Religion: How Should We Think About Islam?

The terrorist attacks of September 11 brought out the best and the worst in American religion. Clergy of all collars worked at Ground Zero in New York City, ministering to exhausted firefighters and emergency workers, helping those in the grisly business of identifying body parts and praying at the site's temporary morgue. Others, however, came to proselytize the weary workers and, in a few cases, to exploit the crisis for promotional purposes by videotaping themselves ostensibly braving the rubble. Seizing the moment, some religious spokesmen rushed to judgment. Evangelists Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson blamed homosexuals, pornographers and abortionists for drawing the wrath of God down on a wayward America, views echoed from many a fundamentalist pulpit. Evangelist Franklin Graham, Billy's son and successor, took a different tack. In a sharp break with the Bush administration, Graham blamed Islam itself for the attacks, denouncing the faith of some 1.3 billion Muslims around the world as "an evil and wicked religion."

In the year to come, Americans will sort these issues out--especially what they think of Islam. How they decide will determine the nation's religious climate for years to come. Already we have some clues. According to a December poll by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, nearly three out of four Americans, including 63 percent of Evangelical Protestants, reject the Falwell-Robertson doctrine. And what is more telling, 59 percent of Americans hold a favorable view of Islam--up from 45 percent before the September 11 attacks. Not surprisingly, Falwell and Robertson have both apologized--sort of--for their statements, and Graham, too, has tried to soften his blanket condemnation of Islam.

The truth is that most Americans--like most evangelists--know little or nothing about Islam. But that, too, will change in the coming year. Prior to September 11, a survey of some 900 university religion and theology departments by the Lilly Endowment showed that a third of them offered no courses on Islam. Now universities are in a bidding war for Islamic experts; for the next semester most scheduled courses on Islam are already oversubscribed. On the congregational level, imams have never been in greater demand as guest speakers at church and synagogue meetings. Even Congress is getting into the act. Two members of the House have proposed establishing a Muslim American Board to advise Tom Ridge's Office of Homeland Security.

Mere tolerance of other religions is not enough--though it is an important civic virtue. Some conservative Protestants, for example, still refuse to pray with Jews or Muslims or even Roman Catholics. Next month, on the other hand, Muslim and other religious leaders will join Pope John Paul II in Assisi, Italy, for an international day of prayer for peace. But even the acceptance of other religions as valid paths to God is insufficient. What theologians from various traditions are beginning to realize is that we cannot truly understand the uniqueness of our own religion unless we also develop a deep understanding and appreciation of at least one other religion. What committed Christians and Jews and Muslims must do is find within their own traditions sound theological reasons for valuing other faiths without compromising the integrity of their own.

This is already beginning to happen. Despite concern from Vatican officials, some prominent Catholic theologians are beginning to ask how the Holy Spirit might be at work within non-Christian religions. Some Muslim scholars, too, are using the Quran to show that religious pluralism has been blessed by Allah himself. Clearly, this will be the most important theological agenda of the new millennium.