Muslims and Mosques and Imams, Oh My!
Islam has come under fire from seemingly every front recently. Proposed mosques in New York and Tennessee are being heavily protested. Muslim parents are being accused of coming to the US only to have what some Republican senators are calling “terror babies,” children who will grow up indoctrinated in the Islamist tradition and eventually turn on America. Roughly one-third of Americans still believe Barack Obama is Muslim, even though he isn’t (For those of you who doubt me, read this). Lt. Governor of Tennessee Ron Ramsey recently insinuated that Islam is not a religion protected by the 1st Amendment, but is instead “a nationality, way of life, cult…” A church in Gainesville, Florida is planning a Qur’an burning on September 11 of this year. Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the man who hopes to build the New York mosque, has come under fire as a divisive extremist when all he’s trying to do is forge a new, moderate way forward for his faith.
And while much of this discussion has been couched in political terms, for me it’s not a political issue. On the one hand it’s an issue of profound ignorance in regards to Islam, and on the other it’s a profound ignorance of Christian theology and history. For me, this is an issue of religion, plain and simple, and so, with only this one sidelong reference to the 1st Amendment, I shall argue theologically. By the end of this post, I hope we can all agree what we need is a little more tolerance, and that one of the best ways for tolerance to be achieved is for the mosques in New York and Murfreesboro to be built.
First, tolerance. I belong (and you do to, if you’re a Baptist or really any other stripe of Protestant that got its start in the Reformation) to a tradition that was founded, in part, on the basis of religious liberty. Listen to the words of 16th century Swiss Anabaptist Balthasar Hubmaier:
“16. A Turk or a heretic is not convinced by our act, either with the sword or with fire, but only with patience and prayer; and so we should await with patience the judgment of God.
17. If we do otherwise, God will treat our sword as stubble, and burning fire as mockery (Job 41:29).
18. So unholy and far off from evangelical doctrine is the whole order of preaching friars [Dominicans], that hitherto out of them alone the inquisitors come.
19. If these only knew of what spirit they ought to be, they would not so shamelessly pervert God’s Word, nor so often cry, “To the fire, to the fire!” (Luke 9:54-56).”
We Protestants (or at least our forebears) know what it is to be the persecuted minority religion. Because of our refusal to swear oaths and serve in the military, our Anabaptist ancestors were often arrested and killed, sometimes with a gruesomely ironic drowning. We even suffered at the hands of other Protestants, watching in horror as Lutheran and Calvinist brothers turned our leaders over to secular authorities. We wouldn’t wish that fate on our worst enemies, and so we should never wish it upon any other religion
Baptist John Leland goes even farther:
“The liberty I contend for is more than toleration. The very idea of toleration is despicable; it supposes that some have a preeminence above the rest to grant indulgence, whereas all should be equally free, Jews, Turks, Pagans and Christians.”
Toleration is a weak word. It suggest we know firmly we are right, and we merely allow the other faiths of the world to exist at our pleasure, provided they don’t get out of line.
On the notion of certainty, listen to this little gem from staunch Calvinist Pierre Bayle:
“It is utterly impossible to arrive at such a degree of certainty with regard to this single Point of Fact, that such a Text of Scripture is justly rendered; that a Word which is now in the Greek or Hebrew Copies, has been always in them; and that the Sense which the Paraphrasts, the Commentators, and Translators give it, is exactly that of the Author. We may have a moral Certainty of this, and founded on very high Probabilities; but after all, this kind of Certainty may subsist in the Soul of one who is actually deceived, and therefore is no infallible Character of Truth: This is not what we call Criterium Veritatis, that is irresistible Evidence, whereby we know, for example, that the Whole is greater than its Part; that if from equal things we take things equal, the remainder will be equal; that six is half twelve, &c.”
Bayle points out, and rightly, that even in one aspect of our faith, scripture, we can never be entirely certain. We can never know, beyond all shadows of any doubt, that we have chosen the right faith (partially because doubt is a part of faith, but that’s for another post) so what right do we have, ultimately, to question the faith of another? We can be convinced of our own beliefs, surely, but not because of logical proofs, but because of faith. Likewise, a Muslim is convinced of his or her faith because of belief, not logic. To attempt to argue correctness on some kind of logical, empirical ground is foolish. And it gets us no closer to understanding truth. What we need is tolerance and respect.
One of the best ways to promote tolerance is to build the New York City mosque and others like it. I refuse to call it the “Ground Zero Mosque,” as it is not only two blocks away from Ground Zero, but stands for the moderate, peaceful Islam in staunch opposition to the extremist Islamists that propagated the attacks. Interestingly enough, mosques have existed in the neighborhood since the 70s, and the building where Imam Rauf is proposing the new mosque has been used as a prayer hall since early 2009 (side note: nobody was complaining then). The “Hallowed Ground” of the neighborhood is also home to the New York Dolls, a strip club, that doesn’t seem to offend the sensibilities of this new sacred space. Hell, you can’t even see the current building from Ground Zero; your view is blocked by a US Post Office (I have been unable to determine if the new 13 storey building would be visible from the site, however).
But these points are periphery to the main one: Imam Rauf represents the kind of Islam that is antithetical to the kind of violent, malignant Islamist tradition that destroyed the World Trade Center. This mosque is more than a mosque. It is a symbol of moving forward, a bright light that Islam refuses to be defined by its worst adherents and will instead produce something powerful and positive and good from great tragedy. It is a movement that we should embrace. In the same way that we strive to be better than our dark shadows, so should we support this attempt by Islam to become better than its own demons.
I do not in any way want to belittle the terrible tragedy that we experienced on September 11, 2001, but it was not propagated by true Muslims. In the same way that I cannot be held responsible for the Crusades or the failure of the church to act in any kind of powerful manner during the Holocaust, so Imam Rauf and all moderate, peace-loving Muslims cannot be held responsible for an extremist sect that does not even follow the rules of warfare as laid down in the Qur’an. I don’t claim to be an expert on the subject, but I do know that the Qur’an forbids pre-emptive violence and the killing of non-combatants, both of which occurred on September 11. Rauf’s Islam is a peaceful way forward, a moderate Islam that remembers 9th century Cordoba when Jews, Muslims, and Christians lived side by side in peace (the proposed mosque would be part of a larger community center called the Cordoba House). He has been hailed by numerous figures in the sphere of religion for his attempts at building bridges between Islam and the West. If we silence this voice, if we stop this mosque from being built, we take a big step backward, a big step into the intolerance and hate that have characterized the relationship between our two faiths.
As Padraic O’Hare recently said, “Build a Muslim house of prayer near Ground Zero? … Hand me a shovel.”