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Daniel Brumberg Daniel Brumberg is an Associate Professor of Government and Co-Director of Democracy and Governance Studies at Georgetown University. He also serves as Acting Director of the United States...


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Iraq the Sequel: Now Playing in Afghanistan

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Cleric's Defiance a Breach of Faith?

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On Christmas, Hanukkah and Allah

December 29, 2008

Every other year I fly to Oklahoma to spend Christmas with my in-laws. In their small rural town, where churches and barbeque are plentiful, I ponder the interplay of different religious holidays. Hanukkah celebrates a purported miracle that occurred in 165 BCE, when Jewish rebels revolted against Hellenistic idolatry, while Christmas marks the wondrous birth -some 160 years later-- of a charismatic rabbi whose disciples founded a new religion. Totally unrelated, these two holidays - some say-- cannot be compared, much less collapsed into one ecumenical mish-mash.

Well...not so fast.

Hanukkah and Christmas occur around the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. Long before the Hebrews came to the Holy Land, local pagan tribes peered into the heavens and saw divine spirits overcoming dark forces. When Jews celebrate the legend of one day's oil burning for eight days, when Christians sing of the Star of Bethlehem guiding three wise men, they echo customs that existed long before the revolutionary idea of worshipping one God was born.

Islam too has absorbed and transformed practices that predated its monotheistic creed. Before the Prophet Mohammed delivered God's "final" message or risala, local tribes used the term ilah (from which the word Al-Ilah or Allah emerged), to refer to the highest deity among a pantheon of lesser gods. Some scholars have even suggested that Mohammad elevated ilah to the position of supreme and only God to frame his message in a language that resonated symbolically with the competing tribes of Mecca.

Many believers reject such historical analysis of religion. The use of science or reason to ultimately validate Revealed Truth, they argue, suggests that mere mortals can access God's infallible, unknowable mind. Such concerns have political consequences, as the controversy over "Creationism" in American public schools suggests. And if this is the case in a country whose constitution upholds a wall between church and state, it is even more the case in the Muslim world, where almost every state is constitutionally charged to protect Islamic values.

This duty creates burdens and opportunities. It is onerous because rulers must navigate between the exigencies of social, economic and political progress and the religious priorities of state-supported clerics. It is useful because rulers rely on religious establishments to sustain a language of moral obedience. Clerics provide this service so long as there is a pay-off, such as expanded public funding for mosques and state toleration (or promotion) of radical madrassas. To further underline their authority, clerics sometimes press judiciaries to persecute intellectuals who "offend" Islam. Such offenses have included studies of the historical link between the Prophet and the divine message that he recited for inscription into the Quran. In Egypt and Kuwait, liberal scholars who have probed such touchy questions have been imprisoned or, in the case of Cairo University Professor Nasr Abu Zayd, forced to leave Egypt.

Before 9/11, such human rights abuses hardly concerned our top foreign policy experts. But in the ensuing years, American officials assailed Arab leaders for using religious establishments to prop up autocracy. While some Arab leaders have since tried to distance themselves from their clerical allies, they have move slowly, thus leaving liberal Muslim activists squeezed between clerical establishments and radical Islamist oppositions.

It is easy to criticize Arab leaders for getting cold feet. Why don't they just compel clerical Mandarins to back off? Un-doing this alliance is a complex and risky process that can only be accomplished gradually. Moreover, clerics echo the conservative social and cultural sensitivities of the wider population. The challenge for Muslim reformists is to legitimate a more pluralistic (dare I say humanistic?) view of Islam without offending deeply held convictions.

U.S. foreign policy has not encouraged this dynamic. While berating Arab leaders for indulging their clerical establishments, Washington's push for democratic reform was animated by a quasi-messianism that alienated Muslim intellectuals and publics. President-elect Obama, whose very life seems to exemplify the idea of co-existence, will soon have the chance to define--both at home and abroad-- a new of message of inter and intra-faith tolerance that could resonate with disenchanted Muslim youth, many of whom look to a rigid definition of faith for deliverance.