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Renée Loth

The yoga fatwa

By Renée Loth
February 27, 2009
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RECENTLY I read that Indonesia's top Islamic body has banned yoga for the country's Muslims, claiming that the ancient Hindu practice could corrupt the purity of the faith. Similar rulings were handed down in Malaysia and Egypt last year. As strict religious edicts go, banning yoga isn't up there with honor killings or acid attacks. But it sure is another reason to love America.

Ours is a magpie culture, borrowing whatever shiny items we choose to ornament our lives. We celebrate Cinquo de Mayo not because we are descendants of Mexican immigrants, but because we like cerveza and nachos or (somewhat less likely) mariachi music. We might have African masks or Tibetan prayer flags hanging from our walls. Yoga is less a religious ritual than a chance to stretch out the kinks of modern life in expensive spandex, even if we do call the poses by their proper Sanskrit names or chant the sound of Om.

The casual appropriation of foreign ideas and customs is part of the genius of American pluralism. Where else but the United States would Japanese Taiko drummers join with the Soweto Gospel Chorus to perform the best-song nomination from an Indian movie, as they did for this week's Academy Awards? Talk about the multicultural mosaic! If we could figure out how to bottle this easy fluency it could be our most valuable cultural export, better even than jazz or baseball.

America's embrace of other nationalities may be part of its democratic character, but it's also accelerated by capitalism: Almost no artifact is too exotic or sacred to be repackaged into a hip new consumer good. I get a catalog in the mail that features sandalwood prayer beads, netti pots to clear the sinuses, and statues of (your choice) St. Anthony, the Buddha, or the Virgin of Guadalupe, conveniently sized for a home altar.

It's easy to poke fun at this kind of cafeteria spirituality, but America's tradition of non-sectarianism has a lot to offer, and not just to developing countries. Supposedly liberal Old Europe has suffered from culture clashes with immigrants and racial or religious minorities, sometimes violently. From the murder of the filmmaker Theo van Gogh to riots in the poor housing projects outside Paris, the failure of assimilation in Europe is a stain on the continent's enlightenment ideals.

The melting pot model seems to work better. The United States is too big and diverse (and busy trying to get ahead) to be much threatened by modest expressions of faith or tradition.

It's hard to imagine, for example, that the question of whether a young Muslim girl can wear a headscarf in a public school would consume the highest levels of American government, as it has not just in Turkey but in Germany and France. It's even harder to imagine that the headscarves would be forbidden.

Of course, the United States is not without racial and ethnic bigotry and tension, much of it emanating from its original sin of slavery. There have been witch trials and the internment of Japanese-American citizens. And in recent years the country came perilously close to losing touch with its founding values, as anti-immigrant sentiment and fear of Islamic terrorism combined to create periodic upsurges of xenophobia. Guantanamo, English-only movements, and the wall being erected along the Mexican border are only the most recent symptoms. Still, people in New Jersey aren't slaughtering Pennsylvanians over ancient tribal differences. We have football for that.

In the 1990s, sales of salsa overtook ketchup among American consumers. Nativists got restless because they feared the increasing influence of Latino culture. But the profusion of cheap burrito joints isn't threatening the good old American hamburger (named for a foreign city, after all). Even McDonald's serves up a Salsa Snack Wrap.

According to the Associated Press, Indonesia's Ulema Council issued its ruling after investigators visited gyms and private yoga classes and found some of them included chanting, which could "weaken or erode" the faith. The clerics said those performing yoga purely for health or sport reasons will not be affected. Sure.

Give me our mongrel nation anytime, with its Spanglish and gumbo and biracial president. "Purity" is another word for nothing left to choose.

Renée Loth is editorial page editor of the Globe.

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