A television studio can be a scary place. All the more so when the camera is trained on your face in a heated debate.
So I found out recently, when I was asked to bump heads, so to speak, with an Islamic spokesman. Islamic anger had been roused by events and then further stirred up by the media.
It is difficult for Americans to understand what it is like living in a country where there is a large, growing, confident Islamic presence in every major city. Imagine going to Mass past a baying mob thrusting aggressively anti-Catholic placards and hurling vicious insults at the Holy Father. Imagine learning later that the police will be taking no action — not even against those who publicly pledged to murder the Pope. Apparently such a threat doesn’t constitute a “hate crime” in modern Britain.
And yet there is another side to the picture. Two days after my TV encounter (more on that in a moment), I had another experience. Running late for a meeting in an unfamiliar part of London — and I do mean running in the literal sense — I asked a local resident for directions. “I need Peter Avenue,” I said. “Do you know where it is?” The kind stranger went to his car to consult a map. We were in a suburban maze of wriggling streets, all of which look alike. “Ah, here it is,” he said. “It’s not far away.” Then he looked at me and offered: “I’ll give you a lift.”
From earliest childhood we are taught to never, ever, accept a lift from a stranger. I started to say, “Oh, no, really, I …” — but something made me decide to accept. He was elderly, he was kind and he struck me as utterly sincere. Besides, it wasn’t like he’d been out cruising around. The car was parked outside his home and I’d stopped him on his way inside.
As we drove along, I explained that I was due at a Catholic church to give a talk on marriage preparation. “I think it’s a red-brick building,” I said. We spotted its tower and he pulled up in front. As I turned to thank him, he spoke with seriousness: “It is a great pleasure for me, as a Muslim, to help a Christian sister like you.” I was touched and, for a moment, couldn’t speak. I held out my hand. “Thank you,” I finally said. “And God bless you. God bless you.”
I told the incident to the young people at the marriage-prep group. They were delighted. Maybe even inspired.
Two days earlier, the TV interview had been difficult. It is so easy to be accused of being “anti-Islamic” or of having “Islamophobia.”
“We just want Pope Benedict to acknowledge that Muhammad is a prophet,” said the Islamic spokesman.
“He can’t do that,” I said. “He doesn’t think Muhammad is a prophet. Nor do I.”
As a Catholic, I can’t expect much sympathy for my faith in the mainstream media. The Church’s message on many issues is, here as in America, routinely attacked and denounced. In Europe, the emergence of Islam as a strong force gives us new pressures. What of the cross on our country’s flag? The granite crosses that mark our war memorials? All these offend Islam. Are we to tear them all down?
But there is a way forward: neighborly kindness, courtesy and mutual respect for one another’s dignity as human beings created by the one true God. And there are values that matter to both our religions. Devout Muslims share our disgust with pornography, for example, along with our exasperation over popular culture’s promotion of Godless lifestyles and other secularizing forces. And, oh yes: They pray.
So it is that I have lately been learning that, in today’s Britain, there are many opportunities to apply Pope John Paul’s exhortation to “Be not afraid.” And many ways to apply it, too.
Joanna Bogle writes