I will now do something I have never done before: defend Muslim-Americans as they gather on Capitol Hill to pray as a public demonstration. Mine is not an easy task, given that I have often expressed in this forum the reasons why Muslim immigration to America should be halted immediately and how the core DNA of Islam promotes violence.
However, on Friday, a crowd of Muslim-Americans gathered on Capitol Hill, and that is a good thing. It is a good thing regardless of the event's eerie timing, given that in the three days leading up to “Islam on Capitol Hill,” Islamic terror suspects were arrested in Dallas, Denver, and Chicago. In addition, two suspects already in custody were charged with plots to attack the Marines at Quantico, and two mystery suspects were being pursued in Philadelphia for videotaping and scouting out the train system. Quite a week for Islamic terror plots on American soil no matter how you slice it (or behead it as the case may be).
The “Islam on Capitol Hill” event turned out fewer Muslim-Americans than expected, with the Washington Post reporting about 3000 attendees. That is a pleasant surprise, given that fewer than 100 persons attended the Free Muslims Coalition's “Million Muslim March” in Washington in 2005, and most of those attendees were members of the press covering the event. Organizers for Friday's Capitol Hill gathering blamed Christian and media backlash for the poor turnout as their press releases and promotional materials had suggested that 50,000 believers would gather and pray on the Hill throughout the day.
Nevertheless, a gathering of 3000 Muslims in Washington to pray together is a good thing for four reasons:
1) Muslim-Americans citizens are guaranteed free speech, free assembly, and free religious expression. A public gathering reinforces the truth that America embraces these freedoms for all of its people.
2) Furthermore, an open gathering of Muslim-Americans engenders a measure of goodwill, bringing the more moderate (we hope) strains of Islam out into the open for all to see. Displaying those moderate strains gives them some credibility with, and visibility to, the rest of the American people.
3) Only with that openness can American Muslims begin to offer any credible critique of their own faith. Change for Islam must come from within its own thinkers and people. Islam cannot and will not be changed from the outside. If there is any hope for a lasting, peaceful expression of Islam in the world, it will come, at least in part, from American Muslims.
4) A gathering of American Muslims can serve as a reminder that it is always important to distinguish individual Muslims (many of whom are peaceful and tolerant) from the Islamic faith itself and its violent core (as evidenced in the very life of its founder, Mohammed, and in the waves of conquest and jihad that have always characterized Islam). Of course, a sizeable minority of Muslims around the world prefer to drink their Islam straight, but a reasoned observer must also recognize that a sizeable group of Muslims do not. A critique of Islam is not the same as a critique of every Muslim believer.
A calm prayer gathering will help ease the path for America as it struggles to realize that it must have a strategy to deal with Islam. Too often, the national conversation is unreasoned, relying either on Pollyannaish politically-correct platitudes that Islam is like all other religions or on statements of hatred and dismissal for every Muslim person. A nationally exposed gathering of Muslim citizens can perhaps be one more step toward our having an honest national conversation regarding the nature of Islam and whether it can be integrated in any way into America. Neither mindless platitudes nor angry rants advance the cause of dealing with the real problem of facing a faith whose very essence opposes religious freedom and tolerance, free speech, and the equality of women.
On the one hand, a handful of conservative Christians voiced opposition to the prayer gathering itself, as if Muslims cannot gather without plotting jihad. Such a voice is an overreaction and does not help advance the core issue with which America must come to terms: a country cannot accept the immigration of people whose faith fundamentally opposes the nation's very founding principles. America simply must have a strategy for dealing with Islam. Ending Muslim immigration (at least until we have that strategy in place) is an important step, but hating all Muslims is not.
At the other end of the spectrum lie the politically correct who continue to live in the fantasy belief world where all religions are the same. These fantasy islanders claim Islam is like any other religion and should be treated as such in spite of the mountains of evidence suggesting that Islam does not, and likely cannot, live hand in hand with other faiths and with individual freedom.
The calm prayer gathering on Friday may not accomplish much. At the very least, however, Americans will juxtapose a prayerful gathering in Washington with multiple terror arrests throughout the country in the very same week. In the end, we can hope that they ask themselves, “What should be the place of Islam in America?” If that conversation finally commences in the public square, we will be on our way to finding a way forward to an issue too long ignored.