Living in a not particularly cosmopolitan area of the U.S., I haven’t come into contact with many Muslims. As far as I can remember the first one was a young man I met at some sort of social gathering quite a few years ago—sometime around 1980, I think. I can’t place the situation, but I remember listening to him debate the question of God with a skeptic. The Muslim impressed me. I don’t remember anything specific he said, but I do remember thinking that he did a good job of presenting the case for belief in God as both a rational proposition, a way of making sense of the world, and as the solution to the problem of what the human person most deeply wants—in that respect, he was almost Augustinian (“our hearts are restless…”). I was a newly reverted Christian at the time, and I found it interesting that on the fundamental questions I was in more agreement with him than with the American skeptic.
The question that presents itself rather pressingly to me tonight, as I read the latest about what have now been several days of Islamic tantrums, threats, and violence in response to a massive misreading of a gentle theological discourse by the Pope is whether that young man was something of a fluke. As of this moment the most recent instance of Islamic rage to come to my attention is an account of protestors outside Westminster Cathedral engaged in, among other multicultural pleasantries, calling down Allah’s curse upon the Pope. And, aspiring, it would seem, to the pinnacles of stereotype-confirmation, the Iranian press has discerned a Zionist plot behind the controversy. The contrast between the courtesy and intelligence of the Pope’s words and the deranged fury of the response couldn’t be more striking—and, I fear, more significant.
Is this the real face of Islam? Or, more relevantly, is it the face we are most likely to see, and with which we are most likely to have to deal, in our time? I’m afraid the answer to that may be yes. I don’t really know very much about Islam, but my impression is that it is, to use Mark Shea’s term, a brittle faith. I suspect that it’s one of the great over-simplifications that are often so tempting to mankind. It reminds me a good deal of a certain strain of fundamentalist Protestantism, the strain that came up with the formula “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.” A religion which believes its sacred text to be entirely unmediated by man doesn’t have a great deal of flexibility with which to respond to intellectual challenges. My guess about the future of Islam is that it will exhibit the Protestant tendency either to ossify or to dissolve, only more so. Perhaps that’s going on now, and it is the ossifying party that is now raging in the streets all over the world because a mild-mannered Christian leader recounted an unflattering remark about Islam, made by a Byzantine emperor who was very much under the threat of that violence.
How many are really raging? Too many, I’m sure. But considering the role the media played in starting this fire, we really ought to wonder about their role in sustaining it, and how much of the story even in, say, Karachi, is being told inaccurately. The first smoke appeared one day last week, in headlines like this one: “Pope enjoys private time after slamming Islam.” Now, that headline is the work of a nitwit, possibly a malicious nitwit (read the accompanying story if you think I’m being too harsh). We can be sure that very, very few of the outraged Muslims have read the address over which they’re outraged. That’s not too surprising. But it also appears that few journalists have—or, as Harry Truman said of Nixon and the Constitution, if they have read it, they didn’t understand it. That, unfortunately, is not very surprising, either, but it ought to be.
From what I’ve read, the most egregious of the non-understanders is, sadly but predictably, the New York Times. Anyone in a mood to savor the sheer porcine intellectual inertia of the Times may enjoy this piece; those indisposed will find it painful.
With reputable journalists peddling the falsehood that the Pope “slammed Islam,” and so encouraging the excitable, there’s at least room to hope that there are more Muslims like the one I met long ago than there are rabid fanatics setting fires and shooting nuns. Now is not the time for Catholics, who are, I think, obligated to look for what is good in every faith (without, of course, ignoring the bad and false), to lose their heads and surrender to an answering delerium of fury.
As I read the news reports I can’t help thinking of the famous passage from Newman’s Idea of a University:
Quarry the granite rock with razors, or moor the vessel with a thread of silk; then may you hope with such keen and delicate instruments as human knowledge and human reason to contend against those giants, the passion and the pride of man.
It’s easy to see the relevance of those words to the fanatics who haven’t read, and probably couldn’t or wouldn’t understand if they did read, the Pope’s talk on faith and reason. But they are just as relevant to the New York Times. Willful obtuseness can walk around Manhattan in a three-piece suit as well as Tehran in a robe, and probably deserves more blame for snapping the silken thread.Pre-TypePad