By David K. Shipler
Don’t blame the mainstream press, whose job is to focus on conflicts and problems, for the grim picture of a grim world. You can’t cure an issue until you turn it out into the sunlight. But in this season of holidays and reflections and resolutions, a little light on the brighter spots in our better nature might be part of that remedy, not so much to comfort us as to provide models of what could be. So I offer a few here.
*The Dallas Dinner Table, which organizes dinner conversations at homes and churches about race, has had so many requests by local residents to participate on Martin Luther King Day, Jan. 18, that it quickly reached its maximum of 500 and had to close registration early.
*The fear and bigotry toward Muslims inflamed by Donald Trump, and effectively endorsed by the silence of most other Republican candidates, has provoked rebuttals and statements of support for Muslims from some (though not all) Christian pulpits across the country.
*The bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Rev. Elizabeth A. Eaton, wrote of “our love for you, our Muslim neighbors,” and pledged “our commitment to find even more effective ways to protect and defend you from words and actions that assault your safety and well-being. We believe God calls us to resist what is divisive, discriminatory, xenophobic, racist, or violent, and we want you to look to us as allies and friends.”
*In Fredericksburg, Virginia, St. George’s Episcopal Church defended Muslims who were “insulted and verbally attacked as they were attempting to have a public dialogue about their plans to build a new mosque.” In noting that “Christians and Muslims share a common faith ancestry,” the vestry and clergy “extend our support to our Muslim friends and neighbors who are practicing their faith within our shared community.”
*In Seattle, the Faith Action Network, comprising Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, Zen, Muslim, and Sikh leaders, issued a strong denunciation of the “inflammatory, divisive speech . . . that “threatens the well-being of members of our communities and can also contribute to continuing gun violence. . . . As religious leaders from diverse faith traditions, we call upon all people of good will to unite together to respect people of all religious beliefs and cultural backgrounds—this is at the core of our national identity and security.” The group asked residents to urge elected officials “to respect the human dignity of every person—no matter their religious or cultural background.”
*The Ulema, the highest authority of Islamic scholars and Supreme Muftis of the five Central Asian countries—Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan—gathered In Kazakhstan to compose and issue a powerful resolution against violent extremism, the first of its kind there under the banner of religious doctrine. It called those who commit terrorism in the name of Islam “false believers, who . . . corrupt the meaning of Koranic verses and the Hadith to fit their evil ideology.” The muftis continued: “The members of terrorist groups are religiously ignorant people who do not even know the basic tenets of Islam. The terrorist actions of these extremists completely conflict with Sharia.” The resolution concluded, “Extremist actions that are cloaked in Islam are deliberate acts against Islam.”
I don’t usually write about my family in this journal, but in the interest of full disclosure, I’m proud to credit the work of my son Michael Shipler, who heads the Asia programs for the non-profit organization Search for Common Ground, in helping to facilitate the convening of the Ulema at the end of October. Although it was precisely the kind of denunciation that Muslim leaders have been called upon to make, it received practically no attention in the United States. Never mind. Its main audience, where it most mattered, was among Muslims in Central Asia, from which young men have been traveling to join the Islamic State fighters in Syria and Iraq.
*Another relatively invisible achievement, in which Michael also had a hand, came three weeks ago when the UN Security Council passed a resolution, number 2250, containing remarkably detailed prescriptions for governments and non-profit organizations to combat radicalization by promoting young people as peacebuilders rather than combatants. The concept seems straightforward enough: that if opportunities are presented for the youth of various countries to participate in civil society, and if change can result, they will be less susceptible to the siren song of violent means.
Implementation requires funding and state support, and the resolution “creates a clear mandate to do work in a certain way,” Michael emailed from Myanmar, where he was visiting one of his projects. He remembered US government officials dismissing the notion derisively when he began working on it 15 years ago; in a nice irony, the US became a co-sponsor of the recent Security Council resolution. The measure, the product of a long effort by him and his colleagues—most notably Saji Prelis of Search—“will mobilize governments all over the world,” Michael said, “to create law and programming focused on youth and peacebuilding and drive large-scale funding to the issues of young people in conflict. It is a game changer.”
Now, my profession is merely to describe problems. Michael’s is to try to solve them. I’d like to think that describing them begins to solve them, but I’m not naïve. I also try not to be cynical, just skeptical—there’s a difference—and clear-eyed but not too pessimistic.
So, at the turning of the calendar at the end of a terrible year, I beg your indulgence for a moment of healing, a small flicker of hope in seeing so many residents of a conservative city sign up to talk constructively about race, in hearing the voices of compassion from clergy, in witnessing the assembled nations of the UN Security Council vote unanimously for measures to raise young people into responsible citizenship. We are not yet defeated.