Monday, November 12, 2007

Public Nakedness

OK, now I have your attention, right?

But, as you might guess, I'm "playing" you with the title of this post. And the fact that I can do so is precisely the point of this very incisive article. (I'm sure that most of those who look at this blog are also avid readers of Titus 1:9, so I'm doing this for the three or four that aren't.)

Here's a teaser, but I encourage you to read the whole thing:

Reams have been written on the differences between Islamic and Western societies, but for sheer pithiness, it's hard to beat a quip by my former colleague, a Pakistani scholar of Islamic studies. I'd strolled into his office one day to find him on the floor, at prayer. I left, shutting his door, mortified. Later he cheerfully batted my apologies away. "That's the big difference between us," he said with a shrug. "You Westerners make love in public and pray in private. We Muslims do exactly the reverse."

At the nub of debates over Muslim integration in the West lies the question, What's decent to do in public--display your sexuality or your faith? The French have no problem with bare breasts on billboards and TV but big problems with hijab-covered heads in public schools and government offices. Many Muslims feel just the opposite. As my friend suggested, Westerners believe that prayer is something best done in private, a matter for individual souls rather than state institutions. In the Islamic world, religion is out of the closet: on the streets, chanted five times daily from minarets, enshrined in constitutions, party platforms and penal codes. Sexual matters are kept discreet.

As I am finding out more and more, the pocket of America where I now live is lagging a bit. The post-Christian era has yet to acquire significant traction in these parts. Overtly Christian prayer at all manner of public events hardly raises an eyebrow. And I have yet to see any bare breasts on billboards. But I have no doubt that we will catch up.

But on another level, small-town Hoosierland is right in the mainstream. Sure, you can still mention Jesus while giving an invocation at a community foundation luncheon, but ask anyone in the buffet line and you will get near unanimous agreement that religion is essentially a private matter, and if you walked into a co-worker's office and interrupted an obvious time of prayer, it would be nearly as awkward a moment as opening that person's bedroom door at the wrong time.

Does the Islamic world actually have something to teach us?


RFSJ said...


i think Tom Friedman of the NYT observed recently that we in the West had our religious wars and millions of people died in them, mostly because the state was entwined in religion. He noted that Islam is just now possibly beginning its own Reformation, and that it will bloody. Do we really want, as your friend suggests, religion "on the streets, chanted five times daily from minarets, enshrined in constitutions, party platforms and penal codes."

I don't.


Unknown said...

Thanks for posting this. I don't often read T19.

Our Constitution has gone a very different way from trends in the Islamic world where sharia law is being imposed in law and constitution. Western Democracy is fundamentally reliant on humanism. Everything that we do that is criticized by Islam is a result of allowing people to make their own religious choices (and allowing the choice to not be religious). These freedoms are imp0ortant to us and apparently are not at all important to the Moslem world. This is our fundamental conflict -- not a religious one.

Daniel Martins said...

I'm certainly not advocating the "establishment" of Christianity in the U.S. But I am troubled by the relegation of religion to the status of a "private" concern. Christianity, at any rate, is not a "private" religion. It is communal, and if it is true to itself, it is present in the public square. Those who want political candidates to keep their religion (or lack thereof) to themselves do not understand what they are asking.

Judge373 said...

Matthew 6:6

Anonymous said...

Will a new war over Islam herald in a Reformation with a post-modern appreciation of individual rights?

Can you say, "Projection"?

I knew you could.

Seriously, Islam has already provoked -- and endured -- a number of bloody religious wars. Meanwhile, our own reformed and secular Western societies have been no slackers in mass destruction. "Saul (confessional war) has killed his millions, but David (modern ideological war) has killed his hundreds of millions!"

I view it as folly to expect Islamic history to replicate our own. The present "reform" in that faith shows that radical/restorative theology is more attractive than any competitive "re-interpretation." Indeed, given the nature of the Qu'ran, it is not likely that those societies will follow a personalization path. When was the last national conversion to Sufism?

From a Christian, and particularly an Episcopalian perspective, the question I hear from Fr. Dan is whether "mission" and simple honesty (and the love of Christ) constrains us to be open about our own beliefs. And whether, in the public square, those beliefs affect our attitudes and actions.

It is easy to criticize the wars and the warriors of the past. Watching the Current Unpleasantness, one has to wonder if we are doing any better.

Please pass another log. Matt. 7:4.