Over the past few days, I have had quite a few people ask me what I thought of the first-ever Muslim prayer service held inside the vault of the Washington National Cathedral. Would GetReligion be "covering" that?
My response, of course, was whether they were asking for my personal take on this event, as an Orthodox Christian, or for my take on the media coverage of the event, which is what GetReligion is all about? Most meant the former, which isn't all that relevant to what we do here on this blog. Thus, let me offer a thought or two about the Washington Post coverage of the event, which ran under this headline: "Washington Cathedral’s first Muslim prayer service interrupted by heckler."
Your GetReligionistas rarely critique reporters by name, since we think editors also play crucial roles in the final product that ends up in print or on the air. However, in this case I'd like to note that it was interesting, and I think wise, that the Post editors assigned veteran foreign correspondent Pamela Constable to this story. She has years of experience in Pakistan and Afghanistan and is also known as the author of the book, "Fragments of Grace: My Search for Meaning in the Strife of South Asia."
The information that made it into the story was solid, although at several points I wanted to know more -- such as the actual doctrinal content of the sermon scholar Ebrahim Rasool, South Africa’s U.S. ambassador. In each case, I found myself wondering if these vague spots were the result of editing or the values of editors in the newsroom.
What am I talking about? Read this crucial passage carefully:
The event was closed to the public, and there was heavy security, with police checking every name and bag. Organizers from several area Muslim institutions said there had been concerns about security and threats after the event was publicized and that they and cathedral officials wanted to limit it to a small and selected group.
Nevertheless, the carefully scripted ceremony was marred once when one well-dressed, middle-age woman in the audience suddenly rose and began shouting that “America was founded on Christian principles. . . . Leave our church alone!” She was swiftly ushered out by security aides, and the service continued.
Numerous speakers, including cathedral officials and local Muslim leaders, echoed Rasool’s message about the urgent need for religious understanding and collaboration. Most made pointed references to the symbolism of the majestic Christian building, where rugs had been laid for prayer.
I was not surprised at the presence of a "heckler" who shouted out in the presence of what, for many Christians, even Anglicans, was a truly scandalous or even sacrilegious event. After all, the symbolism that made this event so important -- Islamic prayers in a symbolic sanctuary of American civil religion -- also made this event truly tragic to many Christians and Muslims as well.
In the end, however, the service was totally consistent with the dominant Universalism of the modern Episcopal Church and, well, this is in the end an Episcopal cathedral. This service made theological sense for the people who run that facility.
However, I was left wondering about those security concerns and the reference to "threats." What was that all about? Also, what were the liturgical comments about the Christian symbolism in the sanctuary?
In short, were there protests from Muslims in the region who also believed that this rite crossed a line that could not be crossed -- at least until the cathedral was claimed for Islam? After all, the building was packed with symbols of both the Incarnation and the Christian Trinity. Traditional Muslims had valid reasons to be thinking of the famous inscriptions above the doorways into the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. For example:
There is no god but God. He is One. He has no associate. ... O People of the Book! Do not exaggerate in your religion nor utter aught concerning God save the truth. The Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, was only a Messenger of God, and His Word which He conveyed unto Mary, and a spirit from Him. So believe in God and His messengers, and say not ‘Three’ -- Cease! (it is) better for you! -- God is only One God. Far be it removed from His transcendent majesty that He should have a son.
So what we had here was a Muslim prayer service held in a building that, with the architecture of previous Christian generations, was shouting "Three," "Three," Three."
Should this story have included the voices of Muslims who questioned the wisdom of this rite?Were some of them urgently voicing their opposition behind the scenes? The bottom line: Why was the security so high? Was there opposition to this rite, outside of traditional Christian circles?