Tuesday, October 19, 2010

A Christian Approach to Islam

At the Men's Night held at the Catholic Student Center on Friday, amid a haze of tobacco and bonhomie, the proposed Islamic center near ground zero in New York came up -- I have forgotten exactly how. This being America, two sides promptly developed, one opposed to the proposed mosque on the basis of deep patriotism, and the other vocally in favor of it on the basis of deep patriotism.

The debate never, thank God, became uncivil; but I don't think it came to a conclusion either. The one side objected strongly because the terrorists of September 11th were, after all, Moslems, and committed that atrocity in the name of Islam. A friend of mine, arguing for that side, pointed out that an ancient Moslem custom was to build mosques at the site of major Moslem victories, and following the proposal would delight the extremist enemies of our nation. Another friend, taking the opposite tack, argued that it was not only acceptable but actively desirable to build a mosque there: mainstream Islam is just as shocked and saddened by these attacks as the rest of the world, and having an Islamic center there would be a sign of sorrow for that tragedy and of rejection of the philosophy that inspired it.

My own position was, and remains, irrelevant. What I'd like to do is frame the question with more nuance, because I suspect that we find it easier to take positions than to think out what position is the more reasonable.

First, as to the mosque proposal. There isn't one. That is, there is a proposal for an Islamic center, which would contain what amounts to a mosque: a place where Moslems do, or can, gather on Fridays for communal prayers and listening to the reading of the Qur'an. But a mosque is not analogous to a Catholic church, or even most Protestant ones. Islam has no Incarnation, no sacraments, no saints in the Christian sense; it has persons whom it reveres (including, by the by, Jesus and Mary), but it has very little sense of the miraculous and no sense of a place of worship as a sacred space. This is not to knock Islam by any means. They simply aren't, for several reasons, the sort of thing that Islam happens to have or feels the need for. The only really sacred site for a Moslem would, I imagine, be the Ka'aba. Consequently, Moslem worship can take place anywhere in principle -- and, in predominantly Islamic cultures, does: when the muezzin calls the faithful five times daily for prayer, every faithful Moslem drops what he or she is doing and immediately faces Mecca and recites the appropriate prayers. (I wish Catholics had that kind of simple-hearted, instantaneous devotion. You see it with us sometimes -- for instance, when a ciborium or a monstrance containing the Host passes, Catholics will genuflect and make the sign of the cross -- but I'd like to see it more.)

Because of this, trying to ban the building of an Islamic center at that particular locale doesn't really tally with, say, trying to prevent the building of a Catholic church there. The absence of a mosque in the formal sense would not prevent any of the activities of a mosque from happening there. One could, I suppose, set up a small mosque in a private house; there are makeshift mosques in some places, such as the predominantly Catholic parts of the Philippines. Now, it would not bother me if a mosque, makeshift or otherwise, were set up in New York, whether at the proposed site or elsewhere -- actually, there is already an Islamic center only a few blocks further away. But, if it does bother anyone, it should be noted that the erection of an Islamic center sensu stricto would not really change anything -- nor would preventing it objectively prevent anything, except hurt feelings.

And why would some people's feelings, notably those of relatives of the victims, be hurt? Because the terrorists were Moslems. But let's clear that up too. Do we believe that all terrorists are Moslems? Of course not; look at Timothy McVeigh. Do we believe all Moslems are terrorists? Well, no. Are we aware that some of the victims of the September 11th attacks were, in fact, American Moslems? If not, was it because we had vaguely assumed, or rather imagined, that the World Trade Center was full of WASPs?

Are we willing to regard a Moslem as being, or as being able to be, a good American?

Of course we're going to answer Yes to that question when asked flat-out. But I think we need to pause and probe our mental image of Islam, just for a moment, and our mental image of America, too; and I believe we ought to ask ourselves whether, perhaps, there is a certain degree of bigotry in our approach to the question.

The general media angle on Islam shows us all the worst stuff about all the worst Moslems and Islamic regimes: ethnic "cleansing" of Kurds in Iraq, virulent anti-Semitism from Ahmadinejad, the murder of Indonesian converts to Christianity, suicide bombings of Israeli settlements in Palestine, the works. I can only imagine that Moslems who live here in the U.S. are, on the whole, as horrified by such things as the rest of us. But stop and think for a moment how we would feel if we -- we Caucasian Catholics (or otherwise), from a predominantly Christian, democratic society, knowing from within its strengths and virtues without being blind to its weaknesses -- imagine if we lived in a country like Saudi Arabia. And there, let us say, we saw on television a media image of this country in particular, and the West in general, based on abortions and abortion clinic bombings, on rape statistics, divorce rates, contempt and cruelty toward the poor (the sin of Sodom, according to Ezekiel), a nation of immigrants bent on preventing immigration, a nation plunged in intellectual and moral chaos, to all appearances ...

And now imagine -- just try -- how you would feel if everyone around you said, "Yes, that's what these Christians are like. Well, Christians, Americans, it's the same thing, really; it's just their culture. It's because of their religion -- their Bible is full of violence and racism -- and take a look at the history of the Church. Oh, they say that Christianity is a 'religion of peace,' but their history sure doesn't reflect that, and even if it did, I know how our national neighbors over in Iraq and Afghanistan feel about it right now, and what the state-less Palestinians think, too. Look what happened on the news last week." And so on.

The media concentrates on negatives because that is what makes for news. People will watch a story about an abortionist being murdered in the name of Christ. People will probably not bother to watch a story about someone praying a Rosary in the name of Christ. Likewise, people will sit up and take notice when a hijacker flies an airplane into a tall building to serve Allah. But people will be less likely to notice when a father teaches his little boy to tell the truth to serve Allah.

It is very difficult to resist the subtle and unceasing influence of the media on our perception of Islam. But for the sake, not of Christian charity, but of mere common honesty, we have got to try. Perhaps we have read part of the Qur'an. Fine; when we have read as much of the Qur'an as we have read of the Bible, we will be qualified to comment on its contents and their meaning, in the same measure that we are qualified to provide such commentary on the Bible. Perhaps we are acquainted with the Hadith: very well; when we can quote the Hadith as casually and accurately as we quote the Church Fathers, we may deliver our opinion on the Hadith as we do on the Church Fathers. Perhaps we know something of Moslem history and of its various sects. Excellent; when we know as much about those things as we do about Church history and of our own multifarious denominations, we may discuss them both intelligently. But not before. And you may be sure that, if we do not even know the scrolls and the traditions of our own faith, every Moslem has every right to take an exceedingly dim view of our pontifications about what his religion is, says, and does.

It may seem odd, but almost the only thing that bothered me about the conversation that night was that one young Catholic there said something about the proposed mosque pleasing "our enemies." Moslem terrorists (which applies to all Islam in exactly the same way that 'Christian terrorists' applies to all Christianity) may be irrevocably opposed to America. Let them be. I categorically refuse to regard them, or any other Moslems, as my enemies. I have one enemy, and that is sin, because sin is the enemy of God. Sin exists in me quite as certainly as it does in Osama bin Laden; indeed, I may be far worse than he is -- I do not know how he was brought up, or taught, or sinned against by Christians from the West. Islam and sin are two different things. Terrorism is a sin, but terrorists are not sin. Christ died for terrorists, too. And when we are faced with the decision of whether, in our own heart attitude toward them we elect to love or to hate, let us be mindful that Whatever ye have done to the least of these, My brethren ...

C. S. Lewis relates a short, powerful story of speaking with a pastor from continental Europe who had lived through the Second World War. He said that this pastor had met (or at least seen in person) Adolf Hitler on one occasion, and that he had what most people would regard as good cause to hate him. "What did he look like?" asked the apologist. The pastor replied, "Like all men. That is, like Christ."

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