The Russians are a rotten lot, immoral, aggressive, ruthless, course and generally evil. They are responsible for most of the troubles in this world. They are not like us.
That’s pretty much the summary of the daily news about the Russians. But sometimes something slips through the net of prejudice, some small bit of a sign that is so clean and true and real that it wedges open the rusting Iron Curtain long enough for us to see not an enemy but fellow travelers, joined to us by membership in the Fellowship of Joy-and-Pain.
See Nicolai Pestretsov. I don’t know much about him, I don’t know where he is now, but I’ll tell you what I know.
He was a sergeant major in the Russian Army, thirty-six years old. He was stationed in Angola, a long way from home. His wife had come out to visit him.
On August 24, South African military units entered Angola in an offensive against the black nationalist guerrillas taking sanctuary there. At the village of N-Giva, they encountered a group of Russian soldiers. Four were killed and the rest of the Russians fled – except for Sergeant Major Pestretsov. He was captured, as we know because the South African military communiqué said: “Sgt. Major Nicolai Pestretsov refused to leave the body of his slain wife, who was killed in the assault on the village.”
It was as if the South Africans could not believe it, for the communiqué repeated the information. “He went to the body of his wife and would not leave it, although she was dead.”
How strange. Why didn’t he run and save his own hide? What made him go back? Is it possible that he loved her? Is it possible that he wanted to hold her in his arms one last time? Is it possible that he needed to cry and grieve? Is it possible that he felt the stupidity of war? Is it possible that he felt the injustice of fate? Is it possible that he thought of children, born or unborn? Is it possible that he didn’t care what became of him now?
It’s possible. We don’t know. At least we don’t know for certain. But we can guess. His actions answer.
And so he sits alone in a South African prison. Not a “Russian” or “Communist” or “soldier” or “enemy” or any of those categories. Just-a-man who cared for just-a-woman for just-a-time more than anything else.
Here’s to you, Nicolai Pestretsov, wherever you may go and be, for giving powerful meaning to the promises that are the same everywhere; for dignifying that covenant that is the same in any language – “for better or for worse, in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, to love and honor and cherish unto death, so help me God.” You kept the faith; kept it bright – kept it shining. Bless you!
(Oh the Russians are a rotten lot, immoral, aggressive, ruthless, course and generally evil. They are responsible for most of the troubles in this world. They are not like us.)
More than thirty years ago I read Robert Fulghum’s bestseller “Everything I Need To Know I Learned In Kindergarten.” The story of Nicolai Pestretsov was one of many within its pages. I remembered it to this day. When I am moved by something, it stays with me.
The night Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was captured in Watertown had to rank as one of the lowest points of his life. That very night, I myself had hit a new low. I was forced to use a public laundromat, being that I was still homeless and jobless. My cats were still in cages at a vet across town; my belongings in Public Storage. I thought I had it bad.
So there I was sorting and folding while watching what turned out to be the end of the manhunt. I can tell you exactly where I was standing, looking up at the TV screen as the suspect was taken into custody.
I was glad it was over, glad they got him but not exultant like the crowd I watched celebrating in the streets. For one thing, I had not been locked inside my house all that time. I had not been scared to death for hours while a dangerous terrorist roamed my neighborhood. That had to be the reason for the odd feeling I began having. Right? Thanks to Boston’s Finest, we were all a little safer from terrorism. I could go home and forget about this. Right?
Like I said, when I am moved by something, it stays with me. I was profoundly moved by the events that unfolded in Watertown that night. I just didn’t know it yet.
It would be so much easier if I could just live my life with my head buried in the sand like so many others around me. I mean, we don’t need to know who Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is, because he is not like us. He is not really an American. He’s ethnic. And he’s a Muslim. And because he’s a Muslim, he must be a terrorist. Right?
During the trial, the prosecution presented evidence that, time after time, turned out not to be. If Mellin, Weinreb and company learn anything from that trial in the coming months, I hope it is this: “Be careful what you say in court, for what you say can and will be used against you.”
I’ve been reading through court documents. It has been slow going. The material is depressing and I have to keep taking breaks. To think that a young man was sentenced to death by “evidence,” by rhetoric of this poor quality is hard for me to accept, but there it is in black and white.
One statement Weinreb made during rebuttal really stands out to me: “I urge you to ask yourself this question: So what? Even if it’s true, so what?”
Even if it’s true, so what… That statement encapsulates the prevailing attitude of everyone from those in law enforcement and the FBI who repeatedly leaked carefully chosen information to the media prior to the trial, from O’Toole and two of the three appellate judges who repeatedly refused a much-warranted change of venue request from the defense, to those who intimidated, harassed, jailed, deported and/or murdered anyone even remotely able to hurt the prosecution – or help the defense. “Even if it’s true, so what…”
Well Mr. Weinreb, here’s where your words may come back to haunt you:
The prosecution showed a picture of what they said was Mecca that actually turned out to be the City of Grozny (nice picture, I might add). A big deal was made about this. My reaction: “So what? Whether it’s Mecca or Grozny, so what?”
The prosecution made a big deal about that black flag and the picture of Jahar sitting under it, pointing skyward. A very big deal. They pointed out that it is a flag of radicals, of jihad, when in fact, it is a standard religious flag of Islam with no sinister implications at all and so I say “So what if it hangs on the wall in the family apartment? So what?”
Unfortunately, some actual terrorist groups have apparently displayed that flag in some of their propaganda and that fact was enough for the government to try to present that flag as proof of Jahar’s radicalization. Islamophobia 101. Shame on them.
Now, about some of those tweets they presented at trial:
“It’s our responsibility my brothers & sisters to ask Allah to ease the hardships of the oppressed and give us victory over kufr.”
Kufr: I had to look that one up. I may be oversimplifying it, but here is what I found:
1. The kufr of denial and rejection: may take the form of disbelief in the heart, or one may believe it in the heart but reject it in their behavior
2. The kufr of turning away in arrogance
3. The kufr of hypocrisy: this takes the form of submitting outwardly to show off to people while not believing in the heart
4. The kufr of doubt
So after a quick study easily done at my computer, I understand this tweet to be saying Muslims are to pray to ask Allah to ease the hardships of the oppressed and to pray he will give them victory over denial and rejection of that which they are to have faith in, victory over turning away from their faith in arrogance, victory over hypocrisy and victory over doubt.
I don’t see anything radical in any of that. In fact, it sounds a whole lot like Christianity, but with a different God. So what if Jahar tweeted that… to be honest, I kind of like the fact that he did. He must have been thinking about living right and that’s always a good thing, in my humble opinion.
“Dua is truly the weapon of the believer, pray for the oppressed it is your duty.”
Does this tweet mean Jahar must be a radical Muslim terrorist? Nope. Again, I had to look up dua and found that it means “the act of supplication, calling out to God.” How ominous is that?
The Bible says this in 2 Corinthians 10: 4 – 6 “For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds, casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ, and being ready to punish all disobedience when your obedience is fulfilled.”
If you don’t know anything about Christianity, there are quite a few words in those three verses that could scare the daylights out of you. Maybe the defense should point this out in the upcoming appeal.
“I want the highest levels of Jannah, I want to be able to see Allah every single day for that is the best of pleasures.”
That’s funny, I want to go to heaven when I die and spend eternity with Jesus. Nothing sinister about that tweet either, so again, I say “So what if Jahar tweeted it…”
Islamophobia is real. Researching these tweets is just my way to try and combat it. Unraveling their meanings was easy; I just had to want to.
As I worked on this article, I suddenly recalled an incident in a shopping mall where I once had a small store. One night near closing time, when foot traffic in the mall was very light, I looked across the way and saw two young ethnic-looking men kneeling together, facing the wall. They were obviously, and discreetly, praying in the Muslim tradition. It frightened me. My first thought was that they were planning something and that I could be in danger. That, my friends, is Islamophobia. I am ashamed and embarrassed to tell you what I did next.
Two Christian friends had a small store around the corner from mine. I immediately went to them and pointed out what was happening. They shared my concern. We did what devout believers do: we stood in a circle right out in the open – and prayed.
I hope everyone reading this has already made the connection that didn’t hit me until some time later – after I’d already sent a concerned email to alert mall management. I was driving home that night, thinking about how lucky I was to have had fellow believers just around the corner who I could pray with when it hit me: I had been afraid of two young men who were doing nothing more than what I and my friends were doing: praying, in public, expressing faith to our God.
I felt terrible. I repented on the spot, sending a follow up email to mall management the next day. I had to. I will never forget that lesson. And I’m actually glad it happened – it was one of those teachable moments that will stay with me for the rest of my life.
So two devout young Muslims were discreetly praying together in a mall, obviously trying to serve their God as they saw fit. So what?
Weinreb might have a negative thing or two to say about it but actually, I honor them, whoever and wherever they are.