Two stories occurring thousands of miles apart this past week point out some painful realities in the ongoing clash of western and islamic culture. The first is the harrowing story of the murder of ten healthcare workers by the Taliban in a remote part of Afghanistan last week, the second the controversy of building an Islamic mosque within sight of the World Trade Center site in New York City. The battle lines are formed tightly around the the concept in western culture of religious tolerance, and in islamic culture, the apparent lack thereof.
In Northern Afghanistan, 10 aid workers providing essential medical services to locals were ambushed by the Taliban who accused them of proselytizing Christianity and summarily executed them for the crime. The aid group was comprised of veterans of many years in Afghanistan, and regional aid services denied that the group , though containing some Christians, were performing any other services other than medical care to the needful population. The apparent presence of bibles in their possession apparently sealed their fate. Putting aside the incredibly risky actions of the workers in attempting to provide basic humanitarian services in a war zone, the unique cultural insecurity reflected again and again by Taliban actions against the basic human rights of their own population and understanding of other cultural representations of religious truth is a telling character flaw in the islamic psyche.
At a site several hundred feet from the World Trade Center ruins , an islamic group hopes to build a 100 million dollar 13 story tall islamic cultural center and mosque called Cordoba House celebrating Islamic expression and community outreach. The cleric responsible for the project, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, has refused to indicate the source of funding for such a significant structure in a city with a minimal islamic population, and has been previously quoted as saying that United States policies were responsible for the Sept 11, 2001 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. The issue of a potentially triumphal structure so close to the scene of tragedy in the clash of civilizations has left many New Yorkers divided in what is the appropriate course of action. Would the allowance of the mosque structure be a healing process and a sign of appropriate religious tolerance guaranteed in our own Bill of Rights, or simply a lack of understanding of Islam’s need for triumphalist structures to signify the superiority of the Islamic truth over all other cultural visions. How the argument turns out is bound to reflect on both cultures and provide definition for future attempts to interpret the events of 9/11.
The telling juxtaposition is the religious home of Islam, Saudi Arabia, forbidding Jews to visit, and Christians to build churches to practice their faith. A Reformation in in 1517 allowed Christianity to diversify and re-orient its faith along many interpretative traditions that eventually strengthened the religion through its own tolerance of the diversity of expressions of faith. The Islamic faith will never survive long term its own intolerance as long as the insecurity it finds in its own faith message results in the destructive actions it continues to promote. A muslim Luther is long over due.