I received an e.mail this week which was one of those ‘circular’ e.mails which ask you to ‘pass it on’. There were a number of pictures of Muslim Friday Prayers, with people taking up a part of Park Avenue in New York for the occasion. Here is the content of the e.mail.
“A Christian Nation cannot put up a Christmas scene of the baby Jesus in a public place, but the Muslims can stop normal traffic every Friday afternoon by worshiping in the streets…. Something is happening in America that is reminiscent of what is happening in Europe. This is Political Correctness gone crazy… Something has gone amuck in America , BIG TIME! Scary! Isn’t it? Is there a message here???? Yes, there is, and they are claiming America for Allah. If we don’t wake up soon, we are going to “politically correct” ourselves right out of our own country!” This requires some reflection.
The first thing to be said is about violence and political systems. In ‘the West’ we have come to a collective understanding that many different beliefs can live side by side, so long as everyone agrees that it is through the political process of elections that change is brought about. Also, the idea of the separation of Church and State means that Christian belief is not identified with one ruling group or another. The wars of religion after the Reformation, and the devastation that they brought to Europe, stimulated the birth of the Enlightenment, and a determination that people no longer be able to kill each other for religion’s sake.
There is a particular part of Islam that does not think this. This section of Islam says ‘The way of life dictated by Sharia Law is God’s standard for behavior for everyone, interpreted by us, and we have a legitimate right to use violence to bring this about.’
That fact acknowledged, it is now important to say (1) This is not the whole of Isalm, but a very small minority. By far the majority of Muslims live in Indonesia! (2) This view is shared by many in the US who killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis for the now non-existent ‘Weapons of Mass Destruction’ and the establishment of ‘Democracy’ in Iraq. The ‘Oklahoma Bombing’, the biggest terrorist attack in the US before the 11th September attacks, was committed by Timothy McVeigh who wanted revenge against the US Government for its handling by violence of another group of ‘different Christian believers’ (the Branch Davidians) who also used violence to defend themselves against the FBI. These attacks, including the numerous mass killings of school children in the US, and in Norway for example, are not the result of radical Islam, but of radical ‘westerners’, just like us. So let me say it clearly: I do not think that we have anything serious to fear from the large majority of the forms of Islam.
So why do we target Muslims as the focus for our fear?
The comments on the photographs begin by complaining about the prohibition of setting up a Manger Scene in public because of ‘Political Correctness’. I agree. Everyone, including Muslims and Christians and Jews and Hindus and Sikhs should be allowed to claim public space for their religions, because they are citizens and citizens have a right to play a part in the life of the ‘city’.That is the meaning of the word ‘citizen’. The origins of ‘Political Correctness’ stem from a wanting not to offend others. But as a strategy for dealing with difference, I do not think that abolishing any signs of difference is the best way to be polite. It is better to acknowledge the differences, with the proviso that the one difference: the one that says “I am different from you in that my beliefs make it right to kill you under certain circumstances” is abolished. At a local level it is much better to say ‘Happy Hanukkah’ and ‘Happy Christmas’ and ‘Have a good Ramadan’, than it is to say ‘Happy Holidays’. The former way of greeting requires a deeper knowledge of other people’s customs and beliefs, so that we can be really polite to them by being able to greet them in terms that are important to them. As well, Christians do take over lots of public places on Good Friday for example, for Stations of the Cross. We do not hear other groups complaining that we take over the whole of St. Martin’s cemetery on Good Friday do we?
But there is also a certain amount of shame about that many Christians feel too. I remember on one skiing holiday, I stayed in a village in Graubunden with a person called Monika. I met her on the steps as I was going to Church. I said ‘Ah, the mother of St. Augustine!’ ‘Yes, she replied. We are all Catholics here. We should go to Church more often, but we don’t. We’ll wait till the Muslims come.’ Well they’ve come, and they show us up with their devotion. If the writer of the e.mail is frightened of being ‘politically corrected right out of their own country’ (something I can’t see myself when Muslims are still according to a 2010 study 0.8% of the US population (compared with 5% in Switzerland)). A good response would be to recover some confidence in being Christian, and a re-commitment to a similar level of devotion. Christian devotion would then drive out the irrational fear of ‘the other’ and remind us that ‘Yet cheerful He, to suffering goes, that he his foes from thence might save.’
There is another, more sinister reason that I think causes this targeting of Islam for our fear: our psychological need to divide up the world into ‘Us’ and ‘Them’. The end of the cold war leaves a gap in the objects of our fear. Governments need, as Blogger, Alex Marsh says ‘the manufacture of perpetual fear to justify pervasive surveillance of a docile population.’ (May 2013). By buying into extreme positions regarding people who are different, we also buy into an increasing diminution of our own freedom.
Christianity has a ‘take’ of the business of ‘difference’. This is because the chief image of Christian faith, and our main practice in he Eucharist is that of reconciliation. We should be wary of people who try to put us into positions of being ‘either’ ‘or’ too soon. We should understand that fear is at the bottom of a lot of this polarising thinking, and that ‘perfect love casts out fear.’ Now Martin Luther did say that the role of the state’s coercive powers (the sword) is to enable enough space for this Gospel to be heard. Where there is a genuine threat to the free competition for allegiance, and the free exchange of ideas, and the sharing of the public space by all citizens, then there is a case to be made for the state to use its coercive powers to ensure these freedoms. But we are a long way from that situation now.
I think that we can use the current increase in visibility of Islam to increase our own devotional practice and faithfulness in attending Worship. We can use it to think about how love and reconciliation might operate in this situation. We might use it to see how we are manipulated by people in whose interests it is to keep us afraid of ‘something’ now that the Russians are not coming.