Guns and music


Coldplay’s Oct. 2 concert at the Moda Center began with a minute of silence for shooting victims in Las Vegas and residents of Puerto Rico devastated by Hurricane Maria.

I like to think I have varied musical tastes. My playlists include from blues, R&B and classic rock to indie artists and even a dash of country.

Thanks to coincidental scheduling in the past month, I found myself at three concerts featuring big-time artists: Lady Antebellum, Janet Jackson and Coldplay.

That’s quite a variety. And as you’d expect, the fan base for each artist was distinctly different from the others, reflected in cowboy boots, glittery tops or vintage T-shirts, depending on the headliner.

In each case, I went to the show focused on nothing more than enjoying the music. It never occurred to me I might not come home.

Then came Las Vegas.

The idea of an outdoor concert becoming a killing field was something I could have never imagined. Now, thanks to a demented killer armed to the teeth with high-powered rifles, we have something else to think about.

  • One, the massacre on The Strip reminds us that evil knows no limits. How is it that we are born with brains that create beautiful art, scientific knowledge and feel-good music? And yet those brains are also capable of inflicting hurt and death?
  • Two, easy access to guns, coupled with technology that makes them ever more lethal, leaves us increasingly vulnerable to the unhinged.

Our newest deadliest mass shooting in the United States resulted in 58 lives snuffed out, and those of more than 500 injured and irrevocably altered. Simply for going to attend a music festival.

In the national debate reignited by the latest carnage, the killings have been framed in terms of “gun violence” or “mass murder.”

One view supports the idea that the federal government has a legitimate role to play in enacting reasonable restrictions on the types of weapons and ammunition one can acquire and stockpile. The other view rejects that role, instead arguing that human nature alone is to blame for these repeated massacres.

In other words, guns don’t kill people, people do.

I agree that you can’t legislate human behavior – that’s true in a number of areas of life. But I refuse to accept that as a reason to continue permitting the slaughter of innocents, whether it is dozens at a time or one, two or three people at a time.

Yes, I’ve heard the arguments that Timothy McVeigh killed far more using explosives and that people can turn knives or cars into deadly weapons. But it’s the sheer volume of gun deaths that should cause us to look for ways to minimize the toll.

We already know that guns are lethal. Allowing the sale of bump stocks, legal accessories that allow shooters to simulate automatic fire from their rifles, is unconscionable. Why make it easier for anyone to go on a rampage? Why not take whatever actions we can to stem the flow of handguns and rifles and bullets into the hands of our fellow Americans?

I’m not talking about confiscating guns, least of all from law-abiding citizens who use them for hunting. I am talking about banning military-style semiautomatic assault weapons .

In a country of more than 300 million Americans, we already have more guns than people. Isn’t that enough?

I could go on and talk about how and why guns are so deeply embedded in our culture. I could lament the Second Amendment rulings and passage of federal and state laws — in particular, those of the stand-your-ground variety that almost seem to encourage people to use their weapons. I could wring my hands at the unwillingness of our elected leaders to face up to reality.

But, frankly, I don’t have the energy to address anything more about this issue in any depth. At least not in this piece.

Countless words have been written and spoken. Countless videos and photographs have documented the carnage. You’ve seen and heard as many points of view from politicians and everyday citizens as I have. You’ve probably seen Jimmy Kimmel and other last-night comedians call out our do-nothing Congress.

I’m saddened by this bloody stain on America. As a nation, we should be ashamed.

My concert-going ways took root in the San Francisco Bay Area. As a young college student, I saw the Allman Brothers, Led Zeppelin, Santana and so many more at places like the Fillmore West, Winterland and the Cow Palace.

Back then, the major concern was finding a parking place near the venue. Secondarily, it was which fast-food restaurant to hit up for a post-concert snack.

Now the worry for parents isn’t what time is my child coming home but will my child come?

We’re better than that, aren’t we?


A bird, a bagel and a baby


Early morning quiet on the campus of Washington State University Vancouver.

In the midst of our daily routines, little moments sometimes present themselves when you least expect them, leaving you with a sense of appreciation of what’s good in life.

That’s what happened to me on a single day this week. Three random things involving nature, a conversation with a stranger, and news of a child being born. Each thing was disconnected from the other, but every one came as a salve at a time of angst about our deep political divide.


Thursday morning, I left home earlier than usual to arrive in plenty of time to greet a guest speaker in my morning class at Washington State University Vancouver. I was walking from the parking lot to the edge of campus when a sweet sound caught my ear.

I looked up to the right and spotted a little bird perched in the bare branches of a tree, singing his morning song. It was a sparrow, I think, and in the stillness of the morning, before most students had arrived, there was nothing but that sweet sound to serenade me to the front door of the building where I was headed..

In the distance, the flattened white top of Mount St. Helens came into view, combining with the songbird to remind me of nature’s beauty.


Can you see it? Just above the treeline, it’s Mount St. Helens.


I taught two classes that day and hustled out the door, destined to my afternoon job with a nonprofit in Portland. I was running a few minutes ahead of schedule, so I decided to exit the freeway and grab a snack.

I walked in the door of a Panera franchise and the woman behind the counter greeted me with a smile.

I ordered a coffee and bagel to go and, in less than two minutes, it was ready.

“Here you go,” she said. “Have a great day.”

“Thanks. That was fast. Where do I pay?”

She froze for an instant, then laughed.

“Oh, yeah. I totally forgot.”

Her name tag identified her as “Carrie” and “Manager.” No doubt she’s one of those overworked, underpaid managers who hire and train employees, keep things on track in the kitchen and on the floor and, during slack times like this one, run the cash register.

“Well,” I said, “you can’t say you don’t offer great customer service.”

She smiled.

“Come back for dinner and I just might give it to you free!”


Back in the parking lot, I checked my phone. On Facebook, a new acquaintance was announcing the birth of her second child, a son.

This was Sharon, someone who lives in Ohio and someone I’ve never met in person. I learned of her last year when I purchased her book, “Becoming Mother,” for our daughter-in-law. I emailed her to compliment her on her book and she responded warmly.

A couple more emails led to a Facebook friendship and two recent guest blog posts on Rough and Rede II. In one of those, written just after the November election that shocked the world, she despaired at the realization her baby was due on Inauguration Day.

So I was delighted to learn her baby had arrived — and to read, in a blog post she’d mostly written ahead of time, of the perspective she’d gained while her son took an extra two weeks to come into the world.

Today, I simply say that life is unpredictable and messy. No matter how much we like to pretend that we have things under control, we very much do not. We don’t like the storms that plow through our neatly plotted lives. They uproot what we’ve planned. They can undo our hard work and make it irrelevant and meaningless.

But a lot of beautiful things can emerge from the storms of our lives.

Like rainbows.

Her piece is beautifully written and I recommend it to one and all: “Finally, We’ve Had the Baby.”

To all those who’ve become mothers in recent months, here’s a special wish for you and your son or daughter, that you never lose sight of the moments that bring you happiness, peace and calm. I’m talking to you, Jamie, and cousin Monique, and all the rest of you — Mary, Jen, Rachel — scattered from Washougal to Portland to Cincinnati.


Scrounging for empties at 5 a.m.


Making end meet by collecting cans and bottles before the sun comes up.

Yesterday’s unexpectedly blue skies inspired me to greet 2017 with an upbeat mantra: “New day. New year. New attitude.”

Today’s encounter with a tall stranger challenged me to back my words with action.


I was wheeling our recycling bin to the curb early this morning when I came upon a tall guy, layered up and wearing a knit stocking cap, running his flashlight over the contents of what my neighbors had already put out the night before.

“You looking for cans and bottles?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he nodded.

“I’ve got some for you.”

I’d planned to redeem them myself this week, being someone who doesn’t mind spending time feeding them into the bins if it’ll help knock a few dollars off the grocery bill. But who needed the empties more? Me or him?

I hauled a couple of bags from the garage and set them next to his

“You doing any kind of work?” I asked.

“I deliver The Oregonian.” A slight pause. “And The New York Times.”

Well, how about that? I thought to myself. I know these folks don’t make a lot of money, whether paid a commission or an hourly wage. It made sense that he’d be on the streets at 5 a.m., trying to supplement his income.

I peered into his car, a weathered, four-door sedan, as he was placing more empties in the trunk and saw he had filled the entire back seat and front passenger area, from floor to ceiling, with as many bags and boxes as he could cram in.

I didn’t see any newspapers. But it dawned on me that The Oregonian is home-delivered just four days a week these days, and Monday is an off day. It made sense that he didn’t have any papers.

I grabbed a couple more 12-pack boxes and gave them to him.

“You got any work for me, mister?”

“No, I’m afraid I don’t,” I answered. “Where we live now, we don’t have to worry about yard work.”

“Well, thanks anyway.”

“You bet. Good luck to you and have a good year.”


With the dawn of a new year and new administration, several friends and family members have vowed to do what they can to preserve the progressive policies of the Obama years. As I think about my own values and personal responsibilities, I know I will have to find ways to contribute that feel comfortable to me.

As a lifelong journalist, I am accustomed to refraining from overt political involvement. Though no longer an employee of The Oregonian, I’m still likely to tread cautiously into area of direct action. Somehow, it feels more authentic to me to act on my values one person at a time.

And there’s plenty of opportunity.


Time to be less selfish, more giving, in redeeming empty bottles and cans.

The consequences of income inequality are easy to see, in my neighborhood and in other parts of Portland. Virtually anywhere you go in this city, you’ll see tents and tarps housing the homeless, and people hustling outside coffee shops, grocery stores and Goodwill.

Undoubtedly, every person has a story. I don’t know what circumstances put this particular stranger on my street this morning. What I do know is that it felt much better to engage with him than to just set the empties out at the curb for anyone’s taking. What I also know is that I’m more inclined to help those who help themselves.

In lieu of a short list of resolutions, and with today’s encounter in mind, I will seek to hold myself accountable to this new mantra.

“New day. New year. New attitude.”


Bonus video from one of my favorite bands:

Troubled teenager, desperate parents


Nothing I have read in the past month has had a more profound effect on me than the ordeal of an ordinary couple in the Midwest trying their best to get help for their son — a young man with autism who’s a social outcast at school, a pale boy who loves death metal, who’s run afoul of the law, and who’s posted angry Internet rants threatening to shoot up a church, a school or a mosque.

Talk about chilling.

Ever since Columbine High School, we as a society have been quick to judge — and judge harshly — the parents of youthful mass shooters who unleash their rage and resentments on innocent victims.

Where were the parents? Why didn’t they know about their child’s violent fantasies? How could they miss signals of their evil intentions?

In the case of Shelly, 54, and Gary, 63, a couple who’ve already raised an older son with mental illness, they are fully aware of the threat posed by their younger son, Shea. That’s why, even after years of testing, advocating and treatment, they have laid bare their efforts in a desperate attempt to get him help before he hurts someone or kills himself, as he’s threatened to do.

The couple’s predicament is the subject of a riveting piece in the March issue of Esquire. (I meant to write about this earlier and I’m finally doing so, just as the calendar flips to a new month.) Titled “A Troubled Boy,” it’s written by Tom Chiarella, who teaches at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana, the same college where I once spent a week as Journalist-in-Residence working with the student newspaper staff.

troubled boy - esquire

Shea’s troubles — including vandalism of local churches and a court-ordered curfew for fighting in school — have made the news in this small town of 10,000, prompting his parents to go public with their concerns not just for their son, but for other parents whose boys need therapy for their mental health issues. They’ve taken to recording his outbursts and shared them with Chiarella.

“The two of them hunker down at the table, listening to his rants, which have grown more frequent in recent weeks, into exhaustive and thorough threats of rampage. And this horseshit prose poem of filthy Internet tropes about Arabs? It spouts from the mouth of their very own boy. The parents know what they must do. They have to warn someone.”

Shea attempted suicide when he was 14. Now 18, his parents cannot simply institutionalize him, so he is caught between two alternatives — an underfunded, overwhelmed mental health system and a “predictably outsized and overwhelming” response from local law enforcement.

As mass shootings continue unabated in the United States, politicians repeatedly pledge to seek increased funding for mental health programs but never seem to follow through. It’s numbing because it’s just so much posturing.

As Chiarella points out, close to 10 percent of state psychiatric hospital beds were eliminated across the country between 2009 and 2012 due to budget cuts. In Indiana, the decline in mental health spending has been worse than in most states.

In 2009, the state’s per-capita mental health spending was $87.65, well below the national average of $122.90, Chiarella reports. By 2013, it had fallen to $70.67, placing Indiana 39th in the nation.

This lack of resources has only added to the stresses on Shea’s parents, forcing them to warn the authorities about the potential dangers posed by a son they love but cannot seem to reach.

“Sitting in his living room,” Chiarella writes, “I ask Shea: Would he really kill someone?”

“He sits in sweatpants, with a home-detention monitor clamped to his ankle, once again tearing into his parents’ peaceable hearts without seeming to know it….He’s autistic, and as such he’s often plainly disconnected from what he says. He doesn’t seem to know what hurts his parents, and he certainly doesn’t seem to know what effect the words he says have on his life or the lives of others.”

Chilling, Absorbing. Heart-wrenching. This is a terrific piece, one that reveals the anguish of parents who could be any of us.

Lead photograph: mimwickett /

Esquire photograph: Eric Ogden

A corner of contrasts


Selling newspapers for one dollar per copy.

Leaving my dentist’s office late yesterday morning, I walked eastward a few blocks, staying parallel to the MAX tracks where the light-rail trains run. I hadn’t been downtown in a while but I came upon a scene that seemed so ordinary, yet struck me as emblematic of our times.

On one corner of Southwest Third and Morrison, there was a scruffy guy in a weathered Pittsburgh Steelers jacket selling copies of Street Roots, a newspaper focusing on homelessness and poverty.

On the corner directly south was an equally scruffy guy, playing the cello and hoping for donations from passersby.

Nothing out of the ordinary, right? We’ve all seen variations of this scene in cities across the United States.

But yesterday I seemed to take it in with fresh eyes.

Steelers guy was standing directly outside Starbucks, a name synonymous with global retail sales, and Sephora, an upscale purveyor of beauty and skincare products.

Cello dude and his instrument case were set up outside the entrance to Pioneer Place, a shopping mall with four blocks of street-level and underground retail shops and restaurants, and across the street from a spendy six-screen theater complex.


Street corner musician in downtown Portland.

Each was hoping people could spare a buck or two. That they were doing so in such close proximity to places that sell $4 coffee drinks, $10 movie tickets and who-knows-how-expensive perfumes struck me as at once ingenious and ludicrous.

Here you have two guys, obviously down on their luck, doing something positive to earn themselves a little money. Neither one a panhandler, but each of them wisely set up at an intersection where they might benefit from the generosity of downtown employees, shoppers or tourists.

At the same time, it seemed more than a little sad that folks are reduced to doing this to get by on a street corner with corporate logos representing American capitalism. This isn’t a diatribe against any particular company or even against a political and economic system that favors private enterprise. Rather, I suppose it’s nothing more than a reflection of a moment in a time and a recognition that there are “winners” and “losers” in every society.

I have no idea what circumstances put those two guys on the corner. But I can say I got my money’s worth when I bought the newspaper from one and paused to listen to the other.

Thanks to Street Roots, I learned about a Portland author who has written about “The Iron Riders” — an all-black 25th Infantry Bicycle Corps commissioned in 1892 to travel the West and Midwest collecting geographic and topographical information for the military. Thanks to the cellist, I caught a glimpse of one man’s talent.

A year of exploration


Bicycle/pedestrian paths, like the Mount Vernon Trail, symbolize wide-open possibilities for exploration.

It’s already been seven days since the calendar turned to 2016. That means it’s time to hold myself accountable again in the form of some new year’s resolutions.

A lot of people don’t bother with them, but I find them helpful as a step in the direction of self-improvement. Before I even get to mine, here are a couple of tidbits:

If you’re a resolution-maker, you’re among the estimated 40 percent or so of Americans who set out with good intentions. For whatever reason, only about 8 percent succeed in keeping them, according to University of Scranton research.

The most popular resolutions? Again, according to the Scranton researchers:

Lose Weight
Getting Organized
Spend Less, Save More
Enjoy Life to the Fullest
Staying Fit and Healthy
Learn Something Exciting
Quit Smoking
Help Others in Their Dreams
Fall in Love
Spend More Time with Family

I suppose No. 1 could easily make my list, but I’m going to keep that in the back of my mind in deference to a couple of others I’m giving higher priority.

This year, I want to focus on two things: 1. Getting out of town. 2. Trying new things.

Together they go well with an overall intention to just explore. Given my new retirement status, I don’t think getting out of town should pose much of an obstacle. It’s common for new retirees to want to travel, and certainly I want to do that too. But I’m thinking more modestly — just get out and about to places like Multnomah Falls, Silver Creek Falls, the Columbia River Gorge.

Trying new things is a complementary mindset. Already, I’ve joined Lori in a new Saturday morning activity — a cycling class at our local gym. I expect there will be plenty more things that fall in my lap or that I seek out.

I don’t know that these twin objectives have anything to do with self-improvement, other than to keep my mind open rather than closed.

As for last year, I settled on three things: Patience, portions and people.

Patience was about trying to accept that a lot of things are beyond my control, so why not just let it go.

Portions was about restraint, about being more watchful of how much I ate, even if — or, rather, especially if — it was a favorite food.

People was about making more connections in person instead of becoming overly reliant on digital communications.


Connecting with former co-worker Jackie Weatherspoon over coffee was a direct result of my vow to spend more “face time” with people in 2015.

Being honest with myself, I fell short too many times with the first and the second. I think I did pretty well with the third, though, and I plan to continue building on that “face time” with assorted friends, co-workers and new acquaintances.

A final pledge. Here’s my list of non-resolutions: no neck tattoo or neck beard; no man bun, ponytail or dreadlocks; no nose ring or earlobe plugs; no passing gas in elevators.

Want help setting your own 2016 goals? Here’s a post from a year ago on “4 Simple Goal Setting Ideas for 2015”



Muscadine: Among America’s best


This unassuming place is among America’s best new restaurants.

So, I mentioned having breakfast at a new-to-me restaurant the other day. Didn’t name it then because I wanted to give it its due in a separate post.

It’s Muscadine, a sweet little spot tucked into the same cluster of shops and restaurants in Prescott Village at the corner of Northeast Prescott and 14th Avenue. If you’re a Portlander, think of Pok Pok, Grain & Gristle and Extracto.

Muscadine was a wonderful discovery. High marks all around for a quiet ambience, friendly service, tasteful decor — and killer food.


Little did I know I was walking into a place recently christened one of the Best New Restaurants in America. (More on that below.)

My server recommended the Country Captain, a chicken curry dish with melt-in-your-mouth grits, two over-easy eggs and house condiments (Meyer Lemon yogurt and apple-ginger chutney). This being a Southern restaurant, I had to order a biscuit too. It was perfectly done, a little crunchy on the outside, moist inside.

Other options include: Andouille omelette, salmon croquettes, fried catfish, beignets, red eye ham and fried chicken. (Check ’em all out here.)

It’s a single menu covering breakfast and lunch (they don’t do dinner) six days a week (closed Tuesday). There’s also a bar where you can settle in for a meal or a drink (mimosa or Bloody Mary, anyone?).

For me, it was a less intense version of Screen Door, the go-to brunch place that draws lines of Portlanders out the door every weekend.

So, how did I hear about this place, barely a mile from my home?


The magazine’s annual issue touting the best new restaurants in the U.S. included Muscadine on the honor roll of 14 places. This humble little neighborhood spot, open barely a year and a month, is right in there with four restaurants from New York, three from Chicago and others from New Orleans, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Boston.


Friendly service, warm ambience, killer food.

“Chef Laura Rhoman, an eighth-generation native of Tupelo, Mississippi, has conjured more than a shrine to the South,” Esquire says in its review of Muscadine.

Describing a particular dish and his overall take, the reviewer says: “There’s … the Cochon, a puck of smoked pulled pork, breaded and slathered in tangy Carolina Gold barbecue sauce, capped with a poached egg, and laid on a nest of slaw and crispy potatoes.

“No, Laura Rhoman has not built a shrine to the South in the Pacific Northwest. But her menu’s standout dish, a mandala of swirling flavors and textures, is a portal between them.”

Go. Now.

$68.5 million a month?

The gap between rich and poor has become a gulf, as well as a major challenge to younger generations.

The gap between rich and poor has become a gulf, as well as a major challenge to younger generations.

You may have seen it. A recent New York Times story about the 158 families who collectively have provided almost half of the money raised to support all Democratic and Republican presidential candidates in the early phase of the campaign.

It’s astounding enough that these super-rich families have together given $176 million so far, without a single primary vote being cast.

But what took my breath away was the number buried in the middle of this paragraph:

More than 50 members of these families have made the Forbes 400 list of the country’s top billionaires, marking a scale of wealth against which even a million-dollar political contribution can seem relatively small. The Chicago hedge fund billionaire Kenneth C. Griffin, for example, earns about $68.5 million a month after taxes, according to court filings made by his wife in their divorce. He has given a total of $300,000 to groups backing Republican presidential candidates.

A week later, I’m still having trouble wrapping my head around that obscene figure.

$68.5 million a month?

How is that even possible?

Who on Earth even needs that much money?

The morning after I read it, the number — and what it represents — popped to mind as I waited for my bus.

— Twenty feet away, a homeless man lay in the sun next to a shopping cart stuffed with clothing, empty bottles and cans, and other possessions.

— A bare-chested young man walked past, singing loudly to himself, baseball cap turned backwards and pants drooping well below his waist. It was obvious from his dress and his demeanor he wasn’t on his way to work.

— The bus pulled up and the lady next to me walked stiffly toward it, pulling a small cart with groceries. The door opened and she asked the driver, “Can you put the step down? My legs is tired.”

Three “have nots” in the richest country on Earth. A country where it’s possible to generate income of $68.5 million a month after taxes.

Can you say “income inequality”?

Barely three days later came another jolt of news: Tens of millions of senior citizens will receive no annual cost-of-living adjustment in their Social Security checks next year.

Why? Because raises are tied to the Consumer Price Index, which has been flat this year and even shown a drop in gasoline prices. As a result, seniors and others who receive Social Security benefits — children, spouses, disabled veterans — will see no bump in their monthly checks in 2016.

social-security-cards-460x300One in four U.S. households receives Social Security benefits. Nearly half of aged couples rely on Social Security for about half of their retirement income. For 47 percent unmarried seniors, it’s more like 90 percent. My late mother received a little over $700 a month, her sole source of income.

Now, I’m not saying the rich guy in Chicago has any obligation to donate money to better the lives of these three Portlanders and/or the less fortunate in his own community (though I do hope he has a conscience). Nor am I going all socialist here and demanding the government seize and redistribute his assets.

What I am saying is that I fear for the future of this country with this ever-widening gap between rich and poor in the United States. It’s become a gulf where people on both sides can’t even see each other.

We Boomers have saddled our children with some intractable issues and income inequality is right up there with racism, global warming and gun violence.

As the presidential campaign slogs on, it might be good to listen to what the candidates say about income inequality. Do they even recognize it as an issue? What are their policies toward taxes, creating jobs and incentives to save?

Is any of that $176 million raised so far for their campaigns generating any hope for reform?

Main mage: Will Roberts Weekly Telegram

Secondary image: SSDI Solutions

Here today, gone tomorrow

For nearly six years, a neighborhood fixture.

For years, a neighborhood fixture.

For nearly six years, it stood immobile under a large tree just east of our home. Never ridden. Never a hint of who left it there, when or why. Just a mysterious motorcycle draped in a fabric cover collecting dust and cobwebs.

Now it’s gone.

Earlier this week, the authorities put a bright sticker on the windshield, warning it would be towed away if not removed by the responsible party. Three days came and went and now there’s just an empty space underneath the tree.

Funny thing, I had passed by this abandoned thing for so long that I had ceased to notice it.

It wasn’t until one day recently that I asked Lori just how long it had been there.

“Ever since we moved in,” she responded.

That would be around Thanksgiving of 2009, about five years and 10 months ago.

Poking around this week, I saw that it was a Kawasaki and its dirtied license plate was from Washington state.

Now that it’s been hauled away, I’m left with plenty of questions and no answers.

— Who owned it? For how long?

— Was it a gift to self? A primary or second vehicle?

— How many miles on it? Had it broken down?

— What were the circumstances that led the owner to leave it here? Why didn’t he or she come back for it? Was there a not-so-pleasant reason — a death, perhaps?

— What was the last ride like? Was it used to go to work or run an errand? Or something more exciting, a day trip to the coast or a long-distance ride to nowhere in particular?

An empty space is all that's left.

An empty space is all that’s left.

It’s odd that this machine was in plain sight for so long, but evidently overlooked so long by so many. I couldn’t have been the only one if no other neighbor found reason to call the authorities until now.

Too bad the motorcycle couldn’t tell its own stories.

The Islamic Reformation

In college, I had neither the time nor interest in taking a World Religions class. If I had, I might not have been so ignorant for so long about one of the world’s great religions – Islam. And by “great,” I mean its appeal to people around the globe – not anything inherent about its central tenets.

But, then, being more knowledgable about the world’s most popular religion would have diminished the satisfaction I took from recently reading Reza Aslan’s “No god but God.”

No_god_but_God_(Reza_Aslan_book)_US_coverAslan’s book, first published in 2005 – four years after the 9/11 attacks — and then updated with a preface to the paperback edition, purports to explain the origins, evolution and future of Islam. Ten years later, it reads as fresh and essential as when it first came out. It’s not an easy, breezy read by any means – certainly not for someone with little background in theology and lots of gaping holes in my knowledge about Middle East history.

But with perseverance and the sense that I was reading material that might well be covered in a college-level seminar, I stuck with the book – and I’m glad I did.


I picked the book up on a whim during a visit to a thrift shop at the Oregon Coast several months ago. I took a whole week to read during our recent vacation, and I finished the book with at least a dozen dog-eared pages marking facts I simply didn’t know or insights I hadn’t previously grasped.

There were multiple takeaways: Not just an understanding of when and how the prophet Muhammad founded the religion, but a far greater context for understanding more recent events of the 20th and 21st centuries. Just as I finished the book, I came across two important news articles that deepened my understanding of current events while simultaneously reinforcing the historical framework in which modern-day events are occurring.

atlantic-isis-coverIn The Atlantic, Graeme Wood explains “What ISIS Really Wants.

“The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths,” the intro reads. “It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.”

In The New York Times, Scott Shane wrote about a one young man’s journey in “From Minneapolis to ISIS: An American’s Path to Jihad.”

The young man had once talked of becoming a lawyer, Shane wrote, but last year he dropped out of community college at age 20 to become “one of a small number of Americans enticed by the apocalyptic religious promise of the self-described Islamic State, which has seized large sections of Syria and Iraq and claims to be building a caliphate.”

Both are terrific pieces of journalism, straightforward and riveting, in explaining the goals, objectives and appeal – to some – of the Islamic State, which has grabbed worldwide attention with its propaganda videos and barbaric beheadings.

Reading both on the heels of Aslan’s book made for greater impact.


Aslan’s book is, in essence, an introduction to Islam. It’s slow going at first because the author begins with a discussion of pre-Islamic Arabia in the 6th Century, sprinkling all manners of names of peoples and places of whom and which I’m unfamiliar.

For example (and I’m really admitting my ignorance here), I didn’t know that Muhammad was a 25-year-old orphan, “with no capital and no business of his own,” who relied entirely on his uncle’s generosity, for his employment and his housing.” I didn’t know that he married a 40-year-old widow named Khadija, who was a rarity, to say the least, “as a wealthy and respected female merchant in a society that treated women as chattel.”

Gradually, though, Aslan’s explanation of competing theologies and the tribal conflicts that went along with them begins to gel. As he tells Muhummad’s story, so too does he tell the story of how Islam supplanted other belief systems and became a dominant social, cultural and political force across the Middle East and, later, into Europe, Africa and Asia.

Abdi Nur, right, posted a photo online from Syria after traveling there from Minnesota. A friend, Abdullahi Yusuf, left, was stopped as he tried to depart. Top, an image of Western passports posted by a Twitter user who says she is an American with the Islamic State.

Abdi Nur, right, posted a photo online from Syria after traveling there from Minnesota. A friend, Abdullahi Yusuf, left, was stopped as he tried to depart. Top, an image of Western passports posted by a Twitter user who says she is an American with the Islamic State.

Aslan paints a picture of early Islam as an experiment in religious pluralism and social egalitarianism. Subsequently, he describes the development of various sects – the majority Shiites, the minority Sunnis and Sufis, and the Puritanical Wahhabis – and more modern developments, including the establishment of Saudi Arabia as “an utterly totalitarian and an uncompromisingly Wahhabist state;” the seeds of the Iranian Revolution and the Ayatollah Khomeini’s rise to power; and the emergence of a small group of dissidents, calling themselves al-Qaeda and led by Osama bin Laden, as a polarizing force dividing the Muslim world into “the People of Heaven” (themselves) and “the People of Hell” (everyone else).

The author provides a glossary and a chronology key events (starting with the birth of Muhammad in the year 570) as helpful resources. But he also frames the book in a way that might surprise some readers – as a narrative of a centuries-old struggle for the heart and soul of a religion, not unlike what we have seen in Christianity.

While it’s easy to focus on radical fundamentalist sects that use terror to intimidate, and to think of repeated attacks as targeted solely at the West, Aslan reminds us that many of these acts of violence have been perpetrated by Muslims against other Muslims. Most notably, in July 2005, when four British Muslims blew themselves and 42 bus and subway passengers up during rush hour. It was an attack carried out in London’s most heavily populated and moderate Muslim neighborhoods, where generations of Muslim immigrants from several countries lived harmoniously for generations.

“Theirs was as assault not only on innocent Britons but on their own community, indeed on the very existence of a moderate, pluralistic Islam that is anathema to their own puritanical beliefs,” Aslan writes. And, like similar attacks in other countries across the Muslim world, it revealed the civil war raging within Islam as much as it did the jihadist war against the West.

In short, Aslan says, “Welcome to the Islamic Reformation.”


It’s a provocative framework and Aslan acknowledges that both Muslims and non-Muslims take issue with his characterization of recent events as an internal struggle between Muslims rather than a war between Islam and the West. Certainly, it’s easy to question his thesis in the face of events like this month’s terrorist attack at Garissa University College in Kenya, where members of a militant group separated Muslims from Christians before executing nearly 150 Christian students.

Yet he also points to encouraging signs that young Muslims in the developing capitals of the Muslim world – Tehran, Cairo, Damascus and Jakarta – and in the cosmopolitan capitals of Europe and the United States – New York, London, Paris and Berlin – are merging the Islamic values of their ancestors with democratic ideals.

Think of the Arab Spring in Cairo and the promise it held, briefly, before the Egyptian authorities squelched it. Then think of reformations of the past, which have played out over centuries, amid much bloodshed and turmoil. That’s what we’re witnessing, Aslan contends.


The author, Resa Aslan.

The author, Resa Aslan.

The author is himself a native-born Iranian who immigrated to the United States with his family as a young boy after the U.S.-backed Shah had fled in exile and Khomeini had seized power. He has studied religions at Santa Clara University, Harvard and the University of California, Santa Barbara. In addition, he holds an MFA in fiction from the highly respected Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa, so he comes at his subject with the knowledge base of a Ph.D and the skills of an accomplished writer.

Now a professor of creative writing at UC Riverside, Aslan has gone on to write and edit several more books, including “ Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.”

I’m a decade late getting around to his book, but I’ve got to say, I think I made a good decision earlier this year when I chose to buy this book instead of another pair of running shorts.

Photo montage: The New York Times

Author photo: