Wither the Clash of Civilizations?...Not Just Yet

09/07/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Jun 29, 2011

I visited a mosque in Abu Dhabi, the oil soaked capital of the United Arab Emirates today with a friend of mine who lives and works here. I'm in the UAE en route to Afghanistan to cover the elections. The mosque is somewhat unique here in the Arabian peninsula in that the Friday sermon is conducted mostly in English alongside the mandatory Arabic in which Islamic prayer must be conducted. I doubt few if any of the talking heads on cable television have ever been a fly on the wall in such an environment while they continue to provide expertise on the region and its customs. The imam, who was a shrouded Arab man in middle age, had an excellent and fiery command of the English language. The mosque patrons were an a cross section of the UAE's incredibly diverse population. Bengalis, Indonesians, Pakistanis, Sudanese, Egyptians, Indians and so forth. The UAE, most obviously in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, has a very obvious and regimented ethnic and cultural hierarchy with native Arabs, Emiratis, at the top, Western expats next, Arabs from poor or war torn states, and at the very bottom, South Asian men and Filipina women drudge through the lowest tier of society. The imam extolled the audience to refrain from arrogance and stressed the equality among men, a traditional tenet of Islam's more tolerant side. He went to tell the audience that those who are selfish were people that had strayed from Islam's original teachings and that the world was one of binary black or white morality leading to paradise for those on a righteous path and hellfire for those who failed to realize all men were cut from the same genetic cloth.

OK so far, not surprising. Basic dogmatism that would not shock pre-Vatican II Catholics perhaps. A little millenarian but tolerable in a part of the world where ideological tolerance is not a strong suit. Then came the Christian bashing. "In the West, the Christians have one church for white and one for black, or one church for rich and one for the poor." Now, that may be true but he was giving these issues zero context and telling them to an audience who had likely never visited the West (read:America). He went on: "We Muslims worship one Ka'aba, one Qibla and pray in one Mosque." That may be true at this very cosmopolitan mosque but many mosques in the world's diaspora communities are segregated by the vast array of languages, cultures and differing strains of orthodoxy that make make up the global Muslim community much in the same way the as world's varied Christian denominations. He continued his rapid fire speech without room for nuance, which is greatly needed in a confused world that actually does proceed within a nebulous grey area in day-to-day life. He mocked Christians for mistakenly believing all these centuries that Jesus was the Son of God when Muslims knew Jesus as an earthly prophet that preceded Muhammed. Now my first somewhat, politicized comparative thought would be that if an evangelical preacher made statements like this regarding Muslims and their deeply held beliefs and if it were to somehow become publicized (which did happen during the Bush era) it would be a proverbial firestorm. Now I suppose this Imam may have been rather lenient compared to other members of the strict Wahabi clergy strung across the Gulf calling for an overthrow of secularism, wherever it lay, all together. All is relative I suppose but my hopes were thwarted in visiting a theoretically more liberal house of worship for a dialogue among the world's peoples that is free from disdain and condescension. Then again true freedom of expression is not autocracy's strong suit.