America, as a nation, has some big fish to fry these days. But the energy is being focused right now on a symbolic question. Can the nation tolerate the building of an Islamic cultural center and mosque near Ground Zero almost a decade after the 9/11 attacks? Or, more to the point, can America uphold one of its core values – religious tolerance? The debate has smoldered on throughout the summer, and we’ve seen the hard right and left condemn the Cordoba Initiative and Islam more generally. On the right, Newt Gingrich has talked about how we’re facing an “Islamist cultural-political offensive designed to undermine and destroy our civilization.” And built into his thinking is the assumption that when Christians commit abhorrent crimes, it’s a perversion of the religion, not an indictment of its essence. But the same charity doesn’t get extended to the Islamic minority faith in the country. Meanwhile, Sam Harris on the secular/atheist left gets in bed with Gingrich when he says “there is much that is objectionable—and, frankly, terrifying—about the religion of Islam and about the state of discourse among Muslims living in the West.” If it matters, the main difference between Harris and Gingrich is Harris’ consistency, which boils down to a consistent contempt for religion. (Partially Examined Life takes a much closer look at Harris’ arguments here).
All of this makes me wonder: What would someone who actually knows something about Islam say about the whole affair? So here you have it. Karen Armstrong, one of the most well known thinkers in the field of comparative religion, a former Catholic nun, and the author most recently of The Case for God, offering her thoughts on the matter above.