- The Washington Times - Friday, January 25, 2002

On a personal level, there was something strangely comforting in watching a dozen or so well-educated, philosophically astute Christian clergymen and religious scholars struggling to grasp the very elusive ins and outs of Islam as presented by several Muslim leaders during a Christian-Muslim "dialogue" sponsored by the National Clergy Council (and broadcast on C-Span 2) this week. That is, it looks as if it's not just the average layman or lay-columnist, as the case may be who is still having trouble getting a good look behind the veil. There are still too many questions hanging in the way of most of us looking on from the Judeo-Christian perspective.
For instance: How does a Muslim choose between the verses of the Koran that espouse tolerance and those that espouse a fairly excruciating death-to-all-infidels? The answer Muslims must "debate" their varying interpretations offers an inkling as to how Islam may be "hijacked" by militants, but not much explicit instruction. Other topics floated during this unusual forum included the plight of non-Muslim minorities in Muslim countries, and the troubling (to Westerners) primacy of sharia, or rule by Islamic law (which may call for the amputation of a hand for theft, or death by stoning for non-marital sex), in Islamic societies.
I say "floated" because such topics were never actually pinned to earth. Give the three Muslim leaders credit Imam Aly Abuzaakouk of the American Muslim Council, Imam Yayha Hendi of Georgetown University and Souheil Ghannouchi of the Muslim American Society for taking their places on a dais that at times must have felt more like a hot seat. Still, they let some of the most compelling lines of questioning go unanswered. James Beverly, author of "Understanding Islam," twice asked the imams to say whether, ideally, they would like to see Islamic law in force in America and Canada, but to no avail. The Rev. Aham Nnorom injected a shocking jolt of reality to the largely theoretical discussion by introducing evidence of Muslim massacres of Christians in his native Nigeria. His presentation heightened a mood of drama that hung undispelled over the gathering. But while such subjects were never directly addressed by the Muslim leaders, the salient disagreement between East and West was made perfectly clear.
At issue was, and remains, the antithetical ways the largely Christian West and the largely Muslim East regard religious liberty. Whether the point of discussion was the supposed Western "misunderstandings" or "mistranslations" of those verses of the Koran that go on about dismembering a hapless infidel's limbs (or merely slicing off his fingertips), or a dispute over the specific rights granted under Islamic law, freedom of worship was most often the underlying theme.
On this subject, the exchange was revealing. Elaborating on comments made by his Christian co-panelists, David Aikman of the Ethics and Public Policy Center asked his Muslim counterparts to "speak out forcefully and resolutely for the whole principle of living with freedom of conscience not just here in the United States where it already obtains, but in the Muslim world itself." He went on to say, "Let us see this principle of separation of state power from religious practice experienced in all of the Muslim world,"adding that if such a thing came to pass, "the great conflicts between civilizations would evaporate almost overnight."
Sounds pretty good, right? But not necessarily to these Muslim leaders. While acknowledging the religious liberty they enjoy in this country "we have much more freedom in the U.S. than in 95 percent of the Muslim world," said Mr. Ghannouchi they appeared to regard the introduction of such liberty into the Muslim world as an imposition of the West. "No authority on earth should interfere with the choice of the individual to follow their faith," began Imam Abazaakouk, wending his way to a thought-twisting "but" that went like this: "Neither you nor I have the right to tell any Muslim community, if they want to apply Islamic law on themselves, to say, 'No,' " he said. "Because Islam is a way of life. And when it is a way of life, if we believe in democracy … [and] if the majority decides to have the sharia … that is their right. Not our right to tell them, 'No.' It is as if somebody from the outside world were telling us we have no right to apply the Constitution here."
Is it? There's a novel thought that the abolition of our liberty-protecting Constitution would equate with the abolition of Islam's liberty-repressing sharia. New questions arise: Does the freedom of the Western world, expansive as it is, also include the freedom to be oppressed? Conversely, is there a place for liberty under Islamic law? It may be that what we face is less a clash of civilizations than a fundamental disconnection.

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