Common Ground in Grief

Despite the domestic political news that dominates the airwaves this week, I am most moved by the shooting of Malala Yousufzai, the 14 year old Pakistani girl who had become a primary voice for girls' education. The Islamic fundamentalist Taliban claimed responsibility for the gunman who walked up to a school bus and shot the young woman in the head and neck. She is still being treated in a military hospital with her prognosis uncertain. How do we, progressives in the pluralistic West, react to a faith that spawns such violence and violates our most fundamentally held values?

Malala became well known when, at the age of 11, she began writing a blog (under a pseudonym for the BBC) about life under the Taliban. Her identity became known during a time when the Taliban were in retreat in the Swat Valley where she lives. But the Taliban are returning to influence in the region and this young woman was targeted.

How do we react and respond? Pakistani government officials have condemned the shooting. As do we. Is it our role, in the west, to contain or eliminate the Islamic fundamentalists who insist on strict observation of Sharia Law? Is that our role? Are we called to democratic “nation-building” in Afghanistan and in our “ally” Pakistan? Is this attack a good reason to keep American “boots on the ground” in the region?

Here, in the West, how do we hold both the beauty and depth that we have found within Islam as well as the terror carried out in the name of the faith? Should we find in the strands of Islam that are comfortable—that inspire us even (the Sufi mystics—Rumi and Hafiz)—a ground for hope? Should we center on the many commonalities in the great faith traditions?

Stephen Prothero, in his book God Is Not One, argues that the notion of religious unity is “wishful thinking…it has not made the world a safer place. In fact, this naïve theological groupthink…has made the world more dangerous.”

It helps to remember the many ways the Christian tradition has been used as the excuse for violence. Both the Inquisition and the present day attacks on abortion providers come to mind.

It helps to remember that the Taliban are a small “fringe” of the broad Muslim mosaic, as one Portland Pakistani recently said, “They are a 1% insisting on their way”.

It also helps to remember that our Muslim neighbors here do not embrace Sharia Law and welcome the hard won freedoms that Western culture promotes. Finding common ground with them is both easy and rewarding. Islam, like Christianity, is a broad tradition with many strands.

Perhaps our bedrock should be a stand for freedom as many social conservatives here argue. Defense of freedom should call us to stand against any fundamentalism that would impose its will on others. But would not that same defense of freedom defend the right of peoples to choose and sustain repressive regimes? What right do we have to enforce our ways?

I believe that the progressive impulse to find common ground offers hope. But there are differences among religious traditions as Prothero argues. And I do not believe that the Taliban will be moved or changed by our embrace of Rumi.

The issues require a more knowledgeable and thoughtful response than our easy progressive pluralism supports. How do we fashion a religiously pluralistic but un-homogenized vision?

These complex issues deserve thought, but this week I find myself in the simple place of sadness. Another young woman has been shot. Perhaps, despite our differences, we can find common cause in our grief. I know that the way forward is not clear, either abroad or here at home. But if we begin at the most human level, with our shared grief, perhaps common ground is more available than it may seem.