In the spring of 2000 I spent a semester in Jerusalem, taking classes at Bethlehem University (a Palestinian institution) and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Shortly before becoming a Jesuit I made another pilgrimage to the Holy Land, in the spring of 2006.
While in the Holy Land the second time I heard two Western tour guides, on separate occasions, tell an encouraging story about inter-religious cooperation. When Pope John Paul II celebrated Mass in Bethlehem’s Manger Square in the spring of 2000, the guides said, the mosque on the edge of the square silenced the call to prayer it normally broadcast at noon so as not to disturb the papal liturgy. According to the guides, doing so was an unprecedented gesture of goodwill.
There’s only one problem with this cheerful tale: it isn’t true.
I was in Manger Square that morning when the pre-recorded call to prayer came blasting over the Mosque of Omar’s loudspeakers midway through the Prayers of the Faithful. The lector paused, everyone stared at their feet in embarrassment for a few moments, and, when the recording finished, we went on with the Mass. When I visited six years after the fact, I had a conversation with a local Christian who told me that the interruption of that liturgy is still seen as a painful reminder of that community’s minority status.
Last week’s discussion of the proposed Park 51 mosque reminded me of the tour guides’ story. The original post argues, quite rightly, that a greater knowledge of Islam and of things religious more generally, would be a good thing. But underlying this argument runs an implicit narrative that goes something like this: we’re all pretty much decent folks and share the same basic human values regardless of superficial differences (say race or religion) and once we learn more about each other our suspicions and conflicts will melt away.
This story is one of the late twentieth century’s great narratives and is implicit in many of the stories we read and movies we see. It’s present, in slightly different ways—to pick two recent films at random—in Invictus and Avatar. It’s the “story” implicit in John Lennon’s “Imagine.” It’s a particularly powerful story because quite often it is, thankfully, true, and it certainly shapes the way we understand our own history. The civil rights movement—the great national story for many generations of Americans—is a version of this narrative.
This narrative is a good story in every sense. When it’s true, then things turn out better for everyone: prejudices are overcome and we take a step toward a more peaceful world. The narrative is a good story in the other sense of being a compelling tale: there are both internal and external struggles to be waged and usually there are Good Guys and Bad Guys it’s easy to root for or against. (The villain in the Park 51 posting isn’t too hard to spot, is she?)
But what happens when this narrative isn’t true?
My basic disagreement with the Park 51 post is not with its call for greater religious knowledge and understanding, including knowledge and understanding of Islam; it’s with the implicit assumption that once we come to know Islam we’ll find that it really teaches the same sorts of things we all believe anyway, that a mosque is basically just a church with a crescent instead of a cross on top.
I’ve lived and traveled in the Muslim world (Central Asia, the Middle East, East Africa) and read the Koran, but I’m not going to pose as an expert on Islamic history, law, or culture. The more I’ve learned the more cautious I’ve grown about generalizations, whether they be the “All Muslims are potential terrorists” or “Islam is a religion of peace” variety. Both of these statements strike me as equally vacuous. Nor am I just making a point about there being a great deal of internal diversity within Islam; it seems to me that there are patterns of thought which are characteristically Islamic.
My point is that once we have come to appreciate these modes of thought we might find out that they are quite different from secular or Christian ways of thinking. And we might even find out that some of these Islamic ways of thinking are disturbing and objectionable.
A number of Western European countries are finding themselves in just such a position now, as their embrace of “diversity” as an overriding value has floundered when confronted with people who are, well, different.
I think what has happened in these Western societies is that our own religious beliefs have become so vague and watered down that we no longer realize how important genuine differences in religious belief can be. An excellent study on American religion (Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers by Christian Smith, 2005) concluded that most young Americans of all religious denominations believe in an unofficial de facto creed the researchers call, tellingly, “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.”
The basic tenets of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism are things like: God exists; God wants us to be nice; the goal of life is to feel good; God does not need to be overly involved in our lives except when necessary to solve a problem; and everybody goes to heaven, except maybe Hitler.
The point of dragging Moralistic Therapeutic Deism into this discussion is that it cuts across all official religious affiliations: most Catholics are Moralistic Therapeutic Deists, as are most Baptists, Methodists, Jews, etc. Most of us probably have a little Moralistic Therapeutic Deist inside, and when most of the believers we meet—regardless of what they call themselves officially—really do believe the same sort of anodyne things, it’s easy for us to assume that the more we get to know each other the more we’ll find that our differences are all benign. Those who are really different we can dismiss as “extremists,” which is an easy way to avoid having to think much further.
Most contemporary Americans may be Moralistic Therapeutic Deists, but that doesn’t mean everyone is. When we begin to look at Muslims steeped in Islamic rather than (secular) Western culture we should not expect to find other Moralistic Therapeutic Deists. We should not be surprised if we find people who think quite differently than ourselves.
Of course, if we really want to, we’ll be able to find what we want. If we’re eager to find and stereotype foreign enemies, we’ll be able to do that. If we’re most interested in proving our moral superiority to Sarah Palin and the “neo-cons,” well, we’ll be able to do that too. We’ll always be able to proof-text the Koran to fit our preconceptions, just as some people proof-text the Bible.
There’s a (probably apocryphal) story that when Winston Churchill read the Koran, he put it down and declared, “As long as this book exists, there will never be peace on earth.” When I read the Koran, trying to imagine that I took it as seriously as I do the Bible and the teachings of the Church, my impression wasn’t as harsh as Churchill’s. I remember thinking that if I were a Muslim I probably wouldn’t become a suicide bomber myself—but I might not be willing to condemn other Muslims who engaged in such violence either. I put the book down feeling unsettled and just a little bit disturbed.
That’s what happens when we leave comfortable narratives behind.