February 21, 2005
Martin E. Marty
The interpreters at the Divinity School whence these Sightings issue cultivate "the hermeneutics of suspicion." In other words, they refine their anti-gullibility sensibilities. Such an approach is urgent in a time when there are legitimate reasons to be suspicious of some Islamic organizations and good reasons to empathize with those they mistreat. I thought of this when reading David Picker's account of Hakeem Olajuwon mourning the misuse of a humanitarian charity he founded and headlines implicating him in bad stuff ("Olajuwon Says He Trusted Charities," New York Times, February 16, 2005). How could he have known that evil people would channel to terrorists some funds his foundation gathered for humanitarian purposes? The ex-Houston Rocket superstar all but cries, "It took my whole career to build my name and the cause that I choose to support ... and it's difficult to accept when my name is coming linked into anything such as terrorism."
Olajuwon goes on to say that "at the time they were raising the money in 2000, we didn't even know anything about a terrorist." Quick, folks, think back: did "we"? Councils on foreign relations back then, when rating U.S. priorities, ranked Islamic fundamentalism — not even yet tied to terrorism beyond a couple of foreign and one domestic issue — very far down the scale. Olajuwon adds that his charity wasn't secretive. It was open, gathering money for relief purposes, with funds intended to go to "medicine, schools, doing well in Africa in the villages." (He hails from Nigeria.) He characterizes himself as a public figure who tries to "help the community and give back."
Olajuwon did not have his "hermeneutics of suspicion" instruments alert. Do I have mine alert in trusting him? Some of us think it's desperately urgent to encourage and to hear moderate Muslims, especially in trouble spots like Nigeria, where Muslim-Christian warfare breaks out, or in nervous America. Olajuwon strikes me as one whose voice was trying to be heard, whose hand was ready to come up with something healing. On the basis of a twenty-four-hour period of contact, I cannot claim to be an intimate of the former ball player, but in June of 1997 I shared a platform with a Nova Scotia Muslim scholar at a forum sponsored by Olajuwon's foundation. (Was I bought off? you might wonder. I did come away with an official NBA basketball inscribed to a grandson.)
Six hundred Muslims from the petroleum-friendly community of Houston and six hundred Christians (Baptist and Catholic) gathered in a hotel for a seminar that day. The two sets of believers were really trying to learn each other's ways. They were seriously serious: I did not have to think and speak so much about the Trinity and the Incarnation since my doctoral exams as I did that day. And I am convinced that this seven-foot-something athlete had no interest other than learning, guiding, and encouraging — or, as he put it, "giving back to the community."
In an age of terrorism, deceit, and lying in world and church, government and academe, it is true that it does not pay to let one's guard down. Millions of innocent Catholics were taken advantage of by priestly abuse. Did they know? Thousands of evangelicals have had their retirements wiped out by smooth-talking pyramid schemers. Could they know?
To their credit, most believers, while saddened and even enraged, have hung in there. The bottom line: hermeneutics of suspicion and hermeneutics of empathy and measured trust need each other more than ever.
Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.