(The difficulties have not improved since I wrote this six years ago.)
I recall a conversation with my Japanese assistant during my early 1990’s Tokyo tour of duty about some issue we disagreed on. I don’t remember what the issue was, but I remember that at one point during the discussion she declared that we were “parallel.” My first thought was that that was a good thing and that she was about to agree with me and that we could walk along side by side in the same direction. Her meaning, I soon learned, was quite different. It was that we, East Tennessee guy and Japanese lady, like two parallel lines stretching to infinity in both directions, would never meet. She was right, philosophically. We never got on the same wavelength on many issues, but still I enjoyed and appreciated her invaluable assistance during the three and a half years in Tokyo.
Cross cultural communications are always rife with such language and background difficulties. For example, there seems to be no reasonable way for Christians and Muslims to discuss the issues of religious freedom and separation of church and state in the 21st century. It would have been easy 500 years ago when neither Christians nor Muslims believed in such principles and when the “Christian” King of England and the “Christian” Princes of Europe of various Catholic and Protestant and New Age, for the time, persuasions prescribed the religions and religious practices of all under their reigns and sometimes killed or expelled those unwilling to go along. Even in early America, while interfaith killing was less common, there was little religious freedom until brave souls such as Roger Williams established a new way. There does seem to be some evidence that 21st century Muslims believe strongly in religious freedom when they are in the minority but less so when in the majority. That divergence of opinion does not help the discussion.
Given a shaky medieval start, the Western world has changed, after the shedding of a lot of blood, and we now have a culture steeped in the principles of religious freedom and separation of church and state while such practices are still completely foreign to many Middle Eastern Muslims and their leaders. We even mistakenly bend over backwards in America to make sure that people of minority faiths have rights and privileges that we are sometimes willing to withhold from Christians such as the right to pray openly or to wear religious symbols or to teach the principles of their faiths.
This weekend’s primary news diversion about the proposed mosque near the WTC site offers ample discussion material on Western-Middle Eastern cultural gaps and the relationship of church and state. For example, it is a mystery to me why, after Press Secretary Gibbs correctly, and probably with President Obama’s approval, said during the week that the proposed mosque was “a matter for New York City and the local community to decide,” the President would weigh in with such a strong endorsement of the project as he did on Friday evening with a group of Muslim guests. Can you imagine him getting involved in whether a Christian church is to be built in a neighborhood over the objections of local residents, unhappy perhaps with the parking or traffic or building height, and declaring that it should be allowed because it is a matter of religious freedom? Saturday the President seemed to back pedal a bit saying that he did not mean to endorse that specific project on Friday but was making a statement on religious freedom in general. Then later the White House seemed to be saying that nothing he said on Saturday refudiated (Yeah, I like the word.) anything he had said on Friday. I don’t know.
The least important thing about the whole issue is that it is another example of the same mistake President Obama made a little over a year ago when he opined that the Cambridge, MA, police had “acted stupidly” in their encounter with Professor Henry Louis Gates. He must be thinking to himself, “I’ve got to learn to keep my mouth shut.”
And the most important issue is the obvious significant cultural gap between many Americans and many Muslims. If the president wanted to get involved, it would have been good for him to have taken the opportunity to contrast American freedom with the recent Taliban killing of Christian volunteers in Afghanistan and, by so doing, support Secretary of State Clinton’s strong condemnation of that barbaric act. I’m sure she cleared that condemnation with him before she issued it, so he must be in agreement. He could also have challenged the Muslim nations that have no interest at all in separation of church and state to open their minds and join the rest of the world in the 21st century. He could have suggested reciprocity with authorization and protection of Christian Churches and Jewish Synagogues in Muslim nations. Without fundamental change in those nations, I fear not that we are parallel to them and will never meet or agree but that we are on a collision course with them. As a matter of fact, there have already been several collisions with thousands of deaths, have there not, with such continuing daily in Iraq and Afghanistan?
The so-called Ground Zero Mosque at the WTC site was never built. Some history here.