Monday, August 16, 2010

A Cloud of Witnesses

By Eric Von Salzen

A day or two after 9/11, an interfaith meeting was held at my church (St. Alban’s, Washington, DC). It was part of a series of meetings among Christians, Jews, and Muslims that had been going on for quite awhile, but they changed whatever the planned agenda had been for this meeting and focused on the terrorist attacks.

I went and listened to clergy, lay leaders, and regular folks from all three Abrahamic faiths express their shock, their sorrow, and their anger at these vicious attacks on our country. No Christian and no Jew blamed the attacks on Islam, and no Muslim offered any defense of the killers.

I think about the Muslims I heard speak at that meeting when I hear and read about the controversy over the “Ground Zero Mosque”, the proposed Islamic center that the Cordoba Initiative wants to build a couple of blocks from the World Trade Center site. If the Muslims who spoke at St. Alban’s nine years ago want to worship God in that location, how could I object? They were not complicit in the attacks; they are as much enemies of the terrorists as I am.

If the Catholic Church were to propose building a facility two blocks from the site of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, would anyone object on the ground that Timothy McVeigh was raised a Catholic?

But some people do object, including some of the families of people killed at the World Trade Center. We owe it to the memory of those who died to think about the objections seriously. We owe it to ourselves, too, because all Americans were (and are) targets of the terrorists. Platitudes about America’s commitment to religious tolerance – true as they are – are insufficient to answer the objections.

The problem, as I see it, is that the 9/11 killers and those who sent them didn’t just “happen to be” Muslims. Their Muslim faith was the central motive for what they did. They acted out of a deep conviction that Islam sanctioned these actions; more than that, they believed that Islam demanded this action.

The Muslims I heard speak at St. Alban’s that evening rejected that claim. They denied that Islam permits, much less requires, such murderous actions. They condemned as false and un-Islamic the religious claims of the terrorists. I believed them.

The problem that many people have, who oppose the “Ground Zero Mosque”, is that they didn’t hear the Muslims that I heard at St. Alban’s. Most Americans, I believe, don’t know many, or any, Muslims very well. We hear and read that al-Qaida and other Islamic terrorist groups claim to be the “true” Islam, and we don’t have Muslim friends and neighbors and co-workers to tell us, No, that’s not true.

We have the news media, of course, and that’s what most of us rely on to learn about things in the world beyond our own individual experience. Perhaps I read the wrong newspapers, watch the wrong TV shows, read the wrong websites, but I have the sense that the voices of the Muslims I heard at St. Alban’s aren’t being heard very much. I have the sense that most Americans don’t hear, on a regular basis, prominent Muslims and spokespersons for Muslim organizations condemning Islamic religious extremism. The news has been full of Islamic extremism, whether it’s terrorism in the US or the UK or Bali, whether it’s violence or threats of violence against cartoonists who dare to depict the Prophet or movie-makers who criticize Muslim treatment of women, or whether it’s a fatwa against a novelist who criticizes Islam.

What the news has not been full of, so far as I can tell, is Muslim voices condemning Islamic extremism.

So when people hear that Muslims want to build a facility near the “sacred ground” where the World Trade Center once stood, they ask themselves: Are they on our side or on the other side? And they are not confident that the answer is, They’re on our side.

The Cordoba Initiative says that it seeks to improve “Muslim-West relations”. That is a noble goal and something we desperately need. I think they need to ask themselves whether building in this particular location serves that purpose.

(By the way, the photo at the top of this post is not the "Ground Zero Mosque", but what was once the Great Mosque of Cordoba, Spain. It is now a Roman Catholic Church. We live in a complicated world.)


  1. I'm glad I had your site already bookmarked. Never having been to the US I cannot easily speak about your country and your culture (and I have a question or two for you about that)but what you say seems to me to be compellingly true.

    I have lost count of the number of Muslims I have known or worked with in my time, and most of them would not have hurt a fly. But there are some irritants: the continuing failure of the Middle East peace process which is like a weeping sore; the influence of the Wahhabi sect; the unthinking readiness of some Muslims to express antisemitic drivel for no reason at all, and to resort to bombastic, empty rhetoric with no idea of how it sounds to the rest of us; and continuing lack of democracy and economic growth in the Arab world and Pakistan. But it would also help if American culture (as I perceive it) would forsake some of its unthinking pietism and be actively open to the many different aspects of this problem. The obvious answer is that national leadership should take up the challenge. Will it do so?

    Meanwhile, let me ask you this: if the US is so full of believers, why does one never see anybody in American TV shows attend any kind of worship? The only ones I can think of, besides Father Dowling reruns of course, are The West Wing and one episode each of ER and thirtysomething, long ago.

  2. Thanks for the thoughtful comments John.

    I'm particularly intrigued by your query in the last paragraph. I hadn't thought about it, but because most Americans go to church, TV shows that don't depict them doing so present a distorted view of life. Of course, we know that TV shows present distorted views of life all the time for dramatic purposes -- how many people run across at least a murder a week in real life? -- but is there a dramatic purpose in excluding church? I don't know.