the assumption of responsibility for the welfare of the world











2001 December 9


Patriotism is a religion, by at least one definition: it is an organized system of belief, maintained by faith. In the United States, it is a faith stronger than that which supports the recognized religions of Christianity, Judaism, and the like, because there is (officially and rhetorically, anyway) tolerance of deviation from those religions. Under faith, the individual does not question, but merely accepts. Only for patriotism does that belief-without-question lead to incomprehension of others’ disbelief. Put another way, Christians are aware that not everyone in the US shares their Christian faith. But patriots are not aware that not everyone in the US shares their patriotic faith, their unquestioning belief in the United States and all that is associated with it. It has long been apparent that the dominant (not universal, but dominant) attitude of the patriotic religion in the United States is intolerant and chauvinistic. Infidels in other lands are dismissed and disregarded. Apostates like me are scorned and abused. But this faith is now seen to have a more menacing side: those admitted to its embrace are not allowed to leave. Once an American, always an American.

This comes to light at the moment because of Sulayman al Faris, a US citizen who fought for the Taliban. He is a native-born citizen, and raised in the culture of the United States. But he converted to Islam four years ago, has remained steadfast in his new faith, has immersed himself in its study, and left behind all that preceded his muslim life. He is an adult now, twenty years old, and we might suppose that, while he may be immature on some level, he is more mature than as a child, and what he professes now is more a reflection of his true beliefs and desires. But nearly all reporters, politicians, and other commentators on this matter treat him as some sort of truant. In doing so, they exhibit their lack of understanding of the reasons a person might not share their, the commentators’, undoubted and unchallenged faith in the United States.

The first sign of this is their insistence on referring to him by his birth name, ‘John Philip Walker Lindh’. In short he is called ‘John Walker’, with the polite explanation that he uses the name of his mother, Marilyn Walker, rather than that of his father, Frank Lindh. In fact, of course, he uses neither. ‘John Walker’ is a name imposed on him by those who believe that he must perpetually be what he was raised to be, that he is not free to leave. This, most will recognize, has some significance for me, as someone who, as a part of his own apostasy, adopted a new name. Contrary to Sulayman al Faris, I personally encourage those who know me from youth to continue to use my birth name (and most of them do); but I absolutely refuse to accept that the State of Indiana, the Social Security Administration, or even my parents are the determinants of what my “real name” is. It is what I say it is. Sulayman al Faris has not, by his actions, forfeited the right to identify himself as he chooses. If Congress passed a law naming him ‘Louse-Ridden Fanatic’, would reporters and commentators follow?

There are many calling for this expatriate to be hanged as a traitor. They are arguing that he is guilty of treason against the United States, apparently for: moving to a country that is allied to the United States; supporting the military action of a regime that has been militarily supported by the United States; fighting on behalf of a government on which war has never been declared by the United States; fighting on behalf of a regime that has not itself attacked the United States; and fighting against an army that is not officially allied to the United States. It is not said that he ever took up arms against the US; indeed, the only way he could have done that is to fire a surface-to-air missile. His guilt lies only in that he failed to change sides when the United States abruptly did so. That, as a purported act of treason, is reminiscent of the mind control of Oceania in Orwell’s ‘1984’ ― that a dutiful citizen should instantly love the state’s ally, and especially hate the state’s enemy, even when that changes back and forth. Whom are we currently at war with ― Eastasia or Eurasia? Who cares?

Some would excuse him of charges of treachery by concluding that he has been indoctrinated into a cult. While that might spare his life, it is egregiously condescending and self-satisfied. None of these commentators doubts that its own faith is a legitimate religion. Only other faiths are “cults”. But it should be noted that the term is highly subjective, and has been applied at one time or other to every religion. ‘Cult’ is roughly equivalent to ‘weed’; if we like something, it is a plant, and if not, it is a weed. Biologically there is no such distinction.

One element of a religion that is often cited as making it a “cult” is blind obedience to a leader or hierarchy. Our renegade is by all reports guilty of that, guilty even of seeking out the chance to subsume himself in an authoritarian culture, eager to submit to al-Lah in the defining act of Islam (‘Islam’, in fact, means “submission”). But how many of Frank Lindh’s fellow Catholics are blindly obedient to the pope? How many of Marilyn Walker’s fellow Buddhists are worshipful of the Dalai Lama? And if blind obedience to a leader is cultlike, what are we to make of the notion that Sulayman al Faris should have dropped his deeply-held convictions and run home to California because George Bush suddenly decreed the Taliban an enemy?

The other most-commonly-cited element of a “cult” is brainwashing, but since that, on examination, is quite obviously the same as faith, it is sufficient to point out the hypocrisy of those who apply the term. In the end, a cult differs from accepted religions in that it is small, or new, or in some other way powerless. But I am fairly sure that our patriotic commentators would refuse to admit that power has legitimated their various religions.

Nothing I say should be construed as a defense of Sulayman al Faris, his actions, his beliefs, the Taliban, al-Qaida, their interpretation of Islam, or Islam in general. I support none of those things. Sulayman has defended the bombing of the USS Cole and even the World Trade Center. He has certainly adopted the outrageous faith and folkways of the Taliban, and fought in their defense. If he did not assist in the attack on New York, he has at least been involved with al-Qaida. But the Northern Alliance that he fought against is brutal, even atrocious, and wrecked the country when it last controlled it. While he was pursuing his adopted religion, two US evangelical Christians were in Afghanistan to persuade Afghans to adopt theirs; this was done surreptitiously, in knowing violation of Afghan law. And the US attacked the Taliban by dropping cluster bombs, which, along with landmines, are an expedient weapon that ultimately does more damage to civilians after the fact, and whose use is therefore now considered by many as a war crime. There is nothing simple in this matter, as those who condemn clearly need it to be.

I am all too happy (as everyone knows) to take positions on issues, and take sides in an argument. But in the complicated system of factions and allegiances that governs this world, I am as close to a neutral observer as there is. I have moved myself outside of any allegiance to state, nation, country, race, religion, gender, generation, or class. I am completely apostate. As such I can say that what separates George Bush’s Christianity from Osama bin Laden’s Islam, or what separates John Ashcroft’s version of justice from Mohammed Omar’s version, is nothing but degree. Sulayman al Faris, as an individual, chose to side with the latter. A foolish choice; but the wise choice would have been to side with neither.

The young John Walker chose badly, but he did, in the end, choose, which is more than his detractors can say. They still believe the same ideas that were handed to them as children, never once asking whether those beliefs were true. And so when they condemn the beliefs adopted by John Walker, they are doing so not because they have any clear understanding of right and wrong, truth and falsehood, but because they have faith alone. They do not know that radical Islam is insupportable, they merely assume. So they must, for their own belief is insupportable, and they assume that it is not. It makes no less sense to believe that Muhammad was the last prophet and that the Qur’an is infallible than it does to believe that Jesus was the son of God and that the Bible is infallible. It makes no less sense to want to live under the Taliban than it does to want to live under the current regime in the US, not because the Taliban are better (they are in fact much worse), but because the latter makes no sense, and there cannot be less sense than none.

Sulayman al Faris is a prisoner of war. He fought honorably for a cause he honestly believes in. The cause is objectionable; but he is being tried and convicted in the public forum not for embracing the Taliban, but for abandoning the United States. He is being condemned for exercising his free will. I reject any form of nationalism, chauvinism, or sectarianism. I embrace the world; I have therefore abandoned the United States. Let them come for me next.


Original version


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