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Jerald F. Dirks, Minister of United Methodist Church, USA (part 3 of 4)

By on June 03,2007

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Nonetheless, I hesitated.  Further, I rationalized my hesitation by maintaining to myself that I really didn’t know the nitty-gritty details of Islam, and that my areas of agreement were confined to general concepts.  As such, I continued to read, and then to re-read.

One’s sense of identity, of who one is, is a powerful affirmation of one’s own position in the cosmos.  In my professional practice, I had occasionally been called upon to treat certain addictive disorders, ranging from smoking, to alcoholism, to drug abuse.  As a clinician, I knew that the basic physical addiction had to be overcome to create the initial abstinence.  That was the easy part of treatment.  As Mark Twain once said:  “Quitting smoking is easy; I’ve done it hundreds of times.”  However, I also knew that the key to maintaining that abstinence over an extended time period was overcoming the client’s psychological addiction, which was heavily grounded in the client’s basic sense of identity, i.e. the client identified to himself that he was “a smoker”, or that he was “a drinker”, etc.  The addictive behavior had become part and parcel of the client’s basic sense of identity, of the client’s basic sense of self.  Changing this sense of identity was crucial to the maintenance of the psychotherapeutic “cure.”  This was the difficult part of treatment.  Changing one’s basic sense of identity is a most difficult task.  One’s psyche tends to cling to the old and familiar, which seem more psychologically comfortable and secure than the new and unfamiliar.

On a professional basis, I had the above knowledge, and used it on a daily basis.  However, ironically enough, I was not yet ready to apply it to myself, and to the issue of my own hesitation surrounding my religious identity.  For 43 years, my religious identity had been neatly labeled as “Christian”, however many qualifications I might have added to that term over the years.  Giving up that label of personal identity was no easy task.  It was part and parcel of how I defined my very being.  Given the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that my hesitation served the purpose of insuring that I could keep my familiar religious identity of being a Christian, although a Christian who believed like a Muslim believed.

It was now the very end of December, and my wife and I were filling out our application forms for U.S. passports, so that a proposed Middle Eastern journey could become a reality.  One of the questions had to do with religious affiliation.  I didn’t even think about it, and automatically fell back on the old and familiar, as I penned in “Christian.”  It was easy, it was familiar, and it was comfortable.

However, that comfort was momentarily disrupted when my wife asked me how I had answered the question on religious identity on the application form.  I immediately replied, “Christian”, and chuckled audibly.  Now, one of Freud’s contributions to the understanding of the human psyche was his realization that laughter is often a release of psychological tension.  However wrong Freud may have been in many aspects of his theory of psychosexual development, his insights into laughter were quite on target.  I had laughed!  What was this psychological tension that I had need to release through the medium of laughter?

I then hurriedly went on to offer my wife a brief affirmation that I was a Christian, not a Muslim.  In response to which, she politely informed me that she was merely asking whether I had written “Christian”, or “Protestant”, or “Methodist.”  On a professional basis, I knew that a person does not defend himself against an accusation that hasn’t been made.  (If, in the course of a session of psychotherapy, my client blurted out, “I’m not angry about that”, and I hadn’t even broached the topic of anger, it was clear that my client was feeling the need to defend himself against a charge that his own unconscious was making.  In short, he really was angry, but he wasn’t ready to admit it or to deal with it.)  If my wife hadn’t made the accusation, i.e. “you are a Muslim”, then the accusation had to have come from my own unconscious, as I was the only other person present.  I was aware of this, but still I hesitated.  The religious label that had been stuck to my sense of identity for 43 years was not going to come off easily.        

About a month had gone by since my wife’s question to me.  It was now late in January of 1993.  I had set aside all the books on Islam by the Western scholars, as I had read them all thoroughly.  The two English translations of the meaning of the Quran were back on the bookshelf, and I was busy reading yet a third English translation of the meaning of the Quran.  Maybe in this translation I would find some sudden justification for…

I was taking my lunch hour from my private practice at a local Arab restaurant that I had started to frequent.  I entered as usual, seated myself at a small table, and opened my third English translation of the meaning of the Quran to where I had left off in my reading.  I figured I might as well get some reading done over my lunch hour.  Moments later, I became aware that Mahmoud was at my shoulder, and waiting to take my order.  He glanced at what I was reading, but said nothing about it.  My order taken, I returned to the solitude of my reading.

A few minutes later, Mahmoud’s wife, Iman, an American Muslim, who wore the Hijab (scarf) and modest dress that I had come to associate with female Muslims, brought me my order.  She commented that I was reading the Quran, and politely asked if I were a Muslim.  The word was out of my mouth before it could be modified by any social etiquette or politeness:  “No!”  That single word was said forcefully, and with more than a hint of irritability.  With that, Iman politely retired from my table.

What was happening to me?  I had behaved rudely and somewhat aggressively.  What had this woman done to deserve such behavior from me?  This wasn’t like me.  Given my childhood upbringing, I still used “sir” and “ma’am” when addressing clerks and cashiers who were waiting on me in stores.  I could pretend to ignore my own laughter as a release of tension, but I couldn’t begin to ignore this sort of unconscionable behavior from myself.  My reading was set aside, and I mentally stewed over this turn of events throughout my meal.  The more I stewed, the guiltier I felt about my behavior.  I knew that when Iman brought me my check at the end of the meal, I was going to need to make some amends.  If for no other reason, simple politeness demanded it.  Furthermore, I was really quite disturbed about how resistant I had been to her innocuous question.  What was going on in me that I responded with that much force to such a simple and straightforward question?  Why did that one, simple question lead to such atypical behavior on my part?

Later, when Iman came with my check, I attempted a round-about apology by saying:  “I’m afraid I was a little abrupt in answering your question before.  If you were asking me whether I believe that there is only one God, then my answer is yes.  If you were asking me whether I believe that Muhammad was one of the prophets of that one God, then my answer is yes.”  She very nicely and very supportively said:  “That’s okay; it takes some people a little longer than others.”

Perhaps, the readers of this will be kind enough to note the psychological games I was playing with myself without chuckling too hard at my mental gymnastics and behavior.  I well knew that in my own way, using my own words, I had just said the Shahadah, the Islamic testimonial of faith, i.e. “I testify that there is no god but God, and I testify that Muhammad is the messenger of God.”  However, having said that, and having recognized what I said, I could still cling to my old and familiar label of religious identity.  After all, I hadn’t said I was a Muslim.  I was simply a Christian, albeit an atypical Christian, who was willing to say that there was one God, not a triune godhead, and who was willing to say that Muhammad was one of the prophets inspired by that one God.  If a Muslim wanted to accept me as being a Muslim that was his or her business, and his or her label of religious identity.  However, it was not mine.  I thought I had found my way out of my crisis of religious identity.  I was a Christian, who would carefully explain that I agreed with, and was willing to testify to, the Islamic testimonial of faith.  Having made my tortured explanation, and having parsed the English language to within an inch of its life, others could hang whatever label on me they wished.  It was their label, and not mine.


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