One ancient Chinese curse, we are told, is “May you live in interesting times.” This political year, with its flawed candidates on both sides, is proving to be one of those interesting times.
Those of us who have studied history know that the biggest split in the Muslim world happened in 661 A.D., when Islam’s “world Caliphate” broke permanently into two camps: Sunni and Shi’a. ISIS is the current warring face of Sunni Islam, and Iran the warring face of Shi’ite Islam. Each considers the other their mortal enemy, and their most unmitigated hatred is not for us in the West but rather for each other. In contrast, the biggest split in the Christian world is not quite as ancient, dating back only to the year 1054 A.D., when Eastern Orthodoxy and Western Christendom split Christianity in half. The two largest churches in each half are led in the twenty-first century by Patriarch Bartholomew and Pope Francis respectively. Just this year, and for the first time in a thousand years, Patriarch and Pope have met together, worshipped together, and now have shown the rest of us how to set aside differences – even long-standing differences – to do good works together in following Christian teachings we all share: to heal the sick, shelter the homeless, clothe the naked, and especially to welcome the stranger.
In April of this year, Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew went to the Island of Lesbos, the entry point into Europe of those thousands of Muslim (mostly Syrian) refugees fleeing the religious wars tearing apart their own religion. Unlike the United States, most European countries have taken in thousands of those refugees – and, doubtless, some small number of ISIS or other infiltrators masquerading as refugees. Those countries, they say, are nearing the limit of their capacity to help. Pope Francis’ reaction? He personally brought three families, six adults and six children, to refuge in his own small “country” – Vatican City, population about eight hundred plus, now, these twelve.
Should we in the United States do more to follow the Papal example, or should we bar the door? Some Muslims are threats, we are told, and we can’t screen any of them. As a Presidential candidate, Donald J. Trump has stoked the fear of many and says we should bar them all. But that would be wrong, as wrong as any other form of racism that condemns the many for the crimes, especially the suspected crimes, of a few. We who believe in the promise of America must insist that we stay true to our core values and follow the vision of Christianity that Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew share.
There are many purveyors of anti-Muslim fear, of Islamophobia; they are not limited to Presidential candidates and “nativist” politicians. Such people assert that Islam in America is not represented by the peaceful and patriotic millions of American Muslims. Instead, they argue unconvincingly, “true Islam” is personified by terrorists – and, therefore, that true Islam is the enemy of America. In that argument, they are actually agreeing with Iran and ISIS. There is indeed an ongoing worldwide war of beliefs, but it is not primarily between Islam and the West, nor even between Sunni and Shi’ite. It is a war between those who believe that violence represents “true Islam,” and those who repudiate religious violence. Whether Republicans or Democrats, we in America need to make sure in this political year that we don’t succumb to this spreading Islamophobia. Rather, we must help those fleeing violence, welcome refugees to our country as Pope Paul has to his, and ally ourselves with the vast majority of the Muslim world in defeating ISIS and, in the process, assuring the eventual defeat of religious violence itself.