The struggle for the soul of Islam
The story of the year is the great religious story of our time: the struggle of religions, particularly Islam, to choose an inclusive, tolerant attitude toward those outside the faith (and toward dissenters or those deemed heretics within). The alternative is an intolerance that will destroy us.
The Swiss minaret controversy (where a referendum prohibited the construction of new minarets designed for Mosques) was a useful flashpoint. Here is critic Carlin Romano: "The day that Turkey apologizes and pays reparations for the Armenian genocide, that Saudi Arabia permits the building of churches and synagogues, that the Arab world thinks the homeland principles it applies to the Arabs of Palestine also apply to the Armenians of Turkey--on that day, I will find time to commiserate with the generally kind and hard-working Muslims of Switzerland."
Romano's point is the imbalance in assumptions of tolerance. Europe was dragged, often kicking and screaming, into the pluralism that holds uneasy sway in the West. Yet Christianity did most of its struggling at the 'right' time - in Europe the battle for tolerance was fought in an age before weapons could kill millions at a stroke. Intolerance is ugly enough with a lance or longbow in hand. The fanatic's finger on a nuclear button is catastrophe.
There are encouraging signs of growing moderation. After the Bali bombings Indonesia, the largest Muslim state, has grown more moderate, according to most observers. The recognition of extremism's frightening cost is growing. More prominent moderate voices are heard in the news. Still, the intolerance that edges into savagery is the great civilizational struggle of our day. There is no hiding from it or flinching from its consequences. It will not do to point out the undoubted truth that Christianity has its dangerous fundamentalists (Timothy McVeigh and his ilk) as does Judaism (some of the xenophobic extremists who are Baruch Goldstein's spiritual heirs) and Hinduism and indeed almost every faith on the planet. These individuals or groups are not the predominant population, nor those with power. In numbers, in sway, in the virulence and danger of the ideology, religiously motivated rejectionism and terror is today overwhelmingly a Muslim problem.
None of the other issues: the paranoiac piffle about President Obama's being Muslim, the Pope's strange insensitivity to the legacy of the Holocaust, the role of religion in health care, not even the President's Cairo speech (which is a manifestation of the larger issue of addressing extremism) are more significant than this continuing life and death drama.
Not even the overriding human rights issue of our time - the eradication of the sexual slave trade of women - ultimately takes precedence. In the liberation of women from subjugation however, there are the seeds of a greater liberality of thought and practice. Terrorism is not entirely separable from training in oppressively patriarchal systems. When religion abets suppression it betrays its own ideals and the image of God that is our most precious gift and legacy.
The west has a great deal of work to do in reckoning with its own long history in the Muslim world. We have to take care with our rhetoric and assumptions. Yet clearly and inarguably, how Islam copes with its own extremism is the story of 2009, and will most likely prove the religious story of the age.