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A debating society

If we can't have open and honest debate here, why expect it elsewhere?

Issue: "Troops hunt for weapons," June 14, 2003

The most penetrating question of the day came from a Time magazine reporter. Two dozen people, almost all of them evangelical Christians, had gathered for the morning to discuss current dynamics between Christians and Muslims. The Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington was hosting the event.

Not at the meeting were several people whose comments about Islam over the last couple of years had been widely-and negatively-publicized. But Time's David Van Biema was there. And not hearing from this whole roomful of evangelicals a negative portrayal of Islam, he asked a pair of questions that I thought went right to the heart of the matter:

First, he asked, did this group of thoughtful evangelicals think that most of their fellow Christians-those out in the grassroots-basically agreed with Franklin Graham's assessment of Islam, but just thought the language (an "evil and wicked religion") that he and others used was unwise and indiscreet?

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And second, what about the people gathered in this room? Could it be that they too basically agreed that Islam is an evil and wicked religion, but that they disapprove of such language as inappropriate, indiscreet, and counter-strategic?

I was fascinated that Mr. Van Biema didn't really get a direct answer. Different folks ventured that just as some Christians have done some bad and evil things, some Muslims are also guilty of bad and evil behavior. But Mr. Van Biema suggested that was to avoid the question-which was exactly what everyone was obviously doing. For no one present seemed willing to say that Islam is an evil and wicked religion. As I sat there and watched the two dozen Christians, I wondered what each was really thinking.

For a genuine Christian must believe, I was thinking, that by definition Islam is indeed an evil and wicked religion. Just a few years ago, most Americans came to agree that it would be evil and wicked for the Firestone tire company to continue to manufacture and sell tires that tended occasionally to cause fatal accidents. How, a sensible person might well ask, is it any less evil and wicked to teach people spiritual falsehood that would separate listeners eternally from the one true God?

"But it's a matter of tone," some well-meaning people will insist. "When you use such loaded language, you'll turn off the very people who need to hear."

"Oh, yeah?" someone rejoins. "When the place is about to be fire-bombed, who's got time to be polite? Just get people out of here, as bluntly and as fast as you can!"

That debate-between what you might call theological integrity on the one hand and cultural sensitivity on the other hand-is hardly new. What struck me, however, was the sense in which virtually everybody these days lines up on the cultural sensitivity side of the debate. That's the only issue people seem to worry about.

I would have felt a bit more comfortable, for example, if just one person in the room had been willing to say: "Well, yes, I'm ready to state publicly that Islam has a pretty sorry track record. I'm willing to ask exactly which modern Islamic nation Muslims are proud of and ready to point to as an example of what their religious system can do for a people."

Especially when Muslims regularly use words like apostate and infidel about Christians, I am dismayed that our favorite posture these days is to bend over backwards never to give any offense. I agree, of course, with the main speaker at the Washington gathering, Yale University professor Lamin Sanneh, who asked: "Why should we be trading insults? We don't need to taunt the Muslims. Islam is not short of invective." We've said before in WORLD that we probably wouldn't have used the words that Mr. Graham and others have used to describe Islam. But when honest, explicit debate is silenced because a few people are perceived occasionally to have gone too far, then we have turned traitor to the society we need to protect.

America likes to pride itself on its so-called pluralism. But a pluralism that excludes certain subjects from the debate just because somebody's vocabulary went a little too far in a couple of instances-well, that's no pluralism at all. Author Os Guinness got it right when he noted at the Washington meeting that if we can't have open and civil debate right here in the United States, we should hardly be surprised if there's also no possibility of a civil debate on a global scale. The whole world has a lot to learn; it might help if we learned first right here at home.

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.


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