Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Why don’t the moderate Christians speak out?

Every time I give a public talk about Islam, I can count on this question: “Why don’t the moderate Muslims speak out? Why don’t they condemn terrorism?”

I then tell the audience that moderate Muslims have, in fact spoken out, on more than one occasion. I share with them the condemnation issued by 500 leading Muslim leaders and clerics after violence flared in the wake of the Danish cartoon controversy. I cite the overture by a large group of progressive Muslims to Christian and Jewish leaders to engage in serious discussion about how to improve relations between Islam and the West. There are more.

But, I then say, not one of these statements against terrorism—and there have been more—was covered by a prominent news stories in the leading papers, or on TV news shows. When I finish, I see the skepticism still brooding in the eyes of all too many in the audience. They have the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, CNN and NPR. Why should they believe me?

Media Selectivity

Happened again this past Sunday. Driving away, I got to musing about the “why don’t the moderates” question, and made some comparisons. Why, for example, haven’t moderate Christians spoken out against Pat Robertson’s outrageous declaration that the 7.0 earthquake is God’s punishment on Haiti for ‘making a pact with the devil.” Why don’t moderate Republicans (the few that remain) speak up and condemn the outrageous disinformation of the Right? Why don’t moderate Israelis and Palestinians speak out against the extremists in their own camp?

But of course, they all do speak out, a bit at least. I’m sure countless Sunday sermons mentioned the not-so-Reverend Mr. Robertson unfavorably, at least in passing. I know Jewish and Muslim peace activists who work together, bring peace-seeking people together, send out press releases, and do not appear in newsprint or TV news shows. Every Muslim I know is appalled by Islamic extremism.

The news narrative of our times is interested only in Islamic terrorism. We hear little about the large number of progressive Muslims seeking religious, political and social reform in the Muslim world. As a Chicago news reporter told Eboo Patel, the bright young Muslim-American creator of the Interfaith Youth Core (which brings kids of all faiths together for common social action), “good deeds like yours are not newsworthy.” And of course, in one spectacular recent incident, a “moderate” Muslim did: the father of the “Christmas underwear bomber” reported his dangerous son to the American authorities. But nobody in power listened.

In the same way, the (largely secular) media seems only interested in the more conservative and extreme forms of Christianity. Robertson gets press. The National Council of Churches does not. Creationists disturbing the peace of school boards are covered. The annual interfaith weekend celebrating the compatibility of evolution and religion, faith and science does not.

Moderates are....too moderate?

The fault, however, can’t be laid solely at the media doorstep. Moderates (who come in many styles from conservative to liberal) are, after all, moderate. Civilized, mannered, accustomed to intelligent discussion and debate rather than the street brawls more and more of society seems enchanted by in politics, reality TV, and elsewhere. We stand aghast at the outrageousness of the extremists, in word and deed.

We live in perilous times, when the “worst are full of passionate intensity” as Yeats put it long ago, and it all too often seems that the “best lack all conviction” because they issue calm and reasonable statements and hold symposia.

So, let me suggest to any of you any “moderate” peace-loving internet surfer who may read this the following: instead of stewing about “why don’t moderate Muslims speak out?” why don’t we moderates stoke up our own passion about speaking out against the extremists who give a bad name to our faith, political party, or whatever: in personal conversations, letters to the editor, wherever we can. If you’re a Christian, for example tell your kids, your Jewish friends, your agnostic neighbors how embarrassed you are that people like Robertson trash your faith. That Jesus weeps over such viciousness.

Be passionate about civil discourse. Be passionate about the value of truth and the evil of disinformation. Be passionate about the best aspects and highest ideals of your religion, political party, or moral code. Don’t be ashamed to state your values and give reasons for them out loud, courteously but with feeling. As Yeats warns us, if the “center cannot hold, things fall apart.”

Which they seem perilously close to doing.


  1. My thought was not so much to "protest" Robertson's psycho-babble as to point him to the words of Jesus in Luke 13:1-5. I think I posted this somewhere on the 'net.

  2. A good start would be to encourage people to avoid all advertising based news sources. Just as the marketing on billboards tells us half-truths, so will news sources tell us a half-picture of the world when their choice of prominent articles is based on their likelihood to increase advertising revenue. If this a cry for a BBC like organisation for the world ? Ten years ago, perhaps, but today the internet gives people choice with blogs and blog aggregators.
    However, will people seek to so self-educate themselves as to a more rounded world-view ?