In The Tower, news site of the Catholic University of America, Travis Bichoso makes an excellent case why building a non-sectarian worship space for Muslim students would be a wonderful gesture of interfaith good will. The five-times-daily prayer obligation presents Muslims with serious challenges. To meet them, many “find empty classrooms, or maybe a corner in the Biomed lounge. However, all of these places are subject to disruption, oblique glances, and many other distractions unfitting for a worship space.” Since, as the Second Vatican Council decreed, Muslims also worship the God of Abraham, why not cut them some slack and find them a quiet place with no distracting crucifixes?
Well, actually, there’s no reason why not to. Bichoso points out that nobody’s asking for a full-size replica of the Suleymaniye Mosque, just the sort of quiet, bare room that would fit unobtrusively into any hospital or airport. But since the matter has gone legal, interfaith goodwill gestures are starting to look beside the point. Now that George Washington University Law professor John Banzhaf has filed a complaint with Washington, D.C.’s Office of Human Rights, CUA’s own rights are suddenly at stake. Pushing back seems a simple matter of cultural survival.
The Office of Human Rights won’t have finished reviewing Banzhaf’s complaint for another six months. Before then, hopefully, CUA’s administration and its Muslim students will have reached some sort of compromise. But in the meantime, some might find it helpful to reflect on “Ring the Bells,” an opinion piece written by New Republic literary editor Leon Wieseltier. During Harvard’s Islamic Awareness Week, the Muslim adhan, or call to prayer, was sounded five times daily from the steps of Widener Library. The Harvard Crimson protested: because the adhan “publicly advances a theological position” — i.e., that there is no god but God, and that Muhammad is his prophet — it should not have been made to fall on unwilling ears.
Wieseltier, a Harvard alumnus and an observant Jew, had come to see things differently. Although, as a teenager, he heard the bells from his neighborhood church as “a vexing, triumphalist sound,” Oxford choir rehearsals later made him think “this is Christian beauty, and I want it.” Though Wieseltier did not become a Christian, or anything like one, he did conclude that “Christianity may in some of its expressions be beautiful, but beauty is not Christian. Religious or ethnic or national definitions of beauty are conceptual mistakes.” In that aesthetically eclectic spirit, Wieseltier finds he can appreciate the sound of the adhan, and even declare it “wonderfully American.”
Now, I realize it would be a stretch to expect any Muslim student to enjoy the look of a crucifix the same way Wieseltier has learned to enjoy the tolling of bells or the voice of a muezzin. Catholicism and Islam differ not only in their crucifixion narratives and their understandings of Christ’s nature, but also in the value they assign to representational art. Broadly speaking, Catholics think images of holy figures are just dandy, provided nobody offers them the veneration due the people they’re meant to represent. Historically, Islamic scholars have discouraged artists from depicting living things, particularly prophets, which Muslims believe Jesus to have been. It’s hard to remark on the beauty of anything you think ought not to have been made in the first place.
But the very fact that Muslim students are choosing to attend CUA suggests they find the Christ-heavy atmosphere, with all its affronts to the Islamic interpretation of the universe, at least bearable. Wiaam al-Salmi, founder of the Arab Students’ League, has said, “Even though [CUA] is a Catholic school, a lot of its teachings are very similar to Islam.” (A friend of mine, a retired police officer from Gambia, made the same discovery while working for the St. Vincent de Paul society.)
Considering even members of the same faith tradition can usually be counted on to eat each other for breakfast — as Catholics will, for example, in any debate over the new missal — that statement shows a remarkable broad-mindedness. Having lived as an expatriate myself, I know it’s an attitude that has to be willed into being with daily affirmations. To make it stick, you have to say to yourself, “These barbarians I’m living among are completely wrong-headed, maybe even a little nuts. But for the sake of my own sanity, I will find things about their culture to appreciate.”
This is the sort of resolution Christians have to make evey day they wake up into the World. Othewise, they’d spend their lives complaining about TV, and especially about Lady Gaga. This is no way to win friends or influence people. Would it be so much harder for CUA’s Muslims to push their imaginations a little further and domesticate the crufixes in their worship space? The Mughals were pretty big on painting, after all.
By addressing this, at least implicitly, to Muslim students, I may, I realize, be preaching to the choir, so to speak. Banzhaf and his agenda could turn out to represent the beginning and end of this whole mess. In that case, I’d beg CUA’s Muslims, cosmopolites that they’re becoming, to remember that this is not American tolerance in action. Not sure where that went.