November 5, 2001

A contrast of cultures


War unexpectedly inspires poetry. Recall Kipling and Wilfred Owen. Walt Whitman celebrated the terrors of our own Civil War. But in the wake of Sept. 11, America's own poet laureate was unable to compress the national sense of outrage, fear and patriotism into verse that expresses our public faith.

No wonder: The nation's religious faith was fuzzy to begin with, benignly relying on God's special benevolence to us as a people, and on a sense of our own righteousness. Suddenly we were confronted with an evil that draws its justification from a religious faith that is rigorous. Overnight our trust in the innocence of human nature - never very high - was diminished.

The nation's publishers have been quick to respond to the national confusion. Philip Yancey's classic, "Where Is God When It Hurts?," was quickly reprinted and sold 770,000 copies virtually overnight. Churches were packed with people seeking solace. Newsmagazines attempted to answer the question, "Why do they hate us?" Pundits were not at a loss for words, some suggesting that we brought the conflict on ourselves by our political arrogance and cultural decadence. They were condemned as unpatriotic. Peace protesters, quoting Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King, Jr. on nonviolence, were popularly dismissed as dreamers.

It is now apparent that Islamic fundamentalists have no particular grudge against other faiths. Rather, they consider Americans to be unfaithful to Christianity. Like puritans of all religions, Muslim extremists are strict constructionists. When they look at America they see a nation of churchgoers who worship Hollywood, fashion, gossip, games, diets and sexual license, and whose charity does not extend to the largely Islamic Third World.

In short, their complaint is not with Christianity but with secular humanism, the West's inheritance from the Age of Enlightenment, which gave us our political freedoms at the cost of displacing God to enshrine man as the measure of all things.

It is precisely because the American Dream of the good life has largely lost its religious roots that radical Islam feels justified in considering Americans infidels. Islamic fundamentalists feel under siege by the West's secular culture of permissiveness, which they find seductive, but ungodly and hypocritical. When they look at America they see a nation that glories not in God but in "Baywatch."

Equality, freedom and individualism are values America inherited not from the Age of Faith but from the Age of Reason. Islamic fundamentalism finds much of American culture to be offensive and individualism to be an affront to the Creator.

The focus of Islamic faith is obedience to God and holy law. A Muslim believer is faithful by virtue of submission to God's will. A good Muslim is one who keeps all the rules, whereas a good Christian is a sinner who yet believes and repents. The contrast of cultures is combustible. In the estimation of Islamic extremists, Americans are at liberty to indulge in permissiveness and sensuality, because they are certain to be forgiven.

Copyright 2001 Scripps Howard News Service