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Legality, Appropriateness, and Engagement

Dr. Martin Luther King giving his "I Have...
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Today Glen Beck led a rally in Washington, DC on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial where Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous ‘I have a dream’ speech. In fact, today was the anniversary of that speech, which came to symbolize the struggle and eventual triumph of the civil rights movement. Beck denied he knew about the congruity of dates until after he planned the rally, but this denial has not stopped many from labeling this rally as an offense to the legacy of King.

I will confess to not following this issue too closely. I understand Beck to be a conservative and religion-friendly newscaster, but do not know exactly what he does or does not support in detail, outside of the fairly obvious battle lines in American politics. Furthermore, I have no insight as to whether or not he is playing games with the civil rights history of our nation, but I do also see what appears to be a highly symbolic convergence of imagery. Is he honoring the legacy, exploiting and redefining it, or just, as he confessed, ignorant of the whole matter?

Perhaps given that I have not closely followed this controversy, I can easily connect it to another controversy I have not followed closely: the Ground Zero mosque. (It is an advantage of living overseas that the headline dominating news stories in the US are received with considerably fewer decibels.)

In both cases it is clear that those engaged in the controversial activity have the right to do so. Glen Beck obtained the necessary permits to conduct a rally on national property, and the mosque/community center organizers own the land on which they seek to build and have received zoning clearance to do so.

It is also clear that those who are protesting do not challenge the legality of these endeavors, but their appropriateness. Many African-Americans and their then-liberal supporters in the civil rights struggle do not share the conservative worldview of Glen Beck. They find it offensive that he advance his agenda on the same day, at the very spot that their hero’s dream is most enshrined.

Meanwhile, many New Yorkers and Americans of all stripes have defined Ground Zero as sacred ground, after the devastating attacks perpetrated there in the name of Islam. Most of these would not oppose a mosque being built elsewhere, regardless of what they think of Islam as a religion. Why, however, build it there? Even if the mosque represents Islam of another stripe, why plant its flag at the gate of such an atrocity?

The response of an individual to the sense of appropriateness may vary, as may the ‘logical’ assessment of these claims. What is disturbing in both cases, however, is that opponents are seeking either to stop or sully the endeavors through loud and distant protest. Consider: If those in favor agreed their efforts were inappropriate, would they have undertaken them? And since they do not, will they be convinced by rancor and misinformed assumptions of intent, cast from afar?

Certainly the masses feel helpless. What can a patriot in Virginia do to influence Imam Faisal in New York? How can an activist in California effect Beck in DC? Let the cry be heard in the media, on the radio, in a blog. None of this, however, has any influence on law. Worse, it has contrary affect on the people involved.

Opposition and controversy, especially when loud and public, generally serves only to cement someone in their opinions. If there is a way forward, however, imagining for a moment that these endeavors are not appropriate, it can only be found in engagement. It is possible to change the mind of a friend. Very little in the public discourse concerning either Glen Beck or Ground Zero, however, is contributing toward bridge building. On the contrary, all seems polarizing.

Here in Egypt there is a similar, though not identical, issue surrounding church building. The law is ambiguous; there is no formal discrimination but the process of gaining approval is universally acknowledged as difficult. In places a church can be constructed quickly and easily; in others the plans labor for years waiting for the governor (the governor!) to give his approval.

Oftentimes Christians decide to go ahead and build anyway (as will Muslims, at times, with a mosque), knowing that if they can get the building up then the government will not knock it down. There is far less public relations damage for a stalled authorization process than for the demolition of a house of worship. The former will languish on the desk of a bureaucrat; the latter may attract international condemnation.

Very few Egyptian Muslims would argue that there is no place for a church in a Muslim nation. It is not uncommon, however, to hear their protest that this church is too close to a mosque, or that the church steeple equals or exceeds the height of the tallest minaret in a village. Frustrated by delays in authorization Christians will often proceed without consulting their Muslim neighbors. Feeling threatened or dishonored, Muslims have sometimes reacted in violence, damaging the building that has been constructed as an affront.

Many Christians and Muslims will argue that the situation must be remedied by law – that is, a clear and impartial system must be created to govern the building of all houses of worship. There is much merit in this discussion. Unfortunately, many of these same advocates for religious freedom stop there. They press the need for legal reform, but do not continue to engage the opposite community on the ground, in real relationships.

For people on the ground, however, the issue of church building is not one of law, but of appropriateness. The law may force their hand, but this only results in furthering community tension. Neither Muslims nor Christians profit from this situation. Yet since few Muslims would oppose the right of Christians to build a church, overcoming the issue of its appropriateness can only be done through engagement.

There are examples in which Christians have taken the sensibilities of Muslims into account and have won full, legal authorization to build churches. There are also examples where they have acted independently, and have stoked the fires of sectarian tension.

The din of struggle and opposition will always be heard over the quiet, dogged pursuit of relationship. In both the cases of Glen Beck and Ground Zero, there may have been extensive efforts at engagement that have gone unreported, since engagement is not conducted in front of cameras.

At the same time, engagement is insincere if it is only seeking its own interest. I might sit down with my opponent once for tea to hear his argument, but if he only repeats his position each and every time, I will no longer invite him over. Engagement is willing to see the other side, validate, and appeals in humility to that which it desires.

Many today, both inside and outside of Egypt believe that sectarian tension is increasing rapidly. This is due to the same phenomena that dominate media coverage of Glen Beck and Ground Zero. These polarizing images ignore the many efforts at racial reconciliation engaged in by both liberals and conservatives. They ignore the fact that most Muslims in America live a normal middle class lifestyle in complete peace and tolerance with their neighbors.

Similarly, most Muslims and Christians in Egypt live together in peace. Where there is tension it must be addressed. Where an issue arises the media must cover it. In the face of real difficulties in certain places, though, the assertion of peace may ring hollow. If so, it does reflect a growing pattern, not of tension, but of disengagement. While percentage-wise the troubles are few, the level of harmonious interaction between Muslims and Christians decreases ever so slightly, but steadily.

This is the risk America now faces in the issues of Glen Beck and Ground Zero. Polarizing voices and opinions only serve to lessen consensus and engagement. On either racial or religious grounds, the genuine peace which exists between all Americans may ring increasingly hollow. If so, it is because these normal Americans have disengaged from their diverse communities, finding fellowship only with their kin.

Though God is often portrayed as the one with the loudest voice of all, silencing his opposition by power of miracle, he is also characterized by stillness and whisper. Jesus spoke of God’s Spirit as a gentle wind, with man knowing not from whence it came or where it is going. Many today in pursuit of their agendas

usurp God’s right of bombastic pronouncement. We would do better to search instead for his whisper, finding places where he is at work, but quietly, and ignored by most of those around.

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