The Muslim-Christian Debate: What We’re Missing by Gabe Lyons

Is there really anything else to be written about the “Ground Zero mosque?” The headlines are saturated with opinion columns from both the left and right. Emotions ranging from antipathy to sympathy are running high. I’ve listened closely to the debate, trying to hear through the hype. What’s really driving such angst and discord about the proposed plan to construct a community center in lower Manhattan with a prayer room for Muslims? Suggesting that I’ve reached a conclusion on the issue would be premature, but I’ve gained more compelling insight into the state of Muslim-Christian relations in America.

Amidst change, tensions run high. The sound of the cultural alarm clangs—and like Pavlov’s dog—most opinion writers and commentators almost uncontrollably scurry back to their culture-war foxholes and lob a few grenades. Haven’t we moved beyond this? The disproportionate noise around this single topic points to something much deeper taking place in the American psyche—a new world infringing upon the old.

It’s a simple human compulsion—fearing that which we don’t understand. In the midst of this contentious debate, frustrations have risen so high that many aren’t even considering the facts about the proposed “mosque.” (It’s a community center, by the way, not a traditional mosque—no dome, no crescent bearing steeples). It’s become a game of running with the latest headline or pithy quote that supports your pre-determined position. Any inch given in the opposite direction and the defenders feel like a failure.

In my forthcoming book, The Next Christians, I attempt to explore the question of how Christians should engage an increasingly pluralistic, post-modern, and post-Christian world. Applied to this specific debate, how are we as Christians to think about the future of the Muslim faith and its expansion in America? Should we fight for a legal system that grants freedom of expression only to those who espouse Judeo-Christian values and keep all others out?

Whether we like it or not, whether we accept it or not, our culture is showing more and more evidences of its pluralistic roots. In this diverse setting, Christians will have to choose their response to the growth of faiths like Islam in their communities. As a country built on religious liberty, there is no way to hide behind our Constitution and thwart attempts to construct non-Christian houses of worship. On the one hand in the lower Manhattan battle, the feelings of the 9/11 families provide a reasonable basis for dispute. But in most communities throughout the U.S., that enormous trump card won’t work. From Baltimore to Seattle—Muslim houses of worship continue to appear. And at the rate Islam is growing, this trend won’t stop anytime soon. For some, this may be a difficult development to wrestle with, but regardless, it is our new reality.

In this moment, Christians have an opportunity to model civility as we coexist alongside other religions in the public square. Despite the nature of our struggles, we must remain informed by our faith rather than our emotions. We can recognize that Islam and Christianity offer competing ideas about the world, and yet work together to solve problems where we find common ground—like fighting malaria, eradicating sex trafficking, opposing pornography, and so on.

[For an excellent resource on the future of our public square, see Os Guinness’s Case For Civility.]

Can you imagine a future where Muslims and Christians would work alongside one another in our communities to fight for justice, care for the poor, and offer hope to those in need? What if this controversy provoked each of us to consider having more thoughtful and engaging conversations with Muslims who might be interested in the same end? Could Christians be part of the solution to a moderate, peaceful Islam emerging in the West?

A few years back, I read the life story of Eboo Patel as described in Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, in the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation. It cataloged in vivid detail his journey to becoming a moderate Muslim. Now, Eboo wouldn’t like the title “moderate.” He sees himself as simply adhering to Islam as the faith was intended. Political pundits might refer to him as “a peace-loving Muslim,” someone who rejects the terrorism and extremism that captures much of the news these days. Either way, he is a good man and doing more than most to embody that in his work to love neighbors in communities throughout our cities through the Interfaith Youth Core.

If you don’t know any Muslims personally, Eboo is a good first introduction. His work with the Interfaith Youth Core has broken barriers by convening Jews, Christians and Muslims in service to their communities. As they form relationship, a mutual respect emerges and provides a platform for them to work gracefully alongside one another. They don’t try and convert one another. Instead, they display mutual respect and a desire to learn about each other’s faith and how it motivates them to do good works.

I realize for some this may seem soft. For sure, it may be an unpopular position to take in America right now. But if we want to lead culture and not simply follow, it’s a thought Christians need to envisage. If we don’t, our ignorance might make learning how to love our neighbors in this new world harder and delay the fruitfulness that might be possible when we follow Jesus’ clear command.

Though some might have thought it risky for a Christian organization to have a Muslim speak at their gathering, I invited Eboo to address the participants at Q New York. While not everyone attending that year agreed with everything Eboo believes, his talk challenged all who heard it to think more deeply about interfaith relationships in our increasingly pluralistic culture. His reflections on the experience were humbling.

Reading the news coverage of the “Ground Zero Mosque” the last few days, Eboo again came to my mind. In light of the recent events, I wanted to make his talk available to the Q readers for consideration. It is no less pertinent today than the day it was given, and it helps us imagine together how we should love our neighbors of other religions who couldn’t care less about becoming part of ours.

Q | An Interfaith Dialogue from Q Ideas on Vimeo.
Do you think the debate as we’ve been having it is missing something? Are you comfortable with the idea of interfaith work?