Even an inveterate church dodger can be inspired by the peal of cathedral bells on a Sunday morning. Even a Gentile can understand the deep ties of faith that accompany the sound of the shofar on Rosh Hashana. And you don’t have to be Muslim to appreciate the reverence in a muezzin’s voice reminding worshipers of the oneness of God.
Dive a little deeper, and there is plenty of doctrine in dispute, but at the live-and-let-live level the three great monotheistic religions seem compatible enough. They share the same Abrahamic root and point toward the same singular deity. They have all subdivided and fractured into different strands: some strict, some open-minded, some almost mirroring one another. There are saints and martyrs in Shiism, for instance, as in the Roman Catholic Church. The Sunni mufti is like the local preacher or rabbi.
Individual adherents of each faith are even more varied than the faiths themselves. Beside you in a pew or on a prayer rug might be a pious literalist, an easygoing liberal, or a daydreamer thinking about lunch. That’s the thing about humans, you never know what they believe. Some have gone all-in with the sacred texts. Others navigate by their own inner compass.
Which is why it is such a pity that Americans and Europeans are once again freaking out about Islam, wondering if the tolerant heritage of the West (recent and tentative as that heritage is) is not just vulnerable to Muslim radicals but whether Muslims themselves are a danger.
Europe has a longer and more fraught relationship with Islam than does North America. Epic wars were waged over the past 1,500 years, horrid massacres and plunderings that swept across the Middle East, North Africa, and the fringes of Europe. These were followed by periods of peace, trade, and cultural exchange that benefited both sides. From spices to algebra, civil service to hip-hop, West and East are in a continual conversation.
Still, the divide is deep. As the historian Bernard Lewis put it in his 1998 book “The Multiple Identities of the Middle East”: “Muslims denounce Christians for the aggressive fanaticism of the Crusades, forgetting that the Crusade itself was a long-delayed and limited response to the [original] jihad and an attempt to win back by holy war what had been lost to a holy war. Christians accuse Muslims of bigotry, and forget that for many centuries Muslim lands provided a haven of refuge for victims of Christian persecutions – not only Jews but also schismatic and heretical Christians.”
In historical time, Americans are relatively new to this love-hate relationship. Only a scattering of Muslims came to the United States in the 18th and 19th centuries. These included some Ottoman emissaries, Syrian merchants, African Muslim slaves, and a few colorful characters like the Jordanian Hajj Ali, who arrived in Texas in the early 19th century with a herd of cantankerous camels for the US cavalry and was promptly renamed “Hi Jolly” by local wranglers. For most of American history, the world of Islam remained as exotic, remote, and unthreatening as Hi Jolly, an asterisk in a nation fixated on its own continental ambitions.
It was fairly deep into the 20th century that immigration from Muslim nations picked up. And although growth has been quickening in recent years, the absolute numbers, even by the most generous estimates, are relatively low – less than 1 percent of the 310 million population. Islam is, of course, a bigger part of European culture and very big part of world culture. More than 1 billion of the world’s 6.7 billion people are Muslims. Coexistence and conflict are part of that equation.
Now, about those 6.7 billion: Many pray to the one God. Many do not. Each is influenced by local conditions, family background, education, friendships, and that ineffable inner compass. From the 6.7 billion, a bombmaker can emerge at any time. So can a peacemaker. Individuals can surprise you.