The current uproar over Rep. Peter King's (NY) hearings on Islamic fundamentalism is yet another example of the tribal mentality that too often goes along with religion. Rep. King makes the underlying assumption that American society is a Christian one. In other words, because certain terrorist attacks were carried out by Muslim fundamentalists, it is okay to hold hearings investigating Muslims in our country to determine how widespread this fundamentalism may run. The flaw in this argument is that it fails to realize that there are millions of (non-terrorist) Muslim Americans who are part of our society. A further flaw in the argument is the assumption that the few terrorists speak for this larger group. Today, there are more Muslims in America than either Episcopalians or Presbyterians.
When I think back to the much smaller, but still terrible, terrorist bombing in Atlanta's Centennial Park during the 1996 Olympic Games, I do not recall congressional investigations into Christianity. This bombing achieved world-wide publicity and cast a shadow over the games and my hometown. The terrorist was Eric Rudolph, a fundamentalist Christian known for bombing abortion clinics. While there was some outcry over right wing militia groups (especially after another fundamentalist Tim McVeigh bombed the Federal building in Oklahoma), our government did not put Christianity itself on trial. Why are we singling out Muslims as a group today?
I have heard some argue that the Quran contains violent passages that incite its followers to violence on the promise of eternal life in heaven. My response to that is usually "Have you read the Old Testament?" Examples abound of military battles in which the followers of Yahweh are instructed to kill, not just an opposing army, but the women, children, and even livestock of the people being conquered.
The problem here is not Islam; it is fundamentalism. And we see fundamentalism and its corresponding results of intolerance, exclusion, discrimination, and violence throughout history in every major religion. Certainly we see plenty of it within Christianity with what I refer to as Country Club Christianity: the idea that "I'm saved, but you're not, because you do not belong to my club." The root causes of fundamentalism are many, but certainly economic disenfranchisement, lack of education, fear of a changing world and one's place in it are major contributors.
Instead of hearings that are already inciting protests and creating an us-versus-them atmosphere, why can't we instead open up more avenues for productive inter-religious dialogue? And by dialogue, I don't mean accusatory congressional hearings. An open-minded dialogue among participants of different faiths starts to reveal some interesting things: parallels among the religions, influences between them, and lessons that we can learn from them. I have tried to engage in such a dialogue in my new suspense novel, The Breath Of God, in a fictional format.
Through dialogue, Christians might learn that the word "Islam" means "peace through surrender." Islam is a deeply monotheistic religion in which God is the ultimate reality and by surrendering oneself to this reality one may find peace in this life and the next.
When we look at the spiritual practices of Mohammad, who found refuge in a cave on Mt. Hira to meditate and pray, to the Buddha, who sat underneath the Bodhi tree deep in meditation, and to Jesus, who spent forty days and nights in the desert fasting and praying in deep contemplation, we see that around the same age before beginning their ministries, each of these founders of great religions engaged in similar spiritual practices, practices that later followers in the contemplative traditions of these religions would emulate to find a connection to their divine centers as well.
I fear that Rep. King and similar accusatory proceedings serve only to compound the problem of religious conflict, not solve it. How can we use religious dialogue to find commonalities among our different faiths rather than focus only on where we differ? How can we learn from each other, taking what we might find helpful from another's tradition and applying it to our own?