There has been a lot of fuss in the news recently about opposition to the construction of mosques in the US – from Temecula Valley to Ground Zero. The most notable piece of micro-rhetoric has been Sarah Palin’s anguished tweet regarding the proposed construction of an Islamic cultural centre and mosque very close to what many regard as the ‘cemetery’ of 9/11 victims: ‘Peace-seeking Muslims, pls understand, Ground Zero mosque is UNNECESSARY provocation; it stabs hearts. Pls reject it in interest of healing.’
The ostensible concern is that mosques will become ‘hotbeds of radical Islam’, schools for terrorists. On the face of it, this seems unlikely. Does terrorism really benefit from having this sort of official infrastructure and visibility? Radicalization rarely happens via institutional channels. Indeed, the counter-argument is that the provision of sufficient legitimate public places for congregation and worship is more likely to mitigate the impetus towards militancy than to exacerbate it; and conversely, that opposing the construction of mosques will only reinforce the impression that Americans are bigoted and racist.
So presumably there are deeper reasons. In Europe the memory of having once been a Christian continent has largely faded, so there is not the same knee-jerk fear of the intruding religious Other. This is not to say that Europeans are not concerned about the impact of the growing muslim presence on their societies. Many of them are. But what they fear losing are largely post-Christian or de-Christianized national and cultural identities: the quaint xenophobia of middle England, the regulated tolerance of the Dutch, the self-righteous libertarianism of the French, and so on.
The situation in the US is very different. If opposition to Islam in the US is for the most part religiously motivated – and the media reports suggest that this is the case – then presumably what is at stake here is not just national security but America’s specifically Christian identity. One wonders, therefore, whether it will be the growing but probably largely symbolic presence of Islam rather than modern secularism that in the end will mark the demise of American Christendom.
Christian America has happily accommodated the presence of the cathedrals and shrines and devotional practices of secular materialism. If there is resistance to some of the corrosive domestic values of modern culture, it is generally with a view to sanctifying or sanitizing its basic forms and methods and aspirations, not to critiquing or subverting them. But Islam constitutes a foreign, incomprehensible, and probably unassimilable threat, one that competes directly for spiritual authority.
An article in our excellent local paper notes that Jon Stewart concluded a piece on the Fox coverage of the mosque protests (‘Wish You Weren’t Here’) by observing that ‘Christian Americans were most worried by the competition posed by Islam in the US market-place of ideas’.
I suspect that in quite a profound way he’s right. Few people take the intemperate pronouncements of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad seriously, but his claim that ‘There is no truth on earth but monotheism and following tenets of Islam and there is no way for salvation of mankind but rule of Islam over mankind’ strikes right to the heart of evangelical presumption. Modern evangelicalism developed as a reaction to – or perhaps better an adaptation to – the secular-rational assault on biblical truth; it does not know how to deal with the sort of challenge that Islam is increasingly posing to its religious hegemony.
Mosques are a visible, concrete sign that the church’s complacent co-existence with secularism, the pact by which the illusion of American Christendom has been preserved since the Second World War, is no longer viable. The form of this world is passing away – and in any case, there are better ways for the church to relate to its neighbours.