of Quakerism and Sufism. I will examine a wide variety of motifs which are interwoven with the theme of spiritual friendship:

· Mysticism and the path of Friendship.
· The scriptural basis for becoming a Friend of God.
· What is the “Word of God” according to Sufis and Quakers?
· Yearning for the Divine and the Double Search.
· Simplicity, silence and becoming intimate with one’s true self.
· Find a balance between the male and female.
· Stories and Narrative Theology.
· Befriending the poor, the sick, the oppressed to become God’s Friend.
· Becoming a nobody in order to become a true Friend

My hope is that what I have to share abut Sufism and Quakerism will inspire you to go deeper in your spiritual life and to become more intimate with the source of truth within you and within every living being you encounter.