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On Being with Krista Tippett is a public radio project delving into the human side of news stories + issues. Curated + edited by senior editor Trent Gilliss.

We publish guest contributions. We edit long; we scrapbook. We do big ideas + deep meaning. We answer questions.

We've even won a couple of Webbys + a Peabody Award.

So, what does this story have to do with modern-day Iran and Iranians? Everything. For the vast majority of Iranians who identify as Shi’a and even for many who don’t, the story of Karbala lies at the heart of all struggles against oppression and tyranny — personal and political.
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Melody Moezzi writes this smart, informative piece about the relevance of the one-thousand-year old story behind Ashura and modern-day politics in The Washington Post.

~Trent Gilliss, senior editor

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GOP Presidential Candidates’ Stories Reveal the Depths of Their Positions at the Thanksgiving Family Forum

by Susan Leem, associate producer

Republican Candidates at the Thanksgiving Family Forum

"You guys are in a church, and that is not by accident."
~Bob Vander Plaats

There’s something that “opens everything up,” as Paul Raushenbush said on our program, when you ask a person about their religious or spiritual tradition. Asking such an intimate question conveys a sense of respect. And to be asked may be somewhat disarming; it tells the person that you’re interested in not only his or her worldview, but what makes that person who he or she is. More importantly, it communicates that you’re ready to sit and are willing to listen to a thoughtful, complex, nuanced response. That’s something we don’t expect or demand enough in our national political races.

The Thanksgiving Family Forum at First Federated Church in Des Moines, Iowa gave six GOP presidential candidates that chance. Absent were the gotcha questions that left Rick Perry fumbling to remember the government agency he wanted to eliminate and prompted Herman Cain’s Libya flub. Instead, personal storytelling and exploration of formative experiences fueled this faith-focused conversation.

Moderator Frank Luntz, a pollster for FOX News, began the two-hour conversation by laying out his intentions in his introduction, “I want you to understand what’s in these people’s hearts, not just the soundbites” and “understand their worldview so that you will know what to do come January 3rd.” His style of questioning gave the candidates an opportunity to flesh out their ideas and explain their moral positions in the context of their Christian traditions.

There were plenty of unscripted, dare I say sometimes moving, moments too. Luntz asked several valuable questions to draw out the candidates’ character: to describe a personal failing that would inform their work as president, to share an experience that helped shape their faith and spirituality. A choked-up Herman Cain relayed a story about facing his mortality upon being diagnosed with cancer. Minnesota Rep. Michelle Bachmann describes the pain of her parents’ divorce while she was a teen. Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum confessed to seeing his daughter who suffers from Trisomy 18 as less of a person, and trying not to love her to avoid the pain of losing her during her medical crises as an infant. Rick Perry confesses that Jesus filled a hole in his soul.

And even though Luntz, in an artful move, invites Occupy Wall Street protestors to address the audience before the roundtable discussion, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich did not extend a hand across the aisle of the culture wars in America with his attack on Occupy Wall Street protestors and specifically secularism, “…(secularism) has dominated our academic world, our academic world supplies our news media, our courts, and Hollywood, so you have a faction of America today who believes things are profoundly wrong…they are determined to destroy our value system.”

The event was hosted by The Family Leader, a conservative Christian organization based in Iowa, and co-sponsored by Focus on the Family-affiliate CitizenLink and the National Organization for Marriage. Bob Vander Plaats, president and CEO of The Family Leader, said in introductory remarks, “We don’t the church to be political…we don’t need you to be Republican or Democrat, but we need you to be biblical.” His effort to make religiosity non-partisan was later overshadowed by his comment that the next President of the United States will come from the Republicans present at the debate that night.

The civil nature of the discussion was the real standout of the evening, and how that tone was created and sustained is worth pondering. Was it the way Luntz established the ground rules for the discussion? Without overtly saying so, he somehow made it clear that the “winner” of the night would not be the candidate who outdid or shamed the others, but the one who emerged from the discussion with the most integrity.

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I had an opportunity to read the speech, and I almost threw up. In my opinion, it was the beginning of the secular movement of politicians to separate their faith from the public square, and he threw faith under the bus in that speech.
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Rick SantorumRick Santorum

The GOP presidential candidate, who, like John F. Kennedy, is also Roman Catholic, was speaking to a group at the College of Saint Mary Magdalen in Warner, New Hampshire in October when he made this comment about JFK’s seminal speech in 1960 in which the then-Democratic presidential candidate expressed his faith in the separation of church and state.

Photo by Gage Skidmore/Flickr, cc by-nc-nd 2.0

~Trent Gilliss, senior editor

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In Gabby Giffords’ Voice

by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

Listen to the first 80 seconds of Melissa Block’s piece on last night’s All Things Considered. And then fast forward to the final 67 seconds of the audio. What a powerful message, a powerful couple minutes of radio. To hear the contrast of the fluid voice of the Congresswoman before her brain was penetrated by a bullet in January of this year, and then witness the powerful will of her language several months later rages with hope.

Now, listen to the full ten-minute piece with Block’s interview with Representative Giffords’ husband, Mark Kelly, which is bookended with Gabby’s voice. The context makes her readings all the more powerful. Non?

Yes, even those of us who work in public radio are not immune to those “driveway moments” in the darkness of the early evening. What a gift.

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My sense of the holy, insofar as I have one, is bound up with the hope that someday, any millennium now, my remote descendants will live in a global civilization in which love is pretty much the only law. In such a society, communication would be domination-free, class and caste would be unknown, hierarchy would be a matter of temporary pragmatic convenience, and power would be entirely at the disposal of the free agreement of a literate and well-educated electorate.
- Richard Rorty (1931-2007), from an exchange between the American pragmatist philosopher and the Catholic philosopher Gianni Vattimo in The Future of Religion.
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Herman Cain Sings Gospel Song at The National Press Club

by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

Herman Cain is trending on Twitter again. But, this time it’s not for his latest television ad but for his rendition of a gospel song at The National Press Club. Facing some tough questions about the sexual harassment allegations made against him and his tax plan, the current GOP frontrunner for the presidential nomination ended by taking the opportunity to “share a little bit” about his faith with “He Looked Beyond My Faults.” The man can sing.

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The Nameless, Faceless 1,027 Palestinian Prisoners and One Named Israeli Soldier
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
On the surface, it seems like the Palestinians and Hamas won a major victory in today’s exchange of prisoners. Gilad Shalit, one Israeli soldier, in exchange for more than a thousand Palestinians. The numbers are theirs to claim. How could Palestinians not be declared the victors?
With all this media coverage, I really only know one name. The general public truly only knows one name. One face. One set of parents. One human story of drama and pain and sacrifice. I know Gilad Shalit. He’s my son and my brother and my friend. He’s the child I would sit out in the rain and the blazing sun to protect and bring home. I ache for his family and his country. He’s human, he’s real, he’s flesh and blood.
With the Palestinian prisoners, I don’t know the name of one person. We don’t know the name of one person. No headlines in the papers or blogs exclusively devoted to the single surname of a Palestinian prisoner returned to her family. I know only numbers and politics and negotiators. I don’t know the woman above. We don’t know her. The story of a daughter and a sister and a mother and a wife. We don’t identify with her because she has remained faceless, nameless, lost. How long has she spent inside an Israeli prison? How long has her family begged their government to make a deal for an exchange? She goes unnoticed and unnamed by all of us.
Even the description of the photojournalist doesn’t identify her but names one man:

 
"A Palestinian prisoner hugs relatives after arriving in Mukata following her release on October 18, 2011 in Ramallah, West Bank. Israeli Defense Forces soldier Gilad Shalit was freed after being held captive for five years in Gaza by Hamas militants, in a deal which saw Israel releasing more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners."

This is the tragedy of the circumstances. When the dust settles and history remains our only chronicler, we will remember the name of Gilad Shalit — a young man who spent five years in Palestinian cell — but not the name of this one Palestinian woman. And we will remember that the Palestinians received 1,027 people in return. Numbers get confused in our memories, but the story and image of one individual, one life worth retrieving, will remain with us forever.
But, now at least, I know her face. We see the love of a family and the pain of return. And, even though it’s not the equivalent, it’s a beginning. The Palestinian leadership would do well to remember this, and so should the media, including us.
Photo by Ilia Yefimovich/Getty Images

The Nameless, Faceless 1,027 Palestinian Prisoners and One Named Israeli Soldier

by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

On the surface, it seems like the Palestinians and Hamas won a major victory in today’s exchange of prisoners. Gilad Shalit, one Israeli soldier, in exchange for more than a thousand Palestinians. The numbers are theirs to claim. How could Palestinians not be declared the victors?

With all this media coverage, I really only know one name. The general public truly only knows one name. One face. One set of parents. One human story of drama and pain and sacrifice. I know Gilad Shalit. He’s my son and my brother and my friend. He’s the child I would sit out in the rain and the blazing sun to protect and bring home. I ache for his family and his country. He’s human, he’s real, he’s flesh and blood.

With the Palestinian prisoners, I don’t know the name of one person. We don’t know the name of one person. No headlines in the papers or blogs exclusively devoted to the single surname of a Palestinian prisoner returned to her family. I know only numbers and politics and negotiators. I don’t know the woman above. We don’t know her. The story of a daughter and a sister and a mother and a wife. We don’t identify with her because she has remained faceless, nameless, lost. How long has she spent inside an Israeli prison? How long has her family begged their government to make a deal for an exchange? She goes unnoticed and unnamed by all of us.

Even the description of the photojournalist doesn’t identify her but names one man:

"A Palestinian prisoner hugs relatives after arriving in Mukata following her release on October 18, 2011 in Ramallah, West Bank. Israeli Defense Forces soldier Gilad Shalit was freed after being held captive for five years in Gaza by Hamas militants, in a deal which saw Israel releasing more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners."

This is the tragedy of the circumstances. When the dust settles and history remains our only chronicler, we will remember the name of Gilad Shalit — a young man who spent five years in Palestinian cell — but not the name of this one Palestinian woman. And we will remember that the Palestinians received 1,027 people in return. Numbers get confused in our memories, but the story and image of one individual, one life worth retrieving, will remain with us forever.

But, now at least, I know her face. We see the love of a family and the pain of return. And, even though it’s not the equivalent, it’s a beginning. The Palestinian leadership would do well to remember this, and so should the media, including us.

Photo by Ilia Yefimovich/Getty Images

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The problem starts with the ridiculous crowns we claimed for ourselves and with the hypocrisy, emptiness, and blindness characterizing them. … Who isn’t against terror and for Shalit’s release? But that same sobbing society did not for a moment ask itself, with honesty and with courage, why Shalit was captured. It did not for a moment say to itself, with courage and with honesty, that if it continued along the same path there will be many more Gilad Shalits, dead or captured. In successive elections it voted, again and again, for centrist and right-wing governments, the kind that guarantee that Shalit will not be the last. It tied yellow ribbons and supported all of the black flags. And no one ever told it, with courage and with honesty: Shalit is the unavoidable price of a state that chooses to live by the sword forever.
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Hope for Gilad Shalit / protest tent in Jerusalem 7/17/2011Gideon Levy, from his op-ed in Haaretz"Shalit Is Returning to a State in Psychosis"

A stark contrast to the perspective of Yossi Klein Halevi and the quotation we posted from his latest piece on Gilad Shalit’s release and the trading of prisoners with Hamas. Both should be read.

Photo by Erin Nekervis/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

~Trent Gilliss, senior editor

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Grace Lee Boggs on the Challenge and Responsibility of the Occupy Wall Street Participants

by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

"This enemy of ours is not just Wall Street; it’s a whole culture."

Grace Lee BoggsWho better to turn to about Occupy Wall Street and all its other offshoots than Grace Lee Boggs. Born to Chinese immigrants in 1915, the philosopher has seen and thought deeply about issues of social justice, racial and gender equality, and the resurrection of community for more than 70 years now — not from within the halls of academia but from the pedestrian malls and streets of the United States.

"You’re going to have to be thinking about values and not just abuses."

She offers a historical, sideways approach to OWS and provides a long view of constant questioning. Not only does she think on the grand, larger scale of social values, but she also is embedded, rooted and dedicated to a place — the city of Detroit.

In the video above, she addresses all the people participating in Occupy Wall Street with a note of encouragement and a call for contemplation and reflection. She embraces the movement but also challenges the protestors too, asking them to examine their own minds and hearts about whether they’d happily be part of the culture their against, if they were given the opportunity. She also calls for deep introspection and intellectual rigor as part of the effort.

For a good introduction to Grace Lee Boggs life, check out this two-minute introduction from the documentary film tracing her life, American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs. It’s definitely worth watching.

(Photo of Grace Lee Boggs by Photo by David Schalliol/Flickr)

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For more than a year the Shalits have lived in a tent near the prime minister’s office. When I walked nearby I would avoid the protest encampment, ashamed to be opposing the campaign. This past Israeli Independence Day, though, I saw a crowd gathered around the tent, and wandered over. “GILAD IS STILL ALIVE,” banners reminded: It’s not too late to save him. Inside the tent, Noam and Aviva were sitting with family and friends, singing the old Zionist songs. I wanted to shake Noam’s hand, tell him to be strong, but I resisted the urge. I didn’t deserve the privilege of comforting him.

I wanted to tell Noam what we shared. As it happens, my son served in the same tank unit as Gilad, two years after he was kidnapped. I wanted to tell Noam that that was the real reason I couldn’t bear thinking about his family. That in opposing the mass release of terrorists for Gilad, it was my son I was betraying.

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Shalit's Parents Return HomeYossi Klein Halevi, from "Everyone’s Son" in Tablet

This beautifully written essay is poignant, well-reasoned, and honest. And perhaps that’s what makes me so uncomfortable about this necessary read. Yossi Klein Halevi, whom On Being recently interviewed during our trip to Israel and the West Bank, puts you inside the difficult mindset of those Israelis who are frightened about giving ground to Hamas and Hezbollah, even at the expense of their own families, and yet lauds the decision of a benevolent state and its “hard leaders” to release 1,027 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for one Israeli, Galid Shalit.

~Trent Gilliss, senior editor

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U.S. Senators Discuss Religion and Its Role in Political Life (video exclusive)

by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

"In some ways, our religious traditions give us guidance about the lack of working together, the partisanship, because as different as our faith traditions are, there are some common values. And one of them is something as simple as justice."
—Senator Bob Casey

"Colson would warn that salvation does not lie in what comes out of the United States Congress or the White House in Washington D.C."
—Senator Dan Coats

"If politics is the art of compromise, purity is not compromise; it’s inconsistent with it." 
—Senator John Danforth

Civil conversation among our politicians is at a premium these days. So rarely do we get to witness our political leaders respectfully engaging each other in a discussion about matters of the spirit and how they intersect with their civic responsibilities that we might not think it possible. But there are places trying to make this happen, venues that provide a human space for this type of thoughtful dialogue.

The Brookings Institution in Washington D.C. and the John C. Danforth Center for Religion and Politics at Washington University in St. Louis are creating such a communal space. The ”Danforth Dialogues” — moderated by, you guessed it, former Senator John C. Danforth — kicked off its inaugural event with Senator Bob Casey, a Democrat and Roman Catholic from Pennsylvania, and Senator Dan Coats, a Republican and Evangelical Christian from Indiana.

For the most part, the first half of this conversation is a warm-up period that covers somewhat well-trodden ground: the culture of Washington, compromise on taxes and entitlements, the budget. But there are moments of resonance too. When I hear the three men regret that there are limited opportunities for social interaction, I think of Princeton philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah, who posits that regular, seemingly inconsequential bump-ins are a necessary starting point for deeper, more meaningful discussion. Senator Casey puts a point on this idea when he tells a story about introducing his daughter to Senator Coats on an elevator for the first time and says “the fact that it stands out in my memory indicates that those interactions are pretty rare.”

If you’re interested in a more personal discussion about faith and how it influences politics for the two currently serving senators, the discussion gets rolling about 27 minutes in. A couple of moments to highlight come in the form of references: one to a book by a former Nixon aide, the other to a church hymn.

When asked if he thinks religion is more directly involved in politics than ever before, Senator Coats cites Chuck Colson’s Kingdom in Conflict as a philosophy that informs how he navigates his distinct responsibilities as an elected official and a Christian:

"He [Colson] warns in his book that you have to be careful that the kingdom of man, kingdom of government, doesn’t dictate the essential message of the kingdom of God, and vice versa. And so it takes some discernment to not go too far either way."

Near the end, Senator Casey remarks:

"There’s a great hymn in the Church, "We Are Called to Act with Justice." The refrain goes on to say, ‘We are called to act with justice. We are called to love tenderly, to serve one another, and to walk humbly with God.’ If members of Congress focused on those four things, we might be better off."

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Variations on Washington Post Headline(s) about Romney Response

by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

How often is the substance of a report informed or clouded or steered by the headlines that precede it?

Today’s Washington Post may be a fine illustration of this question. Take a look at the four headlines written for a single article by Philip Rucker. A reader can get a very different sense of Mitt Romney and the presidential candidate’s response last night to recent comments about his Mormon faith made by an Evangelical Christian pastor of a megachurch in Dallas.

So, a bit of context with a compare and contrast of each headline in its context. The lede for Sunday’s print edition:

"Romney Pushes Aside Mormonism Question"

Washington Post Sunday


And on this morning’s home page of WaPo’s website:

"Romney Condemns Religious Bigotry But Doesn’t Talk About His Faith"

Washington Post Home Page Headline on Romney Response


The main page of the politics section reads:

"Romney Treats Issue of His Religion as Settled"

Washington Post Politics Section Headline on Romney Response


Finally, the headline that tops the actual article:

"Romney, His Mormonism a Campaign Issue Again, Condemns Religious Bigotry"

Washington Post Article Headline on Romney Response

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Don’t Believe Them

by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

As if Ariel Dorfman's poem “Testament” isn't powerful enough, Harold Pinter had to read it. Chilling. Devastating.

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Islam’s Role in the Political Marketplace of Ideas: Three Questions for Islamists

by Mustafa Husayn Abu Rumman, special contributor

More than 80 participants attended the second northern women’s security shura on Monday in Mazar-e Sharif at Camp Marmal in Balk province, Afghanistan to discuss women’s roles in governance transition. (photo: DEU Capt. Jennifer Ruge)

As an imam at a mosque in the Jordanian capital Amman, I have been following the dramatic developments across North Africa and the Middle East with a combination of high hopes and grave concern. The phenomenon of young people organizing peacefully to demand political reform, economic opportunity, and human rights is a source of pride for me; numerous worshippers in my mosque are among them. On the other hand, the mounting lethality of conflict between state and society in so many Arab countries is terrible to behold. So is the tragedy of burgeoning crime, economic struggles, and insecurity in countries such as Egypt that are undergoing dramatic transformations.

In these riveting times, the role of Islam is essential and Arab societies seem to know it. I can tell just from the growing number of worshippers in my mosque, which overflows every Friday during weekly prayers. Young people draw comfort and inspiration from Islam as they face an uncertain future.

At the same time, political analysts — both within Arab societies and in the world at large — are raising concerns about the role of so-called “Islamist” groups in the on-going political transitions. Members of my own congregation often ask me for counsel on this issue. In response, through sermons every Friday as well as more intimate conversations, I have been trying to articulate the distinctions that will be necessary to ensure that the tenets of Islam are properly applied — and that the language of Islam is not co-opted by opportunistic political movements.

In the present state of flux in North Africa and the Middle East, there is robust competition for political popularity in a new marketplace of ideas. When assessing any political figure or movement claiming to draw legitimacy from Islam, one should pose several questions and demand unambiguous answers.

The first question is: do you support equal political, social, and economic rights for all citizens of your country, regardless of ethnicity, gender, or sect?

The answer should be yes. The Qur’an and prophetic traditions present a vision of social justice in all its forms — not only for men but also for women; not only for Arabs but also for other ethnic groups; and not only for Muslims but for all humankind. This is my conviction as a lifelong student of Islam. The texts that prove this are many, but suffice it to say that the Qur’an’s vision of equity and justice is addressed not to any subset of humankind but to all “Children of Adam” (7:26).

Over the centuries, interpretations of Qur’an and prophetic tradition have varied, and some of these interpretations have been incompatible with essential Qur’anic values. The most accurate interpretation would never differ with the principle of universal equity and justice — nor deny political or economic opportunity to anyone. Such an interpretation can and should be achieved by the principal of ijtihad, the practical application of the human mind to the world’s ever-changing circumstances.

The second question is: do you believe that Islam is compatible with a definition of the rule of law that transcends a particular religion’s jurisprudential precepts?

The answer should be yes. From a contemporary Islamic perspective, sharia is not a document that supplants the legal system of a given country. To the contrary, it is a set of principles that demand of believing Muslims that they respect the laws of the country in which they live, provided that the laws are compatible with the universal values of social equity and human rights. Moreover, in the event that a given law is inequitable or unjust, sharia demands that believing Muslims work within a legal and democratic framework to amend the law. Islam stresses the principle of shura, or consultation, as a means of reaching decisions that affect the body politic. Those “whose affairs are a matter of counsel” (42:38) are considered to be worthy of a divine reward.

Finally, the third question is: do you maintain that your political platform is a flawless rendering of the precepts of Islam?

The answer should be no. The Qur’an attests to the fact that humankind, granted worldly power, is prone to error and corruption: “[Humankind is liable to] break the covenant of God after ratifying it, and sever that which God ordered to be joined, and make mischief in the earth” (2:27). Islam, for its part, is innocent of the errors of those who presume to interpret or apply it. Because it is hubristic and suspect to suggest that someone is without flaw, it is equally hubristic and suspect to claim to speak in the name of Islam.

Moreover, to claim to speak in the name of Islam is to assert superiority over other political platforms — a position that leads to totalitarianism.

Islam, as I understand it, demands that humankind negotiate over difference and govern consensually. There are no modern-day prophets or rightly-guided caliphs. We must endeavour to collaborate in healing our region and the world as best we can.


Mustafa Husayn Abu Rumman is the imam of the Ibn Sinan mosque in Amman, Jordan.

A version of this article was published by the Common Ground News Service on September 20, 2011. Copyright permission is granted for publication.

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