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Can Americans Be Convinced Islam Isn't the Black Sheep of Religions?

08.25.2007 | POLITICS

With a recent article, "The List: The World's Stupidest Fatwas," Foreign Policy, of all publications, manifests a lack of political correctness that's not only surprising, but borders on the giddy. In the process, it provides us with a glimpse into how difficult it is to convince Americans that Islam is not the black sheep of religions.

A fatwa, of course, is a legal ruling issued by an Islamic scholar. An example of one singled out in the byline-less Foreign Policy article is banning the polio vaccine on the grounds that elements in the West had tinkered with it to sterilize Muslims. (Hey, don't give our intelligence agencies any ideas.)

Others include outlawing Pokemon to banning sex while naked. Of course, Muslims themselves often laugh at what might be called the lighter side of Islam. (Yes, it exists. Nothing can ever take away from the wonders of the Mulla Nasrudin, as made famous by Idries Shah.)

The fatwa first became known in the West when Ayatollah Khomeini, in effect, declared: "Bring me the head of Salman Rushdie." But his savagery paled in comparison to that of Osama bin Laden and his right-hand man, Ayman al-Zawahiri, when they issued their famous "Kill Americans Everywhere" fatwa.

Bear in mind that the number of Muslims who don't know that a fatwa isn't binding is matched by the number who think bin Laden is a religious scholar.

But the dynamic duo's fatwa was trumped in spades in 2003 when, though no doubt at their behest, a radical cleric named Hamid bin al-Fahd issued one that justified killing 10 million Americans. That equaled the number of Muslims he'd calculated were killed by us or by weapons manufactured in the Western world.

Religious leaders calling for, not only executions, but mass slaughter? In America that's usually left to talk show hosts. What kind of religion, we ask, turns the hands of time back a thousand years to the age of inquisitions and Crusades?

Progressives are quick to remind us that not only are Islamists (those to whom Islam is not just a religion but a political system) in the minority, but that fundamental Christianity has a violent streak too. Millennialists, for instance, look forward to the End Times, which will leave in its wake a trail of death and devastation.

But, rather than instruct their followers to pick up the sword, they're content to advocate for actions -- like attacking Iran -- that might result in any outcome remotely resembling the Rapture. Come to think of it, they're kind of passive-aggressive.

The exception to the rule, of course, is abortion clinic bombers. But their only public support is drawn from the white supremacist Christian Identity group. Besides, the total they've killed is seven, of which only three were doctors. To fanatical Islamists, that's the equivalent of one botched suicide bombing.

Of course, the general public isn't aware that the National Association of Evangelicals has inundated the military with fundamentalist Christian chaplains it's commissioned. But it's too early to suggest that their us-against-them mentality -- mirroring that of Islamists -- influences policy or fuels the ferocity of our fighting men and women.

The point is, for most Americans, a religion whose leaders issue calls for violence does not compute. Worse, we can't help thinking that most Muslims, if only out of allegiance to their leaders, support terrorism. Do they?

Of bin Laden, terrorism analyst David Schanzer writes: Most Muslims "support his stance against Western domination in the Middle East, his desire for heightened Islamic identity and his demand for greater respect for Islam and Muslim people." Despite fear of impending retaliation, many cheered the destruction of the Twin Towers.

Still, according to Daniel Pipes -- a known anti-Islamist, no less -- only 10 to 15 percent of Muslims are sympathetic to fanatical Muslim fundamentalists. We're probably safe in assuming that while the Arab "street" may find attacks on Americans exhilarating, it doesn't actively support terrorism.

In fact, according to a new Pew Research Centre poll, as reported by BBC, Middle-Easterners have soured on suicide bombing. "In Lebanon, Bangladesh, Jordan, Pakistan and Indonesia," it reads, "the proportion of Muslims who support suicide bombing has declined by half or more since 2002."

Like the Pakistani pop idols who seek to differentiate themselves from terrorists in a recent song titled "Yeh Hum Naheen":

"This story that is being spread in our names is a lie
These stamps of death on our forehead are the signs of others. . .
This is not us -- this is not us."

But of those polled in areas of conflict such as Palestine, the majority still agree that attacks against civilians are sometimes warranted. Not only that, but support for suicide bombings may also be on the rise in the US. Drawing from the same poll, Michael Hirsh of Newsweek writes that "26 percent of younger [American] Muslims say suicide bombing can be justified under some circumstances."

Jihadist terrorism has yet to take root in our soil like in Europe. Credit this, in part, to an economy capable of absorbing immigrants. Despite the risk of being smeared with the charge of profiling, we'll give in to the temptation to generalize that Middle-Easterners make themselves right at home in the American marketplace.

But, subject to hostility and suspicious vibes since 9/11, many have retreated into their own community. Like as not, when the subject turns to their adopted country's presence in the Middle-East, calls for violent resistance may arise. Meanwhile, money ostensibly collected for charities, like the recently busted Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development, is diverted to arms purchases.

Most Muslims here and abroad just want to raise their families and get on with their lives. But they're susceptible to experiencing a frisson at news of attacks against the West -- it's only human. Progressives who gloss over this fact of life look like dupes and weaken the case for tolerance in the long run.

Not only can't Americans comprehend how Muslim religious leaders -- if only self-appointed –- can sanction violence, they're puzzled by another characteristic of fundamental Islam. What kind of religion, they wonder, bases itself on scripture that commands its faithful to kill those of other religions like Christianity and Judaism?

Is the Koran guilty as charged?

The phrase "taken out of context" has been reduced to a rationalization. But sometimes it's a genuine excuse. For instance, the infamous phrase, "And kill them [non-Muslims] wherever you find them" is ripped from the passage that follows. (The repetition common to the Koran -- not to mention, most religious texts –- has been deleted.)

"And fight in the cause of Allah with those who fight with you, and do not exceed the limits. . . And kill them wherever you find them. . . and do not fight with them at the Sacred Mosque until they fight with you in it, but if they do fight you, then slay them. . . but if they desist, then there should be no hostility except against the oppressors." (Qur'an, 2:190-192)

There's no question, though, that it's a lot to ask of Westerners to be understanding about a text that adjudicates exactly when and where they're fair game.

Meanwhile, for those Americans with a glancing knowledge of Islam, it's nearly as difficult to accept that Mohammed was a warrior. His assorted battles, whether, as debated, 10 in number or double that, whether defensive or aggressive, evoke only cognitive dissonance in Americans.

If Jehovah or Allah orders air strikes on mere mortals, fine. But isn't the founder of a religion, like Christ, Buddha or Confucius, supposed to stay God's avenging hand by coaxing the best out of us?

Couldn't Mohammed, if only out of deference to his infant religion's developing image, have delegated to generals? For their part, though, Christians overlook the Book of Revelations, where, "behold," Christ is depicted on a white horse, which he "sat thereon. . . [and] in righteousness he doth judge and make war."

But to conservatives and fundamentalists, the warrior hat (or helmet, as the case may be) that Mohammed sometimes wore is the gift that keeps on giving. The following passage is from a website called, ironically, Blessed Quietness.

"Mohammed was the prophet of war;
Christ is the Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6-7).
Mohammed's disciples killed for the faith;
Christ's disciples were killed for their faith (Acts 12:2; 2 Timothy 4:7).
Mohammed promoted persecution against the 'infidels';
Christ forgave and converted the chief persecutor (1 Timothy 1:13-15)."

Finally, Americans ask, why don't moderate Muslims speak out? Here's Pipes again.

"Anti-Islamist Muslims have found their voice since September 11. Their numbers include distinguished academics [whom he lists, along with] Islamic figures like. . . Muhammad Hisham Kabbani [the renowned American Sufi leader]." Furthermore, "Organizations are coming into existence [such as the] Free Muslim Coalition Against Terrorism."

In other words, they're out there, but the media gives them less play because, in part, they're not sensational enough. Also, they contradict the public's preconception of what constitutes -- never mind a fundamentalist –- but any Muslim.

Sayid Imam al-Sharif is the most recent in a series of Islamists who have come down firmly on the side of life. The jailed founder of the Egyptian jihadist group which assassinated Anwar Sadat and teamed up with Bin Laden to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan is writing a book.

According to Ian Black in the Guardian, it "undermines the Muslim theological basis for violent jihad." In fact, he recently provided an "electrifying foretaste of his conversion by condemning killings on the basis of nationality and colour of skin and the targeting of women and children." As you can imagine, Ayman al-Zawahiri is freaking.

Other jihadists rehabilitated in Egyptian jails (ostensibly without the aid of torture) are members of the Gama'a Islamiyya, the organization best known for its 1997 massacre of 62 foreign tourists in Luxor, Egypt.

"Its top ideologues, mostly now freed," Black continues, "have written 25 volumes of revisions. . . which tackle key doctrinal issues such as. . . declaring a Muslim an apostate and therefore permissible to kill [and] attacks on civilians and foreign tourists."

Wandering briefly off-topic, check out this money quote Black secured from one Ashraf Mohsin, an Egyptian diplomat who specializes in counter-terrorism. "The way to deprive [jihadists] of their ability to recruit is to attack the message," said Mohsin. "If you take Islam out of the message all that is left is criminality." [Emphasis added]

What then is to be done with these preconceptions about Islam? Abdel Rahman al-Rashed, a London-based Saudi journalist, writes: "It is a certain fact that not all Muslims are terrorists, but it is equally certain. . . that almost all terrorists are Muslims. . . . We cannot clear our names unless we own up to the shameful fact that terrorism has become an Islamic enterprise."

Since an admission of this sort from Muslims en masse is about as likely as Christians owning up to their violent heritage, most Americans will continue to scoff at them. Still, it may be possible for Western men and women of conscience to jury-rig a bridge to Islam. But beggars can't be choosers. In other words, it requires straying from the politically correct.

Those Westerners sympathetic to Islam can start by acknowledging the viewpoint of the "civilizationists" -- as in clash of -- who suffer from a need to believe that violence is endemic to Islam. We must concede that, while Islamic violence may not be spearheaded by the religion itself, it's only recently that Islam's efforts to dissociate itself from Islamists, as with the Egyptian prisoners, have gained notice.

Let's also restrain our ecclesiastical impulses and refrain from extolling the glories of Islam (art, science, Sufism). Though undeniable, they fall on deaf ears with Americans who perceive Islam as a threat.

Instead, let's pander, however shamefaced, to them. In other words, despite the misgivings of moral relativists, it's time to advance the argument that Muslims are at the same stage in their development as Christians were during the Inquisitions and Crusades.

According to this narrative, they're just acting out. (Never mind that the US, in a clear case of bad parenting, left shoulder-launched missiles laying around during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Sure enough, those mischievous mujahideen picked them up and raised holy hell with them.)

If it makes Americans happy, give us license to believe that we're more grown up than Muslims. Under the influence of this kind of patriarchal benevolence, we might be able to locate the tolerance within our national psyche.

Less disposed to write off the violence in Iraq as the work of savages, we'll think of it instead as the growing pains of an adolescent culture. Maybe then we'll stop alienating Muslims further by storming into their rooms and trying to shake some sense into them. We'll still be forced to incapacitate them at frequent intervals. But we might also be more disposed to listen when they air their litany of grievances, both real and imagined, and attempt to address their needs.

About the Author
Russ Wellen is an editor at Freezerbox who specializes in foreign affairs and nuclear deproliferation.
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