Book Review: My Year Inside…

18 10 2007

My Year Inside Radical Islam: A Memoir
by Daveed Gartenstein-Ross

      One of the strengths of this book is the way the author is able to project himself back in time and write from the viewpoint of the man he was then.  I found the first chapter almost unbearable because of this.  Mr. G-R (Please forgive the abbreviation) was raised by very new-agey parents and had a pretty new-agey college experience (not as bad as mine, though!).  It was hard for me to sit still and listen to his logical arguments against Christian witnessing.  I just HAD to flip to the back of the book… yep!  It’s ok- he converts in the end.
      But boy!  He took the long way around doing it!  The blurb on the front cover says, “At twenty-three, I was a devout believer in radical Islam.  I worked for a Saudi-funded charity in Ashland, Oregon, that was accused of funding al-Qaeda.  Funny thing, I was born Jewish.  At the time, it all seemed pretty normal.”
       I found the book fascinating and devoured it in a day and a half.  I found myself comparing the three faiths: New Age religion (or at least, my experience of it), Islaam (or his experience of it), and Christianity.  Fundamental Islaam, much like fundamental Judaism, is rules, rules, and more rules.  Slowly, as he moved deeper into the faith, trying to make his life more and more pleasing to God, he was increasingly burdened with rules.  He was stripped of his music.  He lost the ability to choose what to wear, who to speak to, where to go, what to eat, who to associate with…  Most importantly he talks about losing the ability to decide for himself.  Everything, down to the tiniest detail of how to live, was legislated for him.  In order to live by faith he had to give up evaluating how he felt about anything and simply obey.  In the end, he found himself forced (by the necessity to respond literally to the Koran in order to maintain his purity before God) to support and pray for Islaamic agression and violent jihad.
        One of the things I was afraid of in coming to Christ was that I was going to have to go through a brain-purging very similar to what he describes.  I truly thought I was going to have to be brain-washed to live by faith.  It was one of the most astonishing things about my first couple years as a Christian to discover that I actually agreed with what I was learning!  It made sense- more sense than the philosophy I grew up with.  (For example, modern philosophy teaches that it doesn’t matter how many horror films teens watch, they will never subsequently be influenced to act out their violent fantasies.  Here’s another good one: s*x before marriage is fun, lets you get to know your future spouse, and is valuable as a trial period before the commitment of marriage!  It will never break your heart, damage your future relationships, make you suspicious or calloused, and certainly never expose you to the financial or emotional hardships of single parenthood!  Got to love that one.)
         As Mr. G-R described the humiliating struggle of laying down his life, his beliefs, his ability to judge, his desire to think in the name of pleasing God, I was stirringly reminded of the journey I have been taking to learn to please the God whose “gentleness has made me great.”  He is ALL GOOD, and there is no darkness in him!  Hallelujah!
          I know there are requirements in living for Christ.  There are laws.  But I have found that the more I obey them, the freer I am.  I obey the commandment to honor my husband, and I am free of adultery, divorce, sneaking, lying, contention, strife, arguements…  It’s when I let my temper go that I am bound.   I have yet to find one New Testament commandment that did not make me a happier, more pleasant person to be around.   (I haven’t tried all the Old Testament ones yet.)
        Mr. G-R talks about how judgemental he became, and how judgemental the men around him were.  Nit-picking, fault-finding, criticism, pressure…   Sort of reminds me of some of the Christian churches I’ve heard of: no dancin’, no drinkin’, no listenin’ to that music, no card playin’, no foolin’ around…  All those rules take all the sweetness out of what should be a joy: Living for God, loving God, and growing in wisdom, knowledge and favor under his gentle tutelage.  And I have found him to be so very gentle…
         I once heard that Christianity is the only religion in the world where you get saved first and sanctified afterward!  Apparently, in all the others you have to work towards salvation on a never-ending treadmill of trying to “be good.”
         Of course, we also have the New Age religions, who have decided that “good” is a subjective judgement that should be outlawed.  Everyone’s “good” is different and should be equally respected.  Religion is viewed as an “experience” or an “adventure” where the seeker is always out to try something new.  Mr. G-R had an interesting thing to say about this.  He said the New-Age viewpoint began to seem more like a search for transcendental beauty than a desire to serve God.
          I loved that- it was the very reason I became unsatisfied with Wicca.  (That and the fact that all their logic ties itself in knots if you think about it long enough.)  I guess I’m not the only one who, once having accepted that there IS a God, can’t be satisfied until I belong to Him utterly, am pleasing him, serving him and obeying him.  As Mr. G-R said, when a friend was suprised he could just give up Islaam and switch to Christianity, “Some people believe in God, and other’s don’t,’ I said, ‘If you can see this through my eyes, you’d understand that the truly suprising move would have been if I simply ceased to believe.”  
          He switched because he discovered that Islaam’s rules couldn’t satisfy his longing to please God or draw closer to God.  Although he got some satisfaction out of feeling righteous when he obeyed them, in the end it was a hollow pleasure.  And although there is some satisfaction in feeling “free” to believe and do ANYTHING you want to in New Age religion, in the end, that, too, is a hollow pleasure.
      What we really want and need as humans is not absolute freedom, but absolute love.  And without the deep and abiding knowledge that God loves us and will do anything to save us, law-following quickly becomes and exercise in tail-chasing.  The tail is always there, but you never seem to be able to grab it.  There’s always some bit of the law you didn’t quite get, and you have to settle for the second best satisfaction of sneering at the people who got more wrong than you.
        I enjoyed this book.  It’s more philosophical than action-packed, but if you’re curious about how Islaamic fundamentalists think about life, I think you will find it worth the read.  Just hang on tight through that first chapter….

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