Among the formidable roster of New York Times columnists, no one is more despised than Russ Douthat--for his conservative views. Following almost every column he writes, vitriolic responses spill down the page. Most Times readers don't read that newspaper because of him; they read the Times because elsewhere there's too much of him. On the opinion page, Douthat is a minority.
I read him every time he sets down a line (how do you say that digitally--"I read his every keystroke"?). Anyway, I enjoy him greatly. He has his point of view and he does his best to communicate his determinations--and they are decidedly conservative.
Just before Christmas he brought up the difficulties the American people when they think about their Islamic neighbors, the women in the hijabs, believers who pray with their foreheads on the floor. Most Americans don't want to dislike them or distrust them. If we aren't First Nations in heritage, we're all immigrants. My Dutch immigrant great-grandparents had to learn to get along, too, right? So should Muslims.
But what exactly does "get along" mean for believers, especially for "true believers"? At the very least, it means reshaping their faith to fit more imperceptibly into the American context, right? Take off the sharp edges, whittle away at the whatever might create offense, go soft, back pedal, ease up, chill--you know. Don't make a production of your faith for goodness sake, for the sake of your neighbors. Douthat claims that most Americans simply assume that for Muslims to get along in this country, faith has to be tempered.
It should come as no surprise to any Christian believer that many Muslims consider such a path as a road to extinction. To believe that Muslims have to become less Muslim--and more American--is to spell an end to the Muslim faith in America. Here's how he puts it: ". . .Modernized Islam would be Unitarianism with prayer rugs and Middle Eastern kitsch – . . .one more office in the multicultural student center, one more client group in the left-wing coalition." (Also the kind of dig that liberals love to hate).
Douthat's really interesting point however is that American Christians should understand the dilemma faced by American Muslims because they face it too. If faith exists only in our closets, does it exist at all? If it's invisible, won't it disappear? He says what's true of Christianity is true of Islam, and I think he's right. Can Christians who are totally acculturated and assimilated into mainstream "American" culture claim Christianity at all? That seems to me to be a good question.
Muslim America's best models for living in the kind of freedom America affords may well be American evangelicals, he says, by which I'm sure he means, conservative Christian evangelicals. "In this landscape of options," he writes, "the clearest model for Islam’s transition to modernity might lie in American evangelicalism — like Islam a missionary faith, like Islam decentralized and intensely scripture-oriented, and like Islam a tradition that often assumes an organic link between the theological and political."
But then, or so it seems, no one seems more alarmed these days about Islam in America than those same Christian conservatives. I suppose that makes sense.
Long ago, I did an interview with an Dutch-born engineer who spent several years in Saudi Arabia, working for an American oil company. I did the story in Canada, where he and his family were living at the time. He enjoyed talking about his experience in the Middle East, and told me it was easier for him to understand Islam than it was for most of his North American counterparts because he grew up with a Kuyperian view of government, a government that required the influence of Christians determined to adopt legislation that adhered to the principles of the faith whose dynamism they used to form those principles.
He said he understood Islam better than others, he told me, because he was a Christian who was deeply influenced by that species of Kuyperian Calvinism.
It just may be that a fit model for all of is, Christian and Muslim, is Russ Douthat, a man who takes a beating with every column, but who keeps talking, keeps writing the best columns he can, keeps communicating the outlines of what he considers the truth as drawn from his own Catholic faith.
It may well be the most difficult question facing the West--can Muslims adapt to Western culture? As a first step, certainly, Douthat says, Muslims have "to set aside the sword."