Friends of mine suggested I should write a column about the war in the Gulf. After wadding up four false starts, I have decided not to add to the verbiage that already exists. Instead, I have been reflecting on the broader issue of conflict between the two largest world religions, Christianity and Islam.

For more than a decade, Americans have watched on television as mobs of screaming Muslims, calling for “death to the Great Satan,” burn our Presidents in effigy. The geography of protest changes—first Iran and Libya, then Iraq, now on to such places as Jordan and Algeria—but the rabidity does not. Saddam Hussein, never known for his piety before the war, manipulatively played upon these sentiments to stir up other Muslims.

Most Americans do not know what to make of these scenes. We fancy ourselves as friendly folks, quick to smile and lend a helping hand. Our leaders Carter, Reagan, and Bush seem to us more like congenial uncles than tyrants. The label “Great Satan” especially rankles, for we think of the United States as a Christian nation, far more devout than, say, Western Europe. At least we still go to church. How can anyone imagine us as pagan?

Martyrs And Materialists

Most Islamic criticisms of the West seem to revolve around the old word materialism. When that word describes the pursuit of wealth and consumer comforts, few Arab nations disapprove: thanks to oil revenues, the Persian Gulf is the wealthiest region in the world. But materialism also refers to a philosophical approach, a belief that human life consists mainly (or solely) in what takes place here and now, in the world of matter.

The disciples of Islam tend to view us as being obsessively concerned with this life, not the eternity to come. One reason Saddam Hussein took the gamble of invading Kuwait was that he doubted the West, and the United States in particular, had the will to sacrifice thousands of lives. In contrast, the war between Iran and Iraq had already proved that hundreds of thousands of faithful Muslims would gladly die in “glorious martyrdom” if promised instant passage into paradise.

In one of the great ironies of history, Islam has co-opted the word martyr. Early Christianity conquered Rome due in no small measure to the influence of believers who preferred the hope of eternal reward over the certainty of mere physical survival.

Nowadays you hear very little talk in the West about eternal rewards and much talk about techniques to keep death at bay. Young Arabs who study here come away impressed with, and often scandalized by, how much energy we invest in our physical lives. Scan the magazine racks at a local drug store sometime, counting the titles devoted to body-building, diet, fashion, and naked women—all emblems of the prominence we give to the material substance of this life.

Body And Soul

Puritanical is another Christian word co-opted by Islamic societies. For the first time in recent memory, United States service personnel had to get by without alcohol and Playboy, in deference to the strict Islamic code in Saudi Arabia.

In determining morality, American society tends to apply the bottom-line principle, “Does it hurt anyone else?” Thus pornography is legal, but not if it involves explicit violence or child molestation. You can legally get drunk as long as you do not break a neighbor’s window or drive a car, endangering others. Violence on television is accepted, because everyone knows they are just acting.

This yardstick of morality betrays our implicit materialism. Whereas we define “hurt” in the most physical terms, Islamic societies see it in more spiritual terms.

In that deeper sense, what could be more harmful than divorce, say, or pornography, or violence-as-entertainment, or even the cynical depiction of banal evil in a television show like “Dallas”? (Actually “Dallas” is surprisingly popular in Islamic countries, though it serves to perpetuate Muslim stereotypes of Americans.) It is the view from this vantage point that has gained for the United States its reputation as “The Great Satan.”

The same materialism shows through in our preferred methods of punishment. Americans are scandalized by such Islamic “brutalities” as beheadings, public beatings, and the amputation of thieves’ hands. How could they be so cruel? we wonder. But we lock teenagers in cells crowded with abusive criminals; do we ever ponder what happens to their souls? “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul,” Jesus cautioned. And again, “It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell” (Matt. 10:28; 5:29, NIV).

A Hyperreal God

The Italian writer Umberto Eco (The Name of the Rose, Foucault’s Pendulum) wrote a fascinating account of a trip across America, titled Travels in Hyperreality. He too came away impressed with our materialism. Americans even give physical substance to their myths, he observed. Ancient Greeks celebrated their heroes in song and poetry around a campfire; Americans shake hands with them in fuzzy suits at Disneyland.

Article continues below

Religious television intrigued Eco: “If you follow the Sunday morning religious programs on TV you come to understand that God can be experienced only as nature, flesh, energy, tangible image. And since no preacher dares show us God in the form of a bearded dummy, or as a Disneyland robot, God can only be found in the form of natural force, joy, healing, youth, health, economic increment.” Where is the mysterium tremendum, Eco wondered; where is the holy, numinous, ineffable God?

I must confess that of the major world religions, Islam is hardest for me to understand and appreciate. But long after the smoke of war has cleared, questions raised by Islam will remain, and should remain, to haunt us in the West.

Islam has, above all, cherished the belief in a holy, numinous God. It has also nourished a profound allegiance to a spiritual and immortal life, not just a material and mortal one. After committing our nation’s military might once again to “teach a tyrant a lesson,” I hope that we will pause and consider whether we too might have some lessons to learn, even from the “infidels.”

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.