As I grow older, I find myself remembering more and more things that never really happened. I am pretty sure about this one, though. When the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan collapsed in 1989, Afghanis filled the vacuum left by the withdrawal of Soviet troops with a bloody civil war, a war that didn’t end until more than half a decade later when Muhammad Omar and his band of religious zealots that came to be called the Taliban took control in Kabul.
I seem to recall—and this is where it gets a little hazy—that the Taliban didn’t really become objects of Western fear and anger until they destroyed the giant statutes of Buddha at Bamiyan. This occurred in March 2001 and eight months later we were hip deep in a war from which we have yet to extricate ourselves.
The Taliban were—and still are as far as I know—about much more than destroying statutes in the name of Allah. They preach and practice a particularly virulent form of Islam characterized by violence and discrimination against women, religious persecution and an insistence that Afghan society govern itself not by the rule of civil law, but by their particular twisted and insular interpretation of sharia, the Islamic code of moral and religious practices.
In the Western world the term sharia is anathema. It has become synonymous with religious and political repression. It is used as code word for a kind of single-minded bigotry, the kind that drives one group, in the name of its particular vision of God, to impose its will and its views of society on everyone else, regardless of whether they share common beliefs.
All of this was brought to mind by a recent commercial for presidential candidate Rick Perry. Everyone in Iowa, I am sure, has seen it. There’s Perry, in his stylishly casual and outdoorsy outfit, staring earnestly but warmly into the camera. He’s the poster boy for “Aw, shucks” populism. He’s your best friend who just happens to want you to make him the most powerful man on the planet.
And then, he speaks:
“I’m not ashamed to admit I’m a Christian — but you don’t need to be in the pew every online pharmacy no prescription Sunday to know that there’s something wrong in this country when gays can serve openly in the military, but our kids can’t openly celebrate Christmas or pray in school.”
The message is clear. “Elect me president and I’ll shove gays back in the closet. I’ll make school prayer mandatory. I’ll put the baby Jesus back in school auditoriums where he belongs. And I’ll do it all in the name of God.” Pardon me, but isn’t this the same message the Taliban have been trumpeting for the last decade and a half? Put a keffiyeh on Rick Perry’s head and have him say it in Pashtu rather than that folksy, soft Texas drawl of his and what’s the difference between Rick Perry and Sheik Omar?
I have no idea whether Perry is electable or whether, if elected, he would make a good president. I don’t even know if Perry really believes what he said. But I do know this. Perry’s commercial is one of the most frightening political events I have ever witnessed.
I’m not ashamed to say I’m a Christian, either. But there is no place in my faith for this kind of demagoguery. The United Church of Christ has been fighting bigotry of the sort championed by Perry and his handlers ever since its formation. “No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here,” is more than just a slogan to us. It is one of our core beliefs. It doesn’t matter what you think about deficits or taxation or health care. It doesn’t matter whether you eat your rubber chicken at the Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner or the Lincoln Day dinner. Whether you are a Democrat or a Republication, you have an obligation—an obligation to stand up and be counted. Go to the caucuses on January 3 and when you do, send a message. Tell demagogues and bigots everywhere that God is still speaking and that God says the road to the presidency does not run over the backs of the weak and the powerless and the different. Don’t let the Sheik Omars of the world get away with it.