Coming from a WASPy, mixed-faith, yet significantly agnostic and atheist, intellectual (and admittedly pseudo-intellectual) family these days living in "genteel poverty" in southern California, it is difficult for me to comprehend the Middle Eastern mindset -- not that I think there actually is a monolithic entity one could call the "Middle Eastern mind."
Although I spent one year as a 12-year-old in 1979 serving sporadically as an acolyte, lighting altar candles at Los Arcos United Methodist Church in Scottsdale, Ariz., I have spent the majority of my life alternating between agnosticism and atheism. However, for the past few years I've believed in, worshipped and loved a quite traditional, monotheistic diety.
Still, my version of worship is deeply private. I would never call myself a Christian, a Bhuddist, a Catholic, a Muslim, a Hindu -- or anything that would identify me concretely as a member of a specific body. As far as I know, the diety I currently look to never did either -- save for the that of God's evolutionary creation called humanity. Nevertheless, I do "pop in" to houses of worship from assorted faiths about 10 or so times per year.
With that backdrop in mind, it should come as no surprise that I have been flummoxed by how much religion dominates, defines and often even destroys the lives of human beings across the Mideast.
Indeed, suffering because of religious zealotry is the majority of what I have seen of this region that is the cradle of civilization, through the lenses of news reports, documentary films, books and conversations with anyone from the region who is willing to share their perspectives about their homelands' issues and cultures.
Perhaps my curiosity and passion for trying to understand Arab, Isreali, and Persian cultures stems from my knowledge that these peoples preserved and expanded the classical science, enlightenment and art that was abandoned during the Dark Ages by Europeans after the fall of ancient Rome.
I lament that -- and I want to know why -- the enlightened, mystical Muslim practice of Sufism, which my uncle, writer A. Wayne Senzee, studied and explained to me as a child in the 1970s has been subjogated by fundamentalist forms of Sunni and Shi'ite Islam -- and Wahabism, more specifically. I don't believe Uncle Wayne ever practiced, per se, Sufism. In fact, I think he is among our family's strong contingent of agnostics and atheists. But his sharing with me of what a Sufi was gave me an impression of Muslims as tolerant and expansive in their outlook of spirituality.
I don't think I'm alone in saying that I am a westerner who wants to understand and relate to the Mideast. I have been studying Arabic. I plan to learn Hebrew and Farsi as well. But it is so hard for someone like me to truly relate when religion seems so ominous in Mideastern society. Confession: I have not been to the region yet. I know that makes my comments somewhat obtuse. I hope to go soon -- hopefully to cover a story for a news organization or two. In fact, I have a story in mind, so stay tuned.
Now, at the apex of my perplexion and seemingly out of nowhere, comes this encouraging article by Diaa Hadid about the potential for more diversity of thought and worship (or lack thereof).
Kudos to Hadid for bringing the little-expressed perspective of slowly growing Arab atheism. I'm now following her on Twitter and am hoping she will continue to cover this and other lesser known aspects of Middle Eastern life.
After all, there is no more a singular Arab mind than there is a monolithic Middleeastern point-of-view -- or an American one.