When Emperor Valentinian-II embarked on restoring the Altar of Victory to the Senate house and renewing the Republic’s vigour for the worship of the traditional gods, he received a letter of support from the Roman Prefect, Symmachus. It stated, in part: “We ask, then, for peace for the gods of our country. It is just that all worship should be considered as one. We look to the same stars, the sky is common, and the same world surrounds us. What difference does it make by what pains each seek the truth?”
As a representative of the political cursus honorum, Symmachus sought to preserve ancient Roman traditions. It troubled him greatly that the Senatorial aristocracy was steadily converting to Christianity. The previous Emperor Gratian, (a Christian) had ordered the Altar of Victory be removed from the Curia and decreased the yearly allocation for the maintenance of the Vestal Virgins and subsidy for the celebration of religious rites.
After Symmachus had sent his letter, Bishop Ambrose of Milan became embroiled in the affair. He fired off an indignant protest against the counsel of the Prefect. Of course, religious fights can rise to a fever pitch no differently that a nasty marital fight. This fight was a good one.
Defiance! The word is not a bad one when it comes to religion. Because it is on the heels of many, an act of defiance that religion has become healthier, stronger, more tolerant, and certainly more enjoyable. Martin Luther hammered his edict into a wooden door, and the empire of the Catholic Church was shaken. Colonists fled Europe. Their defiance against the belief that the state had any right to meddle in the private worship of the citizen proved a powerful motivation to escape. Resistance against government constraint of private acts of worship caused them to load onto their wooden ships and set sail. The Mayflower Compact sprang to life at Plymouth Rock, and the giant-hearted turned their faces into the harsh wind. Some shivered and died from the cold, while other starved to death in Jamestown. But the strength in their bones carried fires of conviction into the marrow of their future generations.
Defiance. America remains a powerful societal example today because of acts of religious defiance. We allow individuals to kick against the prods of generational tradition. Americans adapt their traditions to meet individual needs for communion with God and define existence. These expressions hopefully make this journey known as life a bit more bearable.
The atheist is given the same right to worship his God-of-the-vacuum as the Satanist who worships a God-of-Chaos. Christians kneel in adoration of the Cross. The Jew is comforted by the warmth of his prayer shawl as the Rabbi reads from the Torah.
What about Muslims in America? We certainly welcome private acts of worship within your mosques and homes, while showing defiance against any attempt at instituting religion as a state in the public square. I once raised a fit with management over a Muslim couple praying along an open corridor in a shopping mall.
There are problems of course and need to mitigate the impact of Islam in the West. We want you here. But if there is one thing which is desperately in need of mitigation, it is Islam’s propensity toward religious bigotry. We want you to live with us in integrated and assimilated manner. We want you to love and accept your different-than-you neighbour. But what absolutely will not allow on a micro scale is the slaughter of Americans at a Christmas party in San Bernardino.
As complaints of Islamophobia flow into the inbox of my editor (as they surely will), let me just make it a bit harder to her. Can we discuss the recent upheaval in Jakarta, Indonesia? Can you say the words “two hundred thousand?” This is the number of Muslims who took to the streets to protest against a minority Christian governor. Naturally, he has been accused of blasphemy. Within Muslim political realms, all of us know that it is a euphemism for “political revenge.” Hate a Christian? Just give false witness and step aside to watch as a couple’s legs are broken, and they are chunked into the brick kiln. Let’s take it a step further. What about the persecution of the Ahmadiyya community in Pakistan? Hmmm!
Islam is different. It began as something strange and will end as something strange (Hadith). It was propagated by conquering seed. And although the earth is spacious it seems not spacious enough in the eyes of some. Dhul-Qarnain aside, the fact of the matter is that the world population is now about 7.4 billion strong and of that number only twenty-three percent are Muslims. That means that 77 percent of us are “something else”. And we like being different than you. We rejoice in our diversity. That diversity includes you!
Islam is due for a Renaissance which can only be born of defiance. Do you want to see the sun rise in the West? (Hadith) Then engage a bit of intellectual defiance. Mount a bit of defiance the next time someone proclaims that all-things-Islam are good and everything else is bad. Add a brick to the wall of your defiance when the local imam tells you that Cross Worshippers are your enemy and we are not to be trusted. Defy convention and visit a church. Don’t beat up a Jew and fantasise about torching a synagogue. Don’t look down on the Hindu population. They are your brothers. Defy religious bigotry by attending a mosque which takes the middle path. And stay away from men who breathe fire from a rote memorization of the Qur’an. Do not confuse memorization with the gift of wisdom.
This journalist has shared her life with your community for many years. I enjoy my Muslim friendships.
But I agree with the Roman Prefect Symmachus. In the West, we want peace for our gods. And that includes the right for you to live peaceably with your God too.
The writer is a freelance journalist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org