May 24, 2004
Martin E. Marty
Where are the Muslim moderates, abroad and at home? Let's leave the problem of the hidden Muslim moderate in Egypt or Indonesia or, for that matter, Iraq for another day. Complaints are regularly made that spokespersons for moderates in our domestic Muslim communities are not sufficiently heard. Told that the vast, vast majority of American Muslims are critical of fundamentalists and other militants around the world, the non-Muslim public wants to hear more.
The voices are there, sometimes muffled, often overlooked. This week let's learn from an article by John L. Allen, Jr., in the National Catholic Reporter (May 14): "Muslim Chaplain Sees Value in Crucifixes." The article is interesting for both intrinsic and extrinsic reasons, suggesting a positive approach to inter-religiousness in the messy scene of American pluralism.
Allen profiles Georgetown University's Muslim chaplain who appreciates the crucifixes on the walls of that Jesuit institution more than do many Catholics and "non-offenders." If the crucifixes stay, some Catholics said, they will go. If the crucifixes go, Chaplain (Imam) Yahha Hendi says he will go. "I believe religion has a lot to contribute to Georgetown and to America. An attempt to remove religious values from our public discourse is dangerous." He prefers a descript as opposed to a non-descript teaching setting.
The clout-rich and friendly Imam has had the ear of the Washington administration and the Vatican, but despises Attorney General John Ashcroft, who has said particularly nasty things about Islam and Allah. Religious right figures like W. F. Graham and Pat Robertson "aren't helping." He similarly criticizes fellow Muslims.
And the other, extrinsic, reason for this notice: Hendi symbolizes an approach to inter-religious life that has much promise. If I study or teach at Brandeis or Cairo's Al-Azhar Institute, I do not mind or reject the "symbols" (verbal, behavioral, gestural, and, where in place, visual) of Judaism or Islam. The faith that grounded and inspired such places of learning deserves recognition, helps define the sponsors as an "other" that is hospitable and welcoming, and helps "me" define myself.
Wherever a private sector institution, like Georgetown, has a public presence, it deserves to be known for what it is. Georgetown should remain Georgetown, not a vague entity that has lost its flavor, bearings, and ability to teach or to welcome others.