A Dangerous and Childish Game

News just in says that Pastor Terry Jones of the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Florida, has decided to cancel his plan to hold a “Koran-burning day” tomorrow. Thank God for that. But you must agree that he was remarkably successful at getting people’s attention just by the mere suggestion of the intention to commit such an act. Everyone from the Whitehouse to the Vatican came out and publically pleaded with the man to reconsider. Mind you, there are places in the world where the pressure to “reconsider” his plans would have been applied rather less publically and rather more persuasively. But in the Good Ol’ U. S. of A. Pastor Jones’ right to go ahead with his plan of action was protected under the First Amendment of the US Constitution which guarantees freedom of speech.

My one observation to add to the whole mix is that the desecration of the Koran to a Muslim is rather more like the desecration of the Blessed Sacrament to a Catholic than the desecration of a Bible – although the latter would be shocking enough. To give an example, Catholics would have no difficulty with placing a bible on the floor (eg. next to your chair in a study room), but Muslims would never do such a thing to the Koran. We wouldn’t do it to the Blessed Sacrament either. That’s more the parallel here.

So what have we learned from all this? Probably not a lot. Pastor Jones was upset by the plans to build a Mosque at Ground Zero. He saw it as provocative. So he wanted to retaliate by doing something provocative in return. Despite the fact that the plans to build the Mosque at Ground Zero have become a source of contention, it was never the intention of the Imam who initially suggested it (whom I have met, by the way, on a visit to Melbourne a couple of years ago) that it should be. I can understand people thinking that his suggestion to locate a mosque at Ground Zero was not a wise one – for a raft of reasons – although it is sad that it should have been received by many as a point of provocation. Pastor Jones on the other hand had provocation as his major purpose in his plan to hold a Koran-burning day right from the start. He felt pain and wanted to cause pain in return to those whom he blamed for his pain.

Friends, this is silly. And dangerous. Anyone who has ever been a parent knows how these things escalate.
“Tommy broke my toy”.
“It was an accident”.
“Was not”.
“Was too.”
“Well, I going to break one of your toys.”
SMASH.
“You *%^@#!!! Now you’re really going to get it.”
PUNCH, KICK, SCREAM, HOWLING.

As Pope Benedict told the ambassador to the Holy See from Morocco in 2006: “Violence as a response to offences can never be justified, for this type of response is incompatible with the sacred principles of religion.”

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65 Comments

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65 responses to “A Dangerous and Childish Game

  1. Paul

    David, one observation about your comments in this well reasoned post. It has been my practice throughout my teaching career to make it classroom policy that the Bible is never put on the floor, or put under anything else. I see it at as a part of the process of inculturation to help them come to appreciate our Sacred Text as that – sacred. I know I have been relatively successful when I hear (sotto voce) “tell him to get his Bible off the floor – he’ll [me] go ballistic!”. It’s taken years, but I think I/we in Catholic schools have made some headway in according the Bible a measure of public respect in how it is treated in the classroom and in the Chapel.

  2. Tony

    From an Australian perspective, it’s hard to understand how these guys survive, let alone thrive, as anything resembling a Christian perspective.

    But Terry Jones is no dangerous, isolated nut (and nut he is), he is part of a continuum of right wing Christians that have significant numbers of US Citizens caught up in the their web of fear and ignorance.

    From what I’ve read over the weeks:

    – Muslims were killed in the World Trade Centre too (hundreds, by some estimates),
    – Many more would have been victims if the Muslim Prayer room in the World Trade Centre had been open,
    – There has been a Muslim Community Centre — albeit much smaller — in the area for decades.
    – The proposed centre is to be built in a run-down area two blocks and out of site of Ground Zero and will provide community resources for all citizens.

    The only thing wrong with this debate is that crackpots like this get air time.

    • But it isn’t only “crackpots” who had objections to the Mosque at Ground Zero. Abraham Foxman of the ADF (okay, some would say he is a crackpot, but we won’t go there) opposed it, as did relatives of those who died at the scene. Foxman argued that the planned mosque was as inappropriate as setting up a convent in Auschwitz (okay, we won’t go there either, but you can see his point). We walk on egg-shells and we live in glass houses.

      • Tony

        A statement signed by Foxman (among others) on the ADL site says:

        “We believe the best way to uphold America’s democratic values is to ensure that Muslims can exercise the same religious freedom enjoyed by everyone in America. They deserve nothing less than to have a place of worship like everyone else …”

        The ADL seems pretty unambiguous in it’s support of the right to build the Mosque.

        • That statement was not specifically about the location of a mosque at Ground Zero, Tony (as far as I can see). The article I was referring to was this one by Foxman in the Huffington Post:

          http://www.huffingtonpost.com/abraham-h-foxman/the-mosque-at-ground-zero_b_668020.html

        • Gareth

          Whether the ‘Pastor’ is doing the right thing or not (I would say he could probably find better things to do with his time), labelling such people as ‘crackpots’ is not going to help the situation either.

          The so-called religious right in America are simply millions of people like you and I that have deep-seated moral views and I am sure millions of Americans whilst not condoning this Pastor’s intended actions would hold somesort of view on the contradictions between certain aspects of Islamic and western culture.

          • Peregrinus

            Well, there are contradictions between certain aspectsof Christianity and Western culture, aren’t there? But that doesn’t licence the desecration of Christian sacred artefacts for the purpose of giving offence.

            If we observe a contradiction between a “certain aspect” of Islam and some aspect of western culture, there is nothing in our Christianity to tell us that we should always side with western culture. It depends, surely, on the nature of the specific conflict. For example, if a Muslim in a western country were to campaign against same-sex marriage on the basis of his religious convictions, would you not line up with the Muslim?

            Which means, I suggest, that even if on a particular matter you are siding with western culture, the appropriate response is never a broadside attack on Islam as such, or on the sacred symbols of Islam. That’s pretty much on a par with a broadside attack on Christianity, or the sacred symbols of Christianity, becuase you disapprove of the bishops’ handling of sex abuse cases.

            • Gareth

              BUT certain aspects of Islamic culture are directly linked with what is written (or interpreted) from the Koran.

              The same can not be said about Christian sacred text and the sins or failings of its members.

              • Peregrinus

                “BUT certain aspects of Islamic culture are directly linked with what is written (or interpreted) from the Koran.

                The same can not be said about Christian sacred text and the sins or failings of its members.”

                It certainly can be said. And if we expand from “scripture” to “revelation”, it can be said with even greater truth. What we believe God has revealed directly contradicts some of the fundamental values and assumptions on which western culture is built. That’s why the cross was a sign of contradiction for Paul, and still is for us.

                My point is that Christianity is itself inherently counter-cultural, revolutionary, a standing and constant critique of society. It’s thus no objection at all to Islam to say that certain aspects of it contradict “western culture”. “Western culture” has no objective, immutable, eternal worth which makes “contradicting” it inherently problematic. We have here no lasting city.

                So when we say that certain aspect of Islam contradict western culture, what we deduce from that is that we won’t be surprised if Westerners find Islam confronting, and if they see it as something they should generally oppose. But we do not conclude that they are right to oppose Islam, or that we should share their opposition, or excuse it, or accommodate it. We’re Christians; we have no brief to defend “western culture”; we’re trying to subvert it ourselves. And if people are bothered by western culture being “contradicted”, that’s not because they’re Christian, but because they’re not Christian enough.

  3. marcel

    I was troubled by the Vatican’s response.

    The Pastor was being ‘imprudent’ and sensationalist. However, no desecration was involved. Catholics cannot consider the burning of a Koran as an act of desecration because the Koran is not sacred. It is not even right to say that there is a fundamental immorality to the act of burning it.

    St Fancis Xavier burned ‘sacred’ idol statues and places of worship on his missions. There is a time and a place for such ceremonial cleansings of the false religions.

    However, I agree with the military Generals in the US that the Pastor’s actions would have had disastrous temporal consequences. We may only speak of temporal consequences and the Vatican, in my view of it, should not have raised this incident to the level of outrage on the grounds of ‘rights’ afforded to false religions. This is a direct fruit of Dignitatis Humanae and the whole episode has been instructive.

  4. Alfredo Watkins

    While it is true that the Koran is not sacred to Catholics, this is no reason to offend others. I do not think that inciting others toward hatred is going to solve any problems. Nobody is going to want to be a Christian when all the Christians do is offend them, I believe.

  5. Matthias

    I think that this Pastor is an absolute anathema to one being a servant of Christ. St Paul ‘s handling of the Greeks at the Aeropagus ,shows how we should act . He respectfully presented the Gospel whilst this pastor is presenting ,offensively to both Christ and non Christians a Christamericanity-the wrapping up of Christianity in the American flag and culture.
    But i do not accord Islam as being on the same level as Judaism

  6. Peter

    You make a fair point about Christians and the reverence we have for the Eucharist, but I think the Elephant in the room everyone is deliberately avoiding is the fact that the reason this is an international problem is rooted in the way Islam is currently practiced throughout the world.

    If an Islamic leader decided to burn or publically desecrate a Eucharistic host as a symbol of his opposition to atrocities committed by Christians, what sort of reaction would we get? The President would be unlikely to intervene because the reaction of Christianity would be different to that of Islam. Now we can crap on about various interpretations of the various religions but the reality is that you *might* get a lone Christian nutter prepared to take a pot-shot at the Bible burner but he would be quickly prevented and jailed for trying by his fellow Christians. The Islamic reaction would be something closer to a worldwide disaster, which is why the President intervened.

    • Peregrinus

      That’s true. But, of course, the reason why Koran-burning is wrong is not really the risk it creates of retaliation. It would be wrong even if there were no risk of retaliation, wouldn’t it?

        • Peregrinus

          Of course it would. For exactly the same reason that it is wrong of P Z Myers to desecrate the Eucharist, even when he himself has no belief in it.

          Unless, of course, you think there’s one law for Christians and another for everyone else.

          • Louise

            what law do you mean?

            • Peregrinus

              The moral law which suggests that intentionally desacrating someone else’s homage to God for the purpose of outraging them is gravely wrong.

              • Gareth

                Where is that moral law written?

                • Peregrinus

                  In your heart, Gareth, where all moral laws are written.

                  However if you are looking for something less authoritative, I can refer you to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, para 1755 of which reminds you that an act which is not inherently wrong is nevertheless immoral if done for an evil end. If I choose the Quran for destruction because someone else believe it to be a revelation from God, and but for this belief I would not have chosen it, the object and effect of my action is to denigrate respect for divine revelation, and therefore to denigrate divine revelation itself by implying that it is not worthy of respect. This is an evil end, and it does not depend on whether the Quran is in fact something divinely revealed, or on whether I believe it to be so. On exactly the same argument PZ Myers is wrong to desecrate the Eucharist, regardless of whether he believes it to embody the risen Christ. He has chosen it for destruction because of what others believe.

                  I can further refer to you para 856 which calls for “respectful dialogue” with those who do not yet accept the gospel. Burning Qurans can not be embraced within the concept of respectful dialogue.

                  • Well said, Perry.

                    If I choose the Quran for destruction because someone else believe it to be a revelation from God, and but for this belief I would not have chosen it, the object and effect of my action is to denigrate respect for divine revelation, and therefore to denigrate divine revelation itself by implying that it is not worthy of respect.

                    I would have written that if I choose to destroy a book that others regard as the revelation of God I should be aware that the effect will be to communicate to these “others” a lack of respect for God’s revelation. This would be a grave evil. Instead we should strive to show that we respect God’s revelation and, if it is our belief that a more full and more reliable revelation is elsewhere, to seek peacably and persuasively to lead them to that revelation.

  7. Pax

    Fools rush in where wise men fear to tread. His behaviour was very thoughtless and put the lives of soldiers at great risk and has helped the fundamentalists enormously.
    To burn what another holds precious will not help open their hearts and minds to your viewpoint

  8. Louise

    the pastor is clearly a loony, but really, the only reason we know anything about him is b/c the media have made such a big song and dance about it. And why should we worry about the response of Muslims, if they are all reasonable people? Why did the Vatican and the US President feel obliged to make any remark at all? It’s not like they say anything when Myers desecrates the Eucharist.

    • The Vatican and the Whitehouse clearly got involved because of a very real fear of retaliation from people who are NOT “reasonable”. Only a fool would deny that there are a very large number of people out there in the world for whom “reasonable” would not be an accurate description. A lot of these people are people without very much education, people who belong to cultures in which the dominant paradigm is “honour and shame”, people who believe that violence is acceptable if it will restore honour, people who have been formed in a certain world-view which contains a strong “us-them” divide, people who are under the influence of powerful and persuasive personalities who are taking advantage of them for their own purposes, people who have the resources to do a lot of damage to the rest of the world. The existence of such people in the world (in very great numbers) is a good reason in itself to try to avoid any action that might press their little red “detonate” buttons. That some of these people are Muslim should simply give us cause not to do something that might press THEIR particular button…

  9. Christine

    Well, watching this play out over here in the U.S. I agree that burning the Koran is not a helpful move on the pastor’s part.

    Yet, I am increasingly uncomfortable with the amount of media support the Imam is getting. His veiled inference that if there is a Koran burning it could result in worldwide retaliation on Americans is not helpful.

    It amuses me to hear some Muslim leaders demand that the churches speak out against this pastor when there is no rallying cry from them whenever Christians or Jews are attacked in some Muslim countries.

    I am also very curious as to why this center is being named “Cordoba” house, considering the history that is related to the name in connection with Spanish history.

    I was reading some comments on a CNN blog about this issue and one person stated that yes, Islam has not yet evolved to the point where Christianity has and that at one time Christianity was a “horrible, horrible” religion that killed “millions” of people.

    Once again I blush in shame at the historical ignorance of so many Americans.

    • Louise

      Once again I blush in shame at the historical ignorance of so many Americans.

      Quite. Only it’s Westerners in general. So much for “education.”

    • Dear Christine,

      I think the Imam was simply stating a fact, even though it isn’t a very “helpful” fact! I don’t think it was meant as a threat.

      “Cordoba” was chosen because there is a certain line of modern moderate Muslim historical thinking that sees the period in which Jews and Christians lived peacably with Muslims under Muslim rule in Cordoba as a good model for the future. They see it as a positive idea. Admittedly, it doesn’t translate so well into Christian thinking!

      And you have to say that there was a time when Christianity was not quite so clear about certain moral issues (eg. the use of war or torture) as it is today. The engagement with the Enlightenment has resulted in some positives for the Church! We also have to be aware that Islam is an evolving religion, and would simply want to encourage those who wish to encourage its evolution in a positive direction.

  10. Peter

    “It would be wrong even if there were no risk of retaliation, wouldn’t it?”

    Of course it would. From a Christian perspective that is, which is precisely my point. The Christian ‘perspective’ takes the way of peace, even under extreme provocation *by definition*.

    It is what Christ himself did. He refused to retaliate when falsely accused, abused, tortured and killed.

    I am appalled at the ‘pastor’ and his antics just as any sane person would be. I will, however, find it hard to swallow the next round of ‘religion of peace’ waffle when everyone (from left and right) knows perfectly well what would happen if this nutter were allowed to be disrespectful to Islam.

    • marcel

      Can you please clarify for me why it would be wrong?

      Perhaps ‘impolite’ in this instance… however, ‘wrong’ is another matter. What makes the burning of a Koran immoral in its own right?

      • Marcel,

        While it somewhat floors me that this out and out looney has hijacked the media’s attention, I am similarly floored by your question.

        Surely Peter couldn’t have made it clearer?

        The Christian ‘perspective’ takes the way of peace, even under extreme provocation by definition.

        You may regard the Koran as just another book or even, as some suggest, the work of the Devil, but surely you acknowlege that a significant proportion of the world’s population regard it as the word of God and to burn it would be a desecration?

        Our committment to peace is not dependent on what ‘they’ do or do not do to us, it is, as Peter suggests, a committment by definition. Surely that means burning the Koran is a very wrong thing to do?

      • Can we agree that to deliberately do something to offend another person (ie. to cause them distress or pain) is a sin? It doesn’t make it less of a sin to protest “But I am defending truth!” Something about the relationship between Truth and Love (cf. Deus Caritas Est) might be relevant. There are ways of defending the truth that do not require taking deliberate pleasure in causing offence to others.

        • Louise

          No, I actually can’t agree entirely. I think it’s only modern Westerners who obsess over “giving offense.” I think there are probably times and places for the destruction of idols (which would certainly give offense). However, I will agree that in this instance, the pastor has threatened to do something foolish and possibly wrong. In fact, almost definitely wrong b/c *extremist* Muslims will probably work themselves into a murderous frenzy.

          • Peter

            I agree with you re: the West’s overuse of ‘offence’ to avoid actual discussion on real matters, but I think we are dealing with something quite different here.

            What if something is not a big deal in itself but our neighbour believes with all his heart that it *is* a big deal? When St Paul speaks on these kinds of matters he uses the word “scandal” which, in Greek, implies “to trip” or “to cause to fall”. St Paul argues that, although we can eat any kind of meat without any harm done, we should avoid eating meat offered to idols if would cause our brother to fall. Even though a Christian believes that objectively speaking the Koran is not the word of God, (s)he needs to seriously consider the possibility that burning a copy would send the wrong message about a) Christianity – to those outside and b) Islam – to those inside. Why risk sending the message that Christianity is setting itself up to attack, burn or at least disrespect Islam? Why risk encouraging confused or simple Christians in hostile attitdues to their Islamic neighbours?

            The last two Popes have been quite clear about avoiding undue offence to our Jewish neighbours, without compromising the Catholic faith of course, the same principle should be applied here.

            • Louise

              Well, I can’t see any reason to burn the Koran at any time, but I was only pointing out that sometimes it can be appropriate to destroy things and that giving offense isn’t necessarily a sin. In fact scripture tells us that we ought not *take* offense. As it happens, I agree that there is no reason to provoke Muslims in this way.

              • Peter Golding

                Good point Louise!
                Burning porno magazines might offend the sex party but would it be wrong?
                Somehow I doubt it

                • Peregrinus

                  As long as the porno magazines you burn are your own, I don’t think it’s going to bother the sex party.

  11. marcel

    St Francis Xavier, as I said earlier, smashed and burned ‘sacred’ idols.

    St Boniface the missionary chopped down the ‘sacred’ ‘Oak of Thor’ tree in a highly stage managed ceremony.

    Vegans regard my eating meat as a moral offence. What about eating a steak near an observant Hindu? One man’s sacrilege is another man’s tasty lunch.

    I think it is moral relativism to say that if a group of people treat something as sacred then ipso facto it should be treated as such. We can debate this in the realm of manners and etiquette, but my ‘beef’ is with the ‘rights’ discourse that has permeated the public discussion.

    • Marcel, you are confusing a couple of things here.

      The observance of cultic laws is not the same showing respect for another’s sense of the sacred. We do not expect non-Catholics to keep the fast of Lent, and nor are we offended when they do not. Most people I know who belong to other religions do not expect Catholics to observe their food laws or other cultic laws.

      The examples you cite of St Francis and St Boniface have a particular context, and if you look at them carefully, you can see that there is an important (if subtle) difference between their acts and the acts of this threatened book burning. In the Church’s history, missionaries were usually able to distinguish between these two kinds of actions.

      The first kind of action would be arriving at a new place of evangelisation and immediately storming into the temples and destroying the local sacred objects. As far as I know, the missionaries rarely did this, and when they did, the effect was usually to bring about a very sudden and violent end to their missionary endeavours. Usually they would go into a new territory and try to win over the favour of the local authority in some manner and work from there. The last thing they wanted to do was to cause offense. They wanted to be clear about the faith they had come to proclaim, but at the same time to keep doors open.

      The second kind of action is that which Francis and Boniface engaged in. In this context, the mission had already begun, and had taken hold among the people, but there was wavering, and the priests of the other religion were trying to win back the people’s loyalty – often with threats or promises concerning the power of the sacred object. In this situation, destroying the sacred object was not an act designed to offend, but rather to demonstrate the powerlessness of the object to fulfil those threats or promises, and to win back the loyalty of the waverers. They were classic Elijah-and-the-Prophets-of-Baal cases.

      My point is this: Good missionaries can tell the difference between these two situations. They will avoid giving offence by showing disrespect towards that which is regarded as sacred when showing such disrespect will close the hearts of people to the Gospel. On the other hand, if a “sacred cow” (to use that expression) is threatening the nascent faith of those who are being evangelised, the “sacred cow” must be shown to be just that. Even then, the best ways of doing this do not actually use violence, but rather argument and persuasion.

      It is not moral relativism to respect what others regard as sacred. It CAN be syncretism, but it can also be proto-evangelisation.

      • marcel

        Thank you David. I think we broadly agree on my narrow point.

        Burning the Koran can be subjectively wrong (depending on the intent of the burner) but it is not intrinsically wrong (like burning a new born child and offering it to Molech).

        I think your objection to Pastor Jones’ actions is that his intent is ‘offence’. I will not go so far as to judge the Pastor’s subjective intent, but being that he is a Protestant, I do not think his exercise has much probative value within the context of salvation history.

  12. Christine

    Hi David,

    I think the Imam was simply stating a fact, even though it isn’t a very “helpful” fact! I don’t think it was meant as a threat.

    Point taken, but the militant sectors of the Muslim world are already taking this thought and running with it

    “Cordoba” was chosen because there is a certain line of modern moderate Muslim historical thinking that sees the period in which Jews and Christians lived peacably with Muslims under Muslim rule in Cordoba as a good model for the future. They see it as a positive idea. Admittedly, it doesn’t translate so well into Christian thinking

    No, I’m afraid it doesn’t translate well into Christian thinking at all. I see what the Orthodox Patriarchate has to endure in Turkey, and Turkey is a supposedly “secular” society. Wasn’t it just recently that a group of Muslims in Spain demanded the return of a church that was used as a mosque during that period, although ironically it was a Catholic house of worship to begin with?

    And you have to say that there was a time when Christianity was not quite so clear about certain moral issues (eg. the use of war or torture) as it is today. The engagement with the Enlightenment has resulted in some positives for the Church!

    No argument there, but I would still submit that the premises that Christianity and Islam work from, theologically and socially, have some irreoncilable differences.

    We also have to be aware that Islam is an evolving religion, and would simply want to encourage those who wish to encourage its evolution in a positive direction. To that I’m sure we can all agree.

    • but the militant sectors of the Muslim world are already taking this thought and running with it

      But the imam in question was not the one who suggested it!

      I see what the Orthodox Patriarchate has to endure in Turkey, and Turkey is a supposedly “secular” society.

      It is, in fact, the secularists and not the Muslims in Turkey that have placed the Patriarch in this position. Under the Ottomans, the Patriarchate was relatively free.

      I would still submit that the premises that Christianity and Islam work from, theologically and socially, have some irreoncilable differences.

      Irreconcilable, yes, but that doesn’t mean that we have to be killing each other! It certainly doesn’t mean that we cannot coexist in an open and free society together!

  13. Tony

    ‘Sentirists’ might be interested in this article: <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/11/nyregion/11religion.html?_r=2&quot;?Muslims and Islam Were Part of Twin Towers’ Life

  14. Peregrinus

    Wasn’t it just recently that a group of Muslims in Spain demanded the return of a church that was used as a mosque during that period, although ironically it was a Catholic house of worship to begin with?

    It was in Cordoba, as luck would have it. and it wasn’t a Catholic house of worship to begin with, it was a pagan temple (as many older European churches were). It was, successively, a temple, a church, a mosque and a cathedral.

    And, for the record, the Muslim group were not asking for the “return” of the Cathedral. They were asking to be allowed to hold Muslim prayers there.

  15. Christine

    Peregrinus,

    Right you are, I don’t know where I picked up that Muslims were requesting the “return” of the mosque, and yes, of course, it was once a pagan temple as were many Christian churches. Neverthless, the history of Christianity is longer and stronger in Spain so I have a proposition — if Muslims desire to pray in what is now a cathedral, how about returning Christian services to the Hagia Sophia 🙂

    David,

    From what I’ve see the record of the Orthodox Church under the Ottomans is quite mixed:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_Eastern_Orthodox_Church_under_the_Ottoman_Empire

    If indeed it is secular pressure that is coming down on Patriarch Bartholomew that will not help advance the cause of Turkey with the rest of Europe.

    Nevertheless, I am very impressed with the humane and ecumenical outreach of the Patriarch towards Muslims and Jews as well as other Christians.

    No, I certainly don’t advocate that we should be killing each other. There’s been far too much of that already.

    There is a large and very impressive mosque now in Parma, a suburb of Cleveland. Once a year they hold an open house and invite the community to visit.

    Unfortunately, their last Imam was found to have had terrorist connections in his past and was deported a couple of years ago. It was, understandably, devastating to the members of the mosque and I felt very badly for his wife and children.

    • Peregrinus

      Right you are, I don’t know where I picked up that Muslims were requesting the “return” of the mosque, and yes, of course, it was once a pagan temple as were many Christian churches. Neverthless, the history of Christianity is longer and stronger in Spain so I have a proposition — if Muslims desire to pray in what is now a cathedral, how about returning Christian services to the Hagia Sophia?

      Not a great example, actually, for two reasons.

      1. Hagia Sophia hasn’t been a mosque for more than seventy years. It’s a museum.

      2. It’s changed hands more than once. The Latins – that’s us – grabbed it off the Greeks in 1204, and held on to it until 1260.

      We’re really not in a position to throw stones here. Islam is a comparatively modern religion, and in all cases where it now prevailed it supplanted other religions within recorded historical times, so we know what religious beliefs and practices prevailed before Islam came along, and we know about the transition, including the churches and temples which became mosques. But, if you think about it, the same is true of Christianity. For every church that was turned into a mosque, we can produce a temple that was turned into a church.

      I think what we see here is not a distinction between Christianity and Islam, but a historical change affecting both Christianity and Islam. Prior to quite recent times, religion was not a personal choice, but a communal choice. And the decision was made, on behalf of the community, by its leaders. This, for example, is how the post-reformation wars of religion were resolved; a ruler would decide whether his state would be Catholic or Lutheran, the state church would be organized accordingly and the churches and other properties would come under Catholic, or Lutheran, control. Catholics might have complained about rulers adopting Lutheranism, accusing them of heresy, etc, but they never quibbled that, in a Lutheran state, the churches would be Lutheran; that was seen as inevitable. Thus they never regarded formerly Catholic church building as having been “stolen” by Lutherans, any more than they regarded themselves as having “stolen” the Pantheon in Rome, or the Vatican cemetery, or whatever.

      And of course this makes sense. Property is a social construct. Public property is there for the public. Houses of worship are public property. If the public is Catholic, or Lutheran, or Muslim, the houses of worship will be too.

  16. Christine

    Hagia Sophia hasn’t been a mosque for more than seventy years. It’s a museum.

    Oh yes, I’m quite aware of that. We could probably turn that around and say that the cathedral hasn’t been a mosque in quite some time either! I don’t actually expect that to happen.

    As for the social constructs of the Reformation et al., I’m quite aware of that too, having been born and raised in Germany with one Catholic and one Lutheran parent. The Reformation (and the State Church) were far from being merely an historical event in my extended family, but then this was long before the Second Vatican Council.

    The Lutheran parish where I was baptized is part of the Lutheran State Church of Bavaria and is very different from what it was when I was a child.

    Yes, Islam is a modern religion and it will be especially interesting to see how it evolves in the West with its democratic principles.

  17. Christine

    If the public is Catholic, or Lutheran, or Muslim, the houses of worship will be too.

    Also, a little further thinking on that — the difference being, here in the U.S. we are permitted to openly have all three — in Saudia Arabia you could get arrested for merely carrying a Bible, but I am aware of the historical reasons for that.

    • Peregrinus

      “Here in the U.S. we are permitted to openly have all three”

      Indeed. But we have to admit that there is nothing inherent in the nature of Christianity which requires this. For most of history in most Christian countries this was not the case.

      Conversely there is nothing in Islam which requires Saudi-style repression, and it does not prevail in most Islamic countries.

  18. Christine

    Indeed. But we have to admit that there is nothing inherent in the nature of Christianity which requires this. For most of history in most Christian countries this was not the case.

    Yes, Peregrinus, “was” is the operative word. The shape of Christianity in societies which have the benefit of separation of church and state is quite different than what it was in the “old country.”

    Conversely there is nothing in Islam which requires Saudi-style repression, and it does not prevail in most Islamic countries. Which is why I go back to my statement above, it will be interesting to see how Islam evolves in democratic societies.

    • Peregrinus

      The shape of Christianity in societies which have the benefit of separation of church and state is quite different than what it was in the “old country.”

      I think you may be making a false dichotomy there. There are plenty of “old countries” which have a formal legal separation of church and state, France being the conspicuous example.

      This provides no guarantee that churches will be in good shape, though, France again being the conspicuous example.

      There’s no doubt that the development of religion in the US has been shaped by the US’s version of the separation of church and state – and by broader US cultural values, of courses – and it seems inevitable that Islam in America will likewise be shaped by its environment. Same goes for Islam in other western societies, obviously.

  19. Christine

    There’s no doubt that the development of religion in the US has been shaped by the US’s version of the separation of church and state – and by broader US cultural values, of courses – and it seems inevitable that Islam in America will likewise be shaped by its environment. Same goes for Islam in other western societies, obviously.

    Yes, the American paradigm is more the one I had in mind. Even the last time I was back for a visit to my homeland it was very obvious to me that “separation of church and state” in Europe has different connotations from what it is in the U.S.

    The hostility of some parts of French society to religion in any form doesn’t have quite the same affect over here in the U.S., where there is still some vigor to Christianity. I often wonder if my family had remained in Europe if my Christian faith would have survived.

    • Peregrinus

      What I’m questioning, I think, is your assumption(?) that the comparatively healthy state of religion in the US (at least when measured by things like church attendance) is attributable to the separation of church and state. It’s not difficult to find examples of places where church and state were on fairly, um, intimate terms and yet attendance was very healthy (Ireland), places where there was a rigorous separation of church and state and yet attendances were very low (France) and places where where church-state relations were really pretty hostile and attendance was very high (Poland) or very low (the Czech lands).

      My suspicion is that in terms of church healthiness, church-state relations are a bit of a side-show. There doesn’t seem to be any consistent pattern of how establishment/disestablishment relates to church attendance. If we want to explain the US’s comparatively healthy church attendance figures, suspect we have to look elsewhere.

  20. Christine

    Peregrinus, I think precisely because the U.S. has never had an official state church (except perhaps for the favored status that the Anglicans held in the early years) and religious faith is something that is “chosen” it has played out differently here.

    Once the state churches of Europe lost their legal status insofar as they could enforce their religious structures the dividing line between those who intentionally adhered to their faith and those for whom it was merely a social convention became very evident.

    Very different from the Europe my parents grew up in where it was just assumed that one’s familial religious affiliation was one’s own. The choices were far more limited. In the small Bavarian town I grew up in that meant, for the most part, Catholic or Lutheran.

    Of course, the U.S. scene is also changing considerably with the influx of non-European cultures and faith traditions and they will go through a similar process as they find themselves living in a society where one can choose to practice — or not — the faith of one’s fathers.

    • Peregrinus

      I take your point, but I think it’s a mistake to assume that because there is no “established religion”, therefore there is no social convention of conforming to certain religious expectations.

      We can see this quite clearly in the US when people complain that candidates for election must publicly profess a religious faith in order to improve their chances of election (a profession which, it is suspected in some cases, is not entirely honest). To the extent that there is any truth in that complaint, there’s a clear example of social convention to conform to certain religious expectations.

      We see the same thing at work in the “civic religion” phenomenon that many American Christians complain of – the conflation of patriotism and national identity with faith and Christian identity. (Matthias makes that very point further up the page in this conversation.) That’s an even worse problem, in my view – secular considerations shaping religious belief and practice.

      I’m not seeking to single out America, or American Christianity, for criticism. You can find these phenomena, and worse, in many countries. My point is simply that a formal constitutional separation of church and state is no guarantee of either religious authenticity or religious vigour. To the extent that religious practice is vigorous in the US, therefore, I think we need to look beyond the Second Amendment to account for this.

  21. I agree that the Koran-burning stunt was foolish and wrong. However, concerning the Ground Zero mosque issue, there’s a viewpoint I’d heard that I think deserves a bit of reflection. If the Koran-burning was dangerous because of how its adherents would react, there might be a similar problem with the Ground Zero mosque because of how militant Islamists would react. The same thing can be said about the dissonance between how certain Islamic countries do not tolerate even the smallest of Christian symbols and this mosque being built where Islamists see their greatest victory in the last decade. Perhaps this is a Regensburg moment, both as a teaching moment and an opportunity to take the dialogue with Islam up another level.

    • The problem with that comparison, Jeff, is that it can hardly be described as comparing apples with apples.

      You simply can’t compare burning the Koran deliberately knowing that it will provoke, to building an Islamic community centre which is two blocks away from ground zero, which is open to the whole community and which replaces a much smaller community centre that has been in operation for many years before 9/11.

      When you add to that the fact of history that there were Muslims killed in the towers and one of the towers had a Muslim prayer room, the comparison become even more absurd.

      Allowing the centre to go ahead will be a potent symbol to the world that violence or provocation in the name of religion — any religion — has failed. This is the most powerful message against intolerance, much more powerful than becoming as intolerant as others.

      • Gareth

        The Tonster wants a mosque at Ground Zero – next he will want a swasticka at the synagogue.

        Godwin’s law – I couldn’t resist.

        • Tony

          Somehow a ‘mosque at Ground Zero’ is a legitimate comparison to ‘swasticka (sic) at the synagogue’.

          You certainly show the wisdom of Godwin’s Law, Gareth.

          • Gareth

            Good one Tony – what would be better than a mosque at Ground Zero??

            A museum of Hitler’s life at Auschwitz?

            A bacon shop next to a mosque?

            A commeration to European settlement at Ayres Rock?

            A statue of Martin Luther inside St Peter’s Square?

            A memorial to Aids victims in Oxford Street?

            You are certainly full of creative and tolerant ideas Tons..

            • Tony

              Good one Tony – what would be better than a mosque at Ground Zero??

              I’m not aware of anyone, least of all me, suggesting there should be a mosque at Ground Zero.

              You are certainly full of creative and tolerant ideas Tons..

              Just between you and me … I’m fairly sure no one’s looking … they’re your ideas, Gareth.

              When you have an on-line exchange with someone else, it’s better to respond to what they post. Responding to what you think they might post is a little like talking to yourself out loud.

      • I wasn’t actually comparing the Koran burning (which is foolish and wrong) and the building of that mosque (which is neither necessarily foolish nor wrong). I was only commenting on the effects. It would be nice if some Muslim groups would pick up on the disparity between what they expect in western countries (the freedom to worship) and what Christianity finds in Islamic countries. I wonder, if this proposed mosque’s Imam would go out to condemn the Islamist notion of this mosque as a victory for Islamists, would that help the situation somewhat? Or if he were to challenge Islamic countries on how their people (and laws) treat Jews and Christians?

  22. Christine

    Good observations, Jeff.