When is a prayer not just a prayer?

By Steven R. Corman

At the Winter meeting of the Democratic National Committee in February, participants were led in an invocation by Husham Al-Husainy, Imam of the Karbalaa Islamic Education Center. According to a report in FrontPageMag.com Al-Husainy prayed:

In the name of God the most merciful, the most compassionate. We thank you, God, to bless us among your creations. We thank you, God, to make us as a great nation. We thank you God, to send us your messages through our father Abraham and Moses and Jesus and Mohammed. Through you, God, we unite. So guide us to the right path. The path of the people you bless, not the path of the people you doom. Help us, God, to liberate and fill this earth with justice and peace and love and equality. And help us to stop the war and violence, and oppression and occupation. Ameen.

The offering of prayers at U.S. political gatherings is nothing unusual. In fact both the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives open each session with a prayer delivered by their Chaplain or other guest clergy. However, these prayers are almost always delivered by Christians (both Senate and House Chaplains are Christian), with a very occasional Jewish representative (for example, see the House Chaplain’s Web Site). On the odd occasion when another faiths offer prayers, controversy ensues, as when a Hindu clergyman offered an invocation in the House in September of 2000 (see this report from ReligiousTolerance.org).

Given that religious difference is already a fault-line in American public discourse, it comes as no surprise that Imam Al-Husainy’s prayer sparked controversy. Shortly after his speech, denouncements began to appear in the blogosphere, led by prominent critic of Islam Robert Spencer. Spencer claims that the invocation echoes a Quranic prayer that is commonly understood as a condemnation of Jews and Christians. He interprets the last full sentence as a thinly-veiled slap at America and Israel. New York Post columnist and blogger Debbie Schlussel wrote about Al-Husainy earlier this year, claiming that he had ties to Hezbollah and led anti-Bush rallies in Michigan (though Alan Holmes claimed in a Fox News interview that they were unable to verify these claims).

Virtually all of the criticism of this event came from the political Right, and it included not only criticism of the prayer per se, but of the Democratic party. Spencer says that the incident signals an “alliance between the Left and the global Jihad.” Other conservative bloggers claimed the DNC had invited a “terror supporter” and “Hezbollah leader” to address their conference. Columnist Cal Thomas wrote a column accusing Democrats of pandering to Muslims in an effort to offset recent Republican gains in the Hispanic community.

Principles

This incident illustrates several important communication principles. One is uncertainty and the problems it creates for constructive public discourse. The chief source of uncertainty here is the meaning of the prayer. The implicit argument of the critics is that the Imam was practicing strategic ambiguity—that is, being purposefully unclear for strategic reasons. This would be the case if, for example, he designed his prayer to be read as a condemnation of the West by Muslim audiences, while allowing it to be read by Western audiences as an innocent ecumenical wish. The uncertainty built-into the situation makes this conclusion plausible.

The motives of the critics are a second source of uncertainty. Their apparent determination to use the incident to indict the DNC seriously complicates the picture. Philosopher Jurgen Habermas defined the ideal speech situation, which consists of four criteria (paraphrasing): (1) all participants have the right to speak and the possibility of discourse is never foreclosed; (2) all participants have equal chances to present interpretations, arguments, explanations, and so on; (3) participants equally express their honest attitudes and feelings; (4) participants have equal chances to make or resist demands, make and refuse promises, and be accountable. One of the chief threats to realizing this ideal is ideology. When invoked in the interpretation of communicative events it causes systematic distortion of public discourse, and prevents the possibility of a true understanding of meaning.

Analysis

Prayers by non-Judeo-Christians at political gatherings have raised concerns in the past. So considering the fault-lines of Islam in present-day America, common sense should have told the DNC that this event would draw scrutiny. An hour of internet surfing would also have flagged Al-Husainy’s purported ties to Hezbollah. Even if concerns about minority religions are unjustified and allegations about the Imam are untrue, they are still excellent reasons to expect controversy. Did the DNC fail to anticipate this, or did they intend to provoke the critics of Islam? Our inability to answer this question contributes to the uncertainty surrounding the situation.

We can make similar criticisms of Al-Husainy. Though he is a Muslim and learned man who surely knows the delicate position of Islam in American politics, he offered a prayer that could be interpreted as a condemnation of the West. He should have known that his words would be under a microscope, and that statements about people doomed by God would invite comparison to statements by Muslim extremists. Was he just being careless, or was this indeed an intentionally ambiguous attack on the West? Our inability to answer this question contributes to the uncertainty surrounding the situation.

The critics also deserve their share of blame. As Thomas admits, “to the untrained ear and uninformed mind, the first part sounds kind of ecumenical.” Bur does a newspaper columnist like Thomas has the trained ear needed to reliably read Al-Husainy’s intentions, and does a non-Muslim blogger like Spencer have the authority to say how Muslims interpret a prayer? The partisan nature of their critique further clouds the picture. Are their criticisms fair, or is this just “spin” designed to embarrass their political opponents? As noted in the Fox interview segment cited above, the Imam served as an official advisor to the Bush administration in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Why does he only become controversial after speaking before the DNC? Our inability to answer these questions contributes to the uncertainty surrounding the situation.

Because of failures by all parties in this controversy we are left with few means for answering these questions, so our uncertainty grows. Uncertainty breeds caution and separation, and these breed suspicion and prevent understanding, which in turn build more uncertainty. The way out of this vicious circle is more thoughtful and competent communication. Islam’s supporters should anticipate and avoid controversial statements, especially those that can be interpreted to condemn other faiths. Their critics should rely more on dialog and less on presumptions, and refrain from coating possibly valid concerns with a layer of political mud. Otherwise consensus about the proper place of Muslims in contemporary American society will remain mired in a cloud of uncertainty.

Further Reading