From Mecca to Mitt: Religion, politics, and COVID-19

Author: Mahan Mirza, Ansari Institute Executive Director

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The second caliph of Islam, ‘Umar b. al-Khattab (r. 634-644 CE), is reported to have said that even if a dog were to die on the banks of the Euphrates River, he would be held accountable. Other reports say he spoke of a camel or sheep, or perhaps the Nile instead of the Euphrates. These details don’t change the meaning. As the leader of the fledgling Muslim community, it was ‘Umar’s responsibility to provide for the sustenance and care for all beings, even the very least of them, to the farthest stretches of his authority.

These reports raise questions: Was the caliph speaking in a religious or political capacity? How do leaders balance these two deeply held commitments?

The answer is complex. When United States Senator Mitt Romney cast his vote in favor of impeaching President Trump, he said,  “As a senator-juror, I swore an oath, before God, to exercise ‘impartial justice.’ I am a profoundly religious person. I take an oath before God as enormously consequential.” Was Romney’s vote a religious or political act? In a nutshell, it was both.

While the First Amendment of the US Constitution prohibits the government from making any law “respecting the establishment of religion,” it does not prohibit elected officials from being religious or acting out of religious conviction. Doing so would be a violation of their religious freedom. Our moral values make political demands on us. Politicians draw on their inner voices to cast consequential votes. ‘Umar responded to his conscience in seventh century Arabia; Romney responded to his in twenty-first century America.

“The COVID-19 crisis has increased and made more visible those who are counted as the least among the human family.”

A close companion to Muhammad, ‘Umar is widely recognized as embodying the spirit of Islam in its formative years. “Ah, woe to the worshippers,” proclaims the Qur’an, “those who are all show, but refuse neighborly needs.” (Q. 107)

A call to compassion

Precepts of compassion resonate across traditions. Agape, the notion of unconditional love in Christianity, has a parallel in the Sikh term of seva, selfless service. The concept was embodied in Bhai Ghaniya, who quenched the thirst of enemies on the battlefield as he walked among their fallen in search of survivors. To his beloved Guru, he said: “When I look into the faces of all these wounded men, all I see is you.” In biblical terms, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.” (Matthew, 25:45)

The COVID-19 crisis has both increased in number and made more visible those who are counted as the least among the human family. In a time when extremist groups remind us of all that is bad in religion, we need to bring to the fore its good. We don’t have to look far. Last year, the highest authorities in the Catholic and Sunni worlds signed a historic Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together. Issued in the name of God and “the poor, the destitute, the marginalized… orphans, widows, refugees… justice and mercy,” the document calls all of us, leaders and citizens, regional and global institutions, intellectuals and artists, to build a world in which we can live in peace with each other, where every person is “equal in rights, duties and dignity.”

“A global revelation must speak in a global language.”

This message was sent jointly by Pope Francis and the Shaykh of Azhar “from a profound consideration of our contemporary reality.” COVID-19 has amplified the urgency of this familiar message. In the inaugural post on this blog, Dean Scott Appleby likened the pandemic to a revelation. The Qur’an tells us: “And We never sent a messenger save with the language of his folk, that he might make (the message) clear for them.” (14:4) Perhaps this is why the coronavirus speaks to everybody, whether in Asia or Africa, Europe or the Americas, the wealthy and less fortunate. A global revelation must speak in a global language.

Make America think again

If we receive the message in one global language, maybe we need another to heed its warning: MATH, which Andrew Yang adopted as a slogan for his longshot campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. In his attempt to “Make America Think Again,” Yang uses data, numbers, and graphs—the power of math—to call our attention to the dire condition that unbridled capitalism has created for “normal” people. While specific studies and their methodologies can be debated, nobody can argue against the fact that in a time of unprecedented abundance, we live in an age of unconscionable inequality. The World Bank estimates that COVID-19 will push an additional 40-60 million people into extreme poverty.

Yang proposes that we overhaul the system by reversing our priorities to invent a new form of “Human Capitalism.” According to Human Capitalism, “humans are more important than money.” This tenet is congenial to the moral compass guiding both integral human development, with its affirmation of the dignity bestowed on humans by their Creator, and the Declaration of Independence penned by Thomas Jefferson in 1776: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of happiness.” The moral imagination of the founders, set within the framework of a divine order of creation, continues to this day to hold a commanding grip on American political discourse.

Reinterpreting voices

At the same time, the human journey through history has made it clear that truths voiced in one era require reinterpretation in another. “All men” now includes all Americans, as an ideal if not as a reality. Perhaps tomorrow it will come to include all people, everywhere. M.A.T.H. can help us make progress. “Lowest common denominator” is one of the many “math” terms employed in everyday language. Although it is typically used disapprovingly and as a meaningless oversimplification, perhaps the term can find its utility in relation to integral human development.

One might ask: what is the lowest acceptable common denominator for human dignity? COVID-19 compels us to engage this question with more resolve than ever before. What combination of goods, material and spiritual, are necessary for every human being to live and die with dignity? What systems and institutions, policies and practices, can we collectively imagine, and then put in place, in order to maintain a minimal standard of dignity for all people? Are human cultures sufficiently commensurable to seek universal answers to these questions, or must every nation and every community establish its own standards for human dignity?

Religion’s role

What role do the religions of the world have to play in this conversation? Azza Karam, head of Religions for Peace, the largest multireligious organization in the world, offers the following contribution: “I suggest that we try to be radical in our considerations, and to be radically inclusive; of all living and breathing beings and things, radically compassionate, and radically merciful.” Karam is channeling the voice, not of religion, but of religions. We know where the Pope stands, and right by his side we find the Shaykh of Azhar, with the voice of the Caliph ‘Umar echoing from the deep well of tradition.

“How is the moral imagination to be renewed?”

But wait: Do you also hear the Dalai Lama? In his Earth Day message from a few days ago, he asks us to consider: “Our mother earth is teaching us a lesson in universal responsibility. This blue planet is a delightful habitat. Its life is our life; its future, our future. Indeed, the earth acts like a mother to us all; as her children, we are dependent on her. In the face of the global problems we are going through it is important that we must all work together.”

What, then, of the political and the religious? In our secular-yet-religious modern societies, now seeking “radical” solutions to a world gripped by a debilitating pandemic, how is the moral imagination to be renewed and the capacity for meaningful response awakened? Perhaps, contrary to popular wisdom, it is our great religions that can dig deep enough to find bedrock. Ground that is solid enough, and radical enough, to lay the necessary foundation for integral human development.

Originally published on the Keough School of Global Affairs’ “Dignity and Development” blog on May 6, 2020