Losing My Religion

By Jay Kinney

Originally printed in the Summer 2009 issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation: Kinney, Jay. "Losing My Religion." Quest  97. 3 (Summer 2009): 86-89.

Jay KinneyBefore 9/11, I liked to consider myself a defender of Islam. I never formally converted to Islam and my adherence to sharia (the Muslim code of behavior) was lax at best, but I spent twenty years as a publisher and writer on spiritual affairs visiting Turkey and attending interfaith events, trying to encourage a deeper understanding of Islam in the West. I grew to view the Abrahamic faiths—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—as one in essence, and ultimately reconcilable and complementary. While I was certainly aware of the fundamentalist camps within these three religions, I enjoyed the luxury of keeping their proponents at a safe distance from my little oasis of tolerance.

And then the World Trade Center buildings came tumbling down, obliterating my oasis.

While I disagree with those who immediately declared that "nothing will ever be the same again," the hijackings and attacks did thrust Islamist terrorism into the limelight and seemed to bolster claims that a "clash of civilizations"—of Islam versus the West—was under way.

However, such notions differed so profoundly from what I had experienced at street level in Turkey and Morocco that I had to call my own perceptions into question. Had I been living in a protected fantasy world where ordinary Muslims' enthusiasm for soccer and pop music had masked their covert "hatred of our freedoms"? Was their eagerness to point out their respect for all "people of the book" mere camouflage for dreams of conquest? I certainly didn't think so, but what I thought was increasingly beside the point. My arena of acquaintance had failed to encompass the more severe terrain of the Gaza strip or the sectarian enclaves in Baghdad, where a mix of Islamic fervor, nationalist resistance, and personal humiliation seemed to result in a steady stream of willing "martyrs."

As the scholar Edward Said was at pains to point out, the notion of a single Islam or Islamic civilization is a misconception. There are many Islams and Islamic cultures, and assuming they share one opinion is misguided.

Still, the Islamists—however few there actually were—and their ready opponents, the anti-Islamists, had hijacked the public discourse about Islam and the West and turned it into a deadly Punch and Judy show. Now, two wars later and counting, it appears that both camps have done their utmost to sell the "clash" to their respective audiences.

As often happens when one is forced to choose sides, the multitude of things in common and the shared humanity of all concerned are replaced by hostile caricatures that feed each other's fears. The battle against the "evildoers" of the other side serves to justify the evildoing of one's own.

Unfortunately, in my own case, despite my conscious refusal to accept the Islamists' version of Islam, which I took to be a set of largely political and sociological grievances overlaid with a few Qur'anic quotes and fatwas, I discovered that my unconscious psyche had its own say in the matter.

I found it increasingly hard to call God "Allah" when suicide bombers were running at their victims while yelling "Allahu akbar [Allah is great!]!" Worse still, I found my appreciation for Islam's greatest mystics and poets—surely a peaceable bunch if there ever was one—eroded by their shared religious affiliation with hysterical bands of fanatics willing to demolish each other's mosques in the name of some sectarian point that eluded me.

The damage was gradual, like dry rot, but damage it was. Like a bystander to the Spanish Inquisition with my own sins to hide, I felt an enormous compulsion to run in the opposite direction, horrified by the bloody spectacle of a religion gone awry.

Were these the ironic fruits of the Islamists' cause? To drive away anyone sympathetic to Islam, and to bully into mute acquiescence those of their own faith, the everyday believers with no axes to grind?

I don't normally pay much attention to the unseen, but I found myself wondering whether a whole swath of radical Islamists hadn't been possessed by a particularly mischievous and virulent herd of jinns intent on wreaking as much havoc as possible. It seemed as good an explanation as any for the moral devastation of sending car bombs into funerals and wedding parties or encouraging fervent "human bombs" to explode themselves in markets.

Yet a still small voice inside me—presumably not that of a jinn—continued to remind me that as tempting as it is to blame a whole religion for the misdeeds of its most extreme exponents, to do so is an injustice—as is blaming all Americans for the misdeeds of those few who act in their name.

Indeed, the question of justice and injustice may lie at the heart of this conundrum. For it is the perception of injustice visited upon the Islamic world by the West that fuels the rage of Islamism. In presuming to fight injustice, the holy warriors and martyrs place themselves in the cause of justice. They assume, as do most religious fighters, that they are on the side of God, who will reward them in the hereafter. As one young volunteer for martyrdom was quoted as saying, "By pressing the detonator, you can immediately open the door to Paradise—it is the shortest path to Heaven."

However, it is a fool's justice that presumes to right one wrong by committing further wrongs. Solomon may have threatened to cut the disputed baby in two as a just resolution for competing claims, but it was only a tactic to discover the baby's true mother. Had the threat not succeeded, the wise ruler would have lowered his scimitar, left the baby unharmed, and sought another way to see justice done.

According to Islam, justice ultimately resides with Allah, and any human attempt at justice is but a poor facsimile and one that should err on the side of mercy. Unfortunately, we see time and again that fundamentalist versions of religions–and not just Islam–serve as magnets for people whose personalities seem to demand the security of a black-and-white worldview.

The satisfaction of moral certainty that comes from unwavering definitions of right and wrong too often translates into a preoccupation with punishing those who fail to measure up. By contrast, the practice of mercy and compassion requires one to not only see things through the eyes of others, but to entertain the possibility that one's own judgment might be flawed. This needn't entail moral abdication or turning a blind eye to outrages, but simply the recognition that absolute certainty is best left to the Absolute.

The Qur'an itself contains a remarkable passage (18:60-82) that teaches caution in judging others. Tellingly, it involves Moses, the great lawgiver.

Moses sets out on a journey with a mysterious figure commonly identified as Khidr, a kind of trickster and emissary of God. Khidr tells him he can accompany him only if Moses maintains silence as he observes what Khidr does. Three times Khidr undertakes baffling actions that seem to violate either common sense or morality. Each time Moses can't keep quiet and protests at Khidr's outrageousness.

Finally, after the third time, Khidr draws the journey to a halt and explains the reasons for his actions. These reveal a higher morality at work—one that only makes sense from a more omniscient perspective than is available to Moses.

One can interpret this in many ways—the most obvious being that Allah best knows why certain things happen. I take from it the additional lesson that if even the great prophet Moses was a fallible and occluded judge of others, who are the rest of us to presume we know better?

From the perspective of the Abrahamic faiths, God may call us to strive for justice, but the devil's in the details, as they say, and one man's justice is too often another's injustice. Justice sought at the expense of innocents is the justice of fools. When this occurs in the name of God, the ultimate effect is to discredit God and religion itself—an ironic side-effect of an overactive piety.

As for my disturbed relations with Islam, I mourn the loss of my idealized image of that great faith. But even without 9/11, it was probably bound to happen sooner or later. Religions, complex phenomena that they are, serve as channels for humanity's best and worst impulses, and Islam hardly has a monopoly on that.

Do we still need a better understanding of Islam? Undoubtedly. But I suspect that those most in the need of a better understanding are precisely those who kill in its name. May they come to their senses, insha'Allah.


Jay Kinney was the publisher and editor-in-chief of Gnosis magazine (published from 1985 to 1999) and is coauthor of Hidden Wisdom: A Guide to the Western Inner Traditions (Quest, 2006). His forthcoming book, The Masonic Enigma, will be published by Harper One.