Nelson “Madiba” Mandela
Most in this world are meteors. Some of us pass unseen, without a spark. Some of us make a glow so brief that you miss it if you turn your head too slowly. The best of us light up the sky long enough for the world to notice.
Nelson Mandela was a comet. He lit the world for decades. His was the light of empathy, humility, and peace, brought to bear in practical politics.
In our species’ short but tortured history, we have seen few like him. A long time ago, one did come. He, too, was a man of empathy, humility and peace. His oppressed people were not a majority, but a tiny minority. They lived in a backwater of a great empire.
Most of his small minority did not follow him. Only a dozen did. In that primitive time, his message of peace was strange and unwelcome. So the empire crucified him.
Two millennia passed without another. Then came the Great War, in which fifty millions perished. At its end, our species graduated from chemical to nuclear fire. We nearly used that fire to extinguish ourselves.
But something else remarkable happened in the last century. Three such men came among us.
One led a vast and impossibly diverse majority oppressed by a global empire. He, too, spoke empathy, humility and peace. And, like Mandela, he won his people’s freedom.
The second, like the very first, led an oppressed minority. By preaching empathy, humility and peace to a great empire, he helped free his own people and enlighten the rest.
But this second one, like the very first, was cut down. This time, the killer was not the empire itself, but a lone gunman in thrall to racial hatred.
Mandela, of course, was the third such man. He freed his majority from minority tyranny and became his nation’s president. Like our own George Washington, he stepped down of his own accord, but after only one term. With that simple act, he taught us all a great lesson: no one is indispensable, but empathy, humility and peace are.
People my age are honored to have lived while three such men not only came among us, but succeeded. We are doubly honored that two of them, unlike the other two, lived to enlighten us until they died nautrally.
Are we getting smarter? Are our empires wiser, or just weaker? Is our species growing up? These questions burn us in this season, while we recall the life and crucifixion of the Prince of Peace.
Comets are peculiar celestial bodies. They disappear for a while, sometimes for centuries. Then they appear again and light up the sky.
So it may be with Mandela. We are bound to forget his lessons and his example, as powerful as they are. It is our nature to forget.
But learning and growth are also in our nature. As we learn and grow, the comet that today has passed from us will come round again.
As our President said tonight, Mandela now belongs to the ages, along with others of his rare kind. While his comet passes out of view, it is up to each of us to keep its light alive.
Mandela himself said, in one of his late-life speeches, that his legacy is now in our hands. Grand adjectives in praise do not honor it. Only deeds do.
As we watch Russia’s and Iran’s catastrophic blunders
turn a largely secular Muslim nation into graves and rubble, we should ask a simple question. Who, outside the Islamic world itself, is Islam’s best friend? What nation that does not itself have a majority of Muslims is friendliest to the religion of Islam and to the people who follow it? The answer may surprise you.
I exclude Muslim-majority nations for two reasons. First, while Islam is the world’s second most popular religion
, it claims less than one-fourth of humanity
. It’s big, but it’s still a minority. Like any
minority, it needs friends.
Second, at the moment, large parts of the Islamic world are tearing themselves apart in fratricidal sectarian wars. As I write this, Muslim is fighting Muslim in Afghanistan, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Pakistan, Syria, and Yemen. Muslim is blowing up Muslims in the holiest places, including mosques, all over the Middle East and South Asia. No Muslim is safe, not even in solemn celebrations of weddings and funerals. Muslims need non-Muslim friends, if only to help stop this pointless and ghastly mayhem.
So, I ask again, what nation on the face of this planet, that has not itself a majority-Muslim culture, is Islam’s best friend?
Most of the big powers are easy to eliminate. China is ruthlessly crushing its Islamic Uighur population in Xinjiang. It has no special grudge against them. It’s just doing what it does most and best: imposing the supremacy of Han-Chinese culture on other indigenous cultures, as in Tibet.
China is smart in suppression. It dominates by every conceivable means that works: political co-opting, economic development, massive Han immigration, political and religious suppression, and sheer military force. It hardly lacks brains, subtlety or guile. But its goal is consistent, obvious and relentlessly pursued: a nation dominated by, if not subsumed in, the secular, Mandarin-speaking, business-oriented culture of Han China. China is not so much anti-Muslim as anti-all
-religion. Its leaders distrust anything they cannot shape, control or suppress.
Russia has fought wars with Turkey and all the Islamic nations to its south for over two centuries. In its Soviet days, it suppressed all
religion with equal ideological fervor. Today, it is a self-consciously Christian nation with thinly-veiled popular antipathy towards practitioners of other religions, including Jews. It has crushed indigenous Islamic movements in Chechnya, Dagestan, and Ingushetia with an iron hand. All this is nothing new; Tolstoi described the process and its human consequences in his famous novella Hadji Murat
, a century ago.
France may be the world’s most consistent, venerable and avid champion of liberty in general
. But when it comes to Islam, not so much. France has laws restricting the right of Muslims to wear Islamic headgear, both in public and its schools. It purports to be a free country but, for political and cultural reasons, tries to control the symbols that Muslims wear to express their religious faith.
India is a bit schizophrenic about Islam. It has the largest Muslim population
of any nation in the world save Indonesia. But among its huge general
population, Muslims are just a small minority. Hindu is the dominant religion, and its practitioners occasionally express their religious zeal with pogroms against Muslims.
One of those awful pogroms occurred
in the Indian state of Gujarat in 2002, while Narendra Modi was Chief Minister. Hundreds of Muslims were killed on his watch, and he stands accused of doing too little to prevent the massacre. As a leader of India’s Bharatiya Janata Party, its largest political party (which is dominated by Hindus), he may be India’s next prime minister.
Outside of France, the rest of Europe and Scandinavia are less inimical to Islam. But this whole region has some attitude issues. Massive immigration of Muslims seeking a better life and a more hopeful economic future has caused a backlash among its generally tolerant population. There are movements and even major political parties whose goals are explicitly hostile to Islam and Muslims. And a few isolated instances of Islamic threats and violence there—including the “fatwa” against Salman Rushdie and the killing of Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh by an Islamic extremist—have set tolerance for Muslims back decades.
But let’s focus on the positive, not the negative. What nation, just about two decades ago, cobbled together a “coalition of the willing” and went to war to protect Muslims from murderous Christians? What nation, right now, is trying (albeit awkwardly) to keep General el-Sisi and his fellow coup leaders from oppressing the Muslim Brotherhood, jailing its leaders without cause, and slaughtering its rank and file?
What nation threatened war, just recently, to keep Muslims from slaughtering other Muslims in Syria? What nation, right now, is helping destroy chemical weapons once used for that purpose? What nation, although predominantly Christian, has a tiny Muslim minority of about 1% (three million people), and a supreme law that guarantees all of them the right to practice their religion peacefully, including the right to wear whatever they want on the heads and body? What nation, although fearful of terrorism, is big, strong and tolerant enough to suppress its own anti-Muslim backlash, peacefully and with relative ease?
By now, you’ve probably guessed it. The answer is our own nation, the United States of America.
In the early 1990s, we waged war in the Balkans to stop the rape of Sarajevo by Christian Serbs, to block ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, and to avoid any repetition of the massacre of 8,000 innocent Muslim boys. Through the United Nations, we set up peacekeepers to pull Christians and Muslims from each other’s throats, and to restore a normal pattern of village life. That effort has largely and quietly been successful.
Right now, we are doing our best to pull el-Sisi and his generals off the throats of Muslims in Egypt. We are not
trying to reverse the decision to depose Mohamed Mursi as president. The Egyptian people seem to have backed that decision in massive numbers, not for reasons of religion, but because Mursi proved adept at grabbing more power only, not at governing. Yet still we are trying hard to insure that Egypt’s new tyrants treat Muslim Brotherhood members and other Islamists like the citizens of Egypt that they are. We Yanks want Egypt’s military rulers to give Muslims a second chance in the democratic process, as long as they use it peacefully and don’t insist on going backwards.
As for Syria, we have been cautious so far because we are not sure that the most effective fighters against Assad share our values and our tolerance. We don’t want to help one side win just so it can continue, under another banner, the sectarian slaughter that is now making Syria a charnel house. Only after the Assad regime stepped over the line of civilized warfare and used chemical weapons to slaughter civilians did we threaten a careful, limited military response.
In contrast, consider Saudi Arabia. It holds the holiest sites in all of Islam: Mecca, Medina and the Kaaba, the focus of hajj
. Not only is it financing fratricidal Muslim-on-Muslim wars in Syria and Lebanon. It is also financing whatever mayhem the generals in Egypt care to inflict on their own Muslim citizens. And it is wholeheartedly financing the sectarian wars in Syria and Afghanistan, including the vicious acts of terrorists who think “warfare” consists of blowing up innocent Muslim civilians in their mosques, homes, streets, markets, weddings and funerals.
Saudi Arabia has publicly announced that, whatever aid to Egypt we cut in an attempt to encourage greater tolerance for peaceful Muslims, it will restore. But it cannot replace our weapons, which are the best and most advanced in the world, and which have been part of Egypt’s (and the Saudis’) military infrastructures for decades.
If we decide not to sell our weapons to the coup masters in Egypt, or not to sell them to Saudi Arabia for transparent transfer to Egypt’s new tyrants, there is nothing that anyone, anywhere can do about it. As I pointed out in another post
, you can’t simply replace a whole military infrastructure of US weaponry with substitutes from Russia or China, which are different and incompatible. You couldn’t do that even if the substitutes were of equal quality, which they aren’t.
So make no mistake about it. We Yanks have enormous leverage, which anyone who can think beyond the next unnecessary war can see. We are in the process of deciding how and when to use it, in our President’s characteristic, cautious, deliberate and thoughtful way. The result, is some way yet unknown, will be at least a kinder, gentler tyranny in Egypt, more hospitable to believers in Islam and like-minded politicians.
Why are we Islam’s best friend in the wider world? Because of our fundamental values. We stand, and will always stand, for the fundamental equality of Islam with the other great religions of the world, including Christianity and Judaism.
This is not just theory or wishful thinking. It is our highest law. Our First Amendment is the heart of our Bill of Rights—the diamond in the brooch of human rights that our Founders bequeathed us. It reads in full as follows:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
Our Founders were succinct but very careful writers. In their age, with no word processors and plenty of time to think, they obsessed over every phrase, as well as the order of words. It is no accident that the equality of all religions forms the very first—and therefore most important—part of our Bill of Rights. If our law were itself a national religion, freedom and equality of religions would be our First Commandment.
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof[.]” These words are spare but clear as day. There is no “official” religion in the United States. Those few who claim that we are a “Christian nation” are expressing their own personal preferences, not our law or our culture. Here, by supreme law, everyone is, and shall forever be, free to practice his or her religion—to “exercise” it fully—subject only to general laws that apply to everyone, regardless of religion, like laws against assault and murder.
So Islam is as welcome here, by law, as Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, or any other “ism” that relates to God or gods. We are a diverse, tolerant and open people. In this respect we follow some of the greatest empires in human history, including the Roman and Mongol empires and, indeed, the Islamic Empire itself at its height.
The United States of America will never be an Islamic Caliphate. But neither will Saudi Arabia—the fount and seat of Islam—at least as long as the House of Saud rules. What the United States of America will always be is a good, constant friend to Muslims (as much as to peaceful practitioners of any
religion), and a sure and constant champion of their human rights.
We uphold these values not just with words, but with deeds. Watch what we do, not what some of our extremist commentators say. We have our own
nuts, just like every other society. They do not speak for all of us, far less for our law or government.
Our actions speak louder than any words on our over-the-top cable channels. We protected Muslims with our air power in Bosnia and Albania. We are doing our best, right now, to protect Muslims in Egypt and Syria. We are trying, with all our economic power and skill in diplomacy, to keep Muslims from slaughtering each other in the Middle East and South Asia.
Here at home, we Yanks have had no anti-Muslim pogroms like those in India, or like the Sunni-Shiite pogroms that are now occurring almost daily in Iraq. We offer peaceful Muslims a chance to practice their religion as they choose, with whatever headgear they like, free from government harassment, sectarian violence, threats and fear. Just ask the millions of Muslims who now live here.
I don’t mean to slight other Anglophone nations, particularly Australia, Canada and New Zealand. They have values and tolerance similar to ours. But none has that tolerance so succinctly and importantly inscribed in its most basic law.
Britian also deserves honorable mention, but the Rushdie affair and immigration seem to have caused more backlash there than here, at least a dozen years after 9/11. And of course none of these nations would have moved to protect Bosnian Muslims from murderous Christian Serbs if we hadn’t.
[Author’s Note: I wrote this piece three months ago but kept it as a draft. I’ve been waiting for a good time to release it. What better time to do so than during the Christmas season, when adherents of our most popular Yankee religion are focusing on the Prince of Peace?
In the midst of our orgy and frenzy of shopping, we Yanks (and people everywhere) should give some thought to who Jesus really was. Only Christians recognize Jesus as the Son of God. But Muslims also celebrate him as a prophet. And even Jews like me admire his wisdom as humanity’s most practical leader ever. Who else started out in a tiny village as the son of a carpenter and, two millennia later, has an avid following of over a billion people all around the globe?
The last century gave us a large-scale demonstration of the practical wisdom of Jesus’ most counterintuitive and important advice: “Love thy enemy.” When Europe didn’t do that after the First World War, but sought to punish the German people collectively, the result was horrible: Nazi Germany, the Second World War, and a premature loss of 50 million souls. When we Yanks did do it after the Second World War, with our Marshall Plan, the result was today’s first, third and fourth largest economies and the eventual rise of a billion people out of extreme poverty.
Jesus knew what he was talking about, and history proves it. That, not shopping, is what we all ought to be thinking about—Christians, Muslims, Jews and others—in this Christmas season, one of the most promising in human history.