In the Shadow of the ‘Ground Zero Mosque’: Questions about Muslim and Christian Relationships

image Yesterday John A. Johnson posted a comment on my blog about my review of Samir Selmanovic’s book, It’s Really All About God: Reflections of a Muslim Atheist Jewish Christian. I wrote the review back in March so I was surprised to be receiving a comment at the end of August, but the issues Selmanovic raises in the book seem even more pressing today in light of the American debate about the so-called ‘mosque at Ground Zero.’

I had to smile at Johnson’s characterisation of my review,

This might be the most neutral, purely descriptive book review I have ever read. It is certainly descriptively accurate.

That’s a fair assessment of the review. Johnson reminded me of an incident back when I was a sportswriter at the Bangor Daily News in Maine, USA.

I was asked to fill in for an Arts and Entertainment writer by reviewing a musical theatre production, written and produced by locals. I thought the play was terrible, but I couldn’t bring myself to be overly critical.

After all, Bangor, Maine, is a city of about 30,000 (only slightly bigger than Ballymena), and the people involved had obviously put their hearts and souls into the production. They weren’t professionals performing on Broadway, after all. What could anyone possibly gain by me writing a scathing review?

The day after my review appeared, someone wrote a letter to the editor complaining that it was ‘A Review that Wasn’t a Review.’ Like Johnson, he had a fair point!

But the reason for my neutrality on Selmanovic’s book is not that I think that it is a terrible book. On the contrary, I think it is moving, insightful, well-written and could even be inspiring for some people. But Johnson asks,

How well do you think that it will accomplish its aim, which is to encourage people of different religious backgrounds to “love each other well,” despite their differences? I would like to think that if we could get people to read the book and participate in discussion groups as outlined at the end of the book, progress could be made on resolving inter-group conflict.

I also would like to think that ‘discussion groups’ could lead to progress, but the problem is, evidence for this is thin. I do think it can happen on a small-scale, and have seen examples of this among Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland.

But to answer Johnson, I simply don’t know if the discussion and interaction that Selmanovic advocates will ultimately have a long-term impact in the lives of more than a few people.

Of course, Selmanovic provides evidence of this from his own life, telling stories about himself and others who have overcome prejudices.

Further, some academic research confirms that carefully managed ‘inter group contact’ can lead to a moderation of attitudes. Indeed, Northern Ireland’s Community Relations Council is pretty much based on the theory that promoting ‘cross community’ contact will help to resolve inter-group conflict.

Watching from Ireland, I’ve been struck by the way that the debate about the Islamic cultural centre, proposed to be two blocks from Ground Zero, has been framed in such a confrontational way.

Even the phrase ‘Ground Zero Mosque’ seems to me deliberately misleading and inflammatory. Both politicians and people in the media have used this language to frame the debate.

I think that this use of language can – and may already have done – a lot of harm to the productive, grassroots work that Selmanovic and others like him are involved in.

Selmanovic is based in New York City, at Faith House Manhattan, and has on his own blog entered the ‘Ground Zero Mosque’ debate.

So finally, to try and answer Johnson’s question: I simply don’t know if what Selmanovic promotes will inspire others and work for everybody. But I think there’s more hope in his grassroots approach than in the confrontational public discourses currently on display in New York City.

(Photo from Selmanovic’s blog. He has it captioned: ‘All I need to know about Christianity I learned from the KKK?’)

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