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Islam: A Religion of Peace?

By Jack Schwartz | December 11, 2001

IN CAIRO, Arab intellectuals met recently to address their concerns about Islamophobia, a Western fear of Islam. The presumption, as with any "phobia," is that this is a misplaced anxiety which, with proper therapy and appropriate enlightenment can be alleviated. But as an American, a Jew, a secular humanist and an unabashed subscriber to the values of Western Civilization, I must confess to a measure of Islamophobia, and the more I learn of Islamic words – and the deeds they lead to – the less are my fears allayed.

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Since Sept. 11, I have been told repeatedly by the press and politicians that Islam is a religion of peace but what I see in the news belies these assurances. I would like to be convinced that the evidence before my eyes is an aberration, a distortion of the faith by a few fanatics. But sadly a candid assessment of reality leads me to an opposite conclusion: that a significant segment of the Muslim world wishes me, my values and my society harm and is prepared to undertake or condone violent means to achieve this.

Perhaps I have misperceived the good intentions of Islam, and if so, I welcome the occasion to be reassured. We have heard a great deal recently about why Islam hates America, but we have not heard why so many Americans mistrust Islam – at least the face of it that we’ve seen since Sept. 11— and for many, well before. As someone brought up with the givens of respect for all faiths, enthusiasm for pluralism and appreciation for the diversity of all ethnic groups, I find this gnawing Islamophobia at odds with my basic beliefs, but part of the problem is that I do not see them reciprocated by Islam. I find myself increasingly agreeing with the Holocaust survivor who observed: "If someone says they’re going to kill you, believe them.’’

And I have to wonder why the support of Muslim intellectuals, clerics and laymen is so tepid on behalf of our war against terror in Afghanistan, so qualified about depriving Saddam Hussein of his weapons of mass destruction and so compromised in their splitting hairs over wrongful terrorism at the World Trade Center and "rightful" terrorism in Israel. I ask myself what other religion would not outright condemn the mass murder of innocent civilians in malls, buses, and restaurants, a slaughter aimed at inflicting the greatest amount of pain, death and injury on its victims. Imagine if the Pope, the Dalai Lama, the Archbishop of Canterbury or the American Board of Rabbis were to rationalize the deliberate massacre of innocent people. They would be decried as moral lepers. This, of course, is unimaginable, except in Islam, where such abominable acts are rationalized as religiously justified. What I find offensive is the air of moral superiority from people who blow up embassies, public buildings, shopping centers, cafes, barracks, and ships. What I find repugnant is the air of grievance from zealots who have given innocents so much to grieve for. So to those intellectuals in Cairo who are concerned about Islamophobia, yes, Islam does have an image problem, based not on the fantasies of the West but the horrendous reality of the acts committed in Islam’s name – which no political agenda or religious millennialism can justify. The problem, I would suggest, is not with the West’s perception, which is all too accurate, but with the behavior of Islamicists. And until a growing number of, until now quite silent, Muslims address this problem, it will continue. Here then are my own reasons for finding it difficult to overcome a growing Islamophobia. I look forward to the day when an enlightened Muslim majority can allay my concerns. But until they do, my Islamic problem – I doubt I am alone – and, more importantly, their Islamic problem won’t go away.

My greatest concern with the militant face of Islam is the deliberate failure of Muslim leaders to distinguish between ends and means. Whatever the goal – a Palestinian state, a Muslim Kashmir – a test of someone’s allegiance to the principles of tolerance, civility and decency is where they come down on the means to achieve it. Terror – that is, the deliberate targeting of innocent civilians to achieve political goals, is a priori ruled out. A "yes, but,’’ is unacceptable. Political goals must be achieved through political means, negotiation and moral suasion, not through violence, much less violence directed at innocents. There are no mitigating circumstances for terrorism among civilized people. Distorting the meaning of terrorism to turn it on its head and blame the target is an evasion that no longer fools anyone. The dodge of equivalence is also wearing thin. When I read about Palestinians celebrating the deaths of Jews, most just embarking on their lives, in the latest rash of suicide bombings in a ritual that has now become a norm for that society – which is in keeping with Palestinians celebrating the terrorist attack of Sept. 11 despite Arafat’s attempts to squelch reports of them – I must ask myself what kind of culture it is that experiences the deliberate murder of young people or the incineration of 3,500 human beings as a cause for joy? One of the relatives of a suicide bomber was a schoolteacher who evinced pride in the killer’s actions. What does this man teach his students? How poisoned by hatred can such people be that they can find pleasure in such murderous havoc? Is any cause worth such evil and do they really think theirs will be advanced by these tactics, or if not, then do they console themselves with blind vengeance? What kind of culture abets such monstrosity? Images like these fill the mind, and not only at the World Trade Center or in Israel. I think of the Christian survivors huddled in a Pakistani village after a gang of Muslim murderers invaded the church during a service and slaughtered most of the worshipers "in revenge" for the U.S. attack on the Taliban, as if the poor victims had anything to do with the American offensive. I think of the gruesome aftermath of a recent Muslim terrorist bombing in Kashmir that killed 30 people. Perhaps worst of all, I envision the anguished face of a little Filipino girl of about five or six, roped together with a group of other hostages, being herded to an unknown fate by Muslim terrorists during an uprising in the Philippines. What could the young armed Islamic terrorist, prodding his victims onward, be thinking? Is this what Allah requires of him? Will he be rewarded in heaven for this act? Is the prize of 70 virgins worth the terror on this little girl’s face? I have yet to hear voices that represent a significant body of Islam condemn such heinous acts perpetrated on its behalf. What I hear instead are evasions, qualifications, rationales. When confronted with the overwhelming documented slaughter and enslavement of black Christians and animists by Muslim rulers in the Sudan where more than a million people have been killed in the last 20 years, a Saudi official blandly dismissed it as untrue. End of discussion. While Muslim apologists from their bully pulpit at Al Jazeera flog the great Satan of the U.S. and the little Satan of Israel as a global menace, it seems to me that wherever terror abounds in the world, well beyond the reach of Americans and Jews, it is Islam – or its worst adherents – that present a much realer global menace than any of its projected enemies. The fact is that there are currently 40 armed conflicts going on in the world and all but two involve Islam. Who is the menace?

Islamism is the most serious totalitarian threat to challenge the world since the fall of Communism. Like communism, its cadres form an internationale of dedicated adherents with a global support group of fellow travelers supplying money, logistics, propaganda and muscle. It is fanatic, intolerant of dissent and contemptuous of the very societies whose principles it uses to undermine them. Unlike Communism, it does not have a single headquarters but is a supranational movement, taking advantage of various host entities as the occasion warrants. Its chief venue of organization is not the union hall but the mosque. Just as Communists infiltrated unions in the ‘20s and ‘30s in an attempt to take over organized labor, the Islamists, with financial and logistical help from their Saudi backers, have taken control of mosques throughout the West and elsewhere, as well as seized control of education from the Middle East to Pakistan.

What people in the West are just beginning to understand is that there is an intimate relationship between the political, the religious and the cultural in Islam. The mosque is not only the prayer house. It is also a political seat. The imam preaching to the faithful can offer a homily not only on the Koran but exhort his listeners to political action – often violent. It is no accident that crowds stirred up by Muslim preachers have gone on rampages, that some of the most hate-filled anti-Western, anti-American and anti-Semitic venom has been preached from the pulpits – including those in Europe and the U.S.A.. Muslim "charity" may just as soon give a portion of its funds to weapons for Al Qaeda as for a hospital. The denial of where the money goes is disingenuous.

Americans presume that our religion does not conflict with our obligations as citizens but, as with Communism, this is not the presumption of Islamism, whose adherents are obedient to a higher loyalty which is inimical to our national interests. To the extent that Islam is a private religion in which man struggles on a spiritual quest to follow the ways of God, it is a great and beautiful faith. But when it becomes political and strident, it can become dangerous, subversive and threatening and, in this public, ideological mode, it cannot hide behind the skirts of religious tolerance.

The critical difference between Communism and Islam in the West – at least at this stage, is that while the labor movement and the moderate Left eventually united to speak out unequivocally against the Communists, expose their lies and ultimately defeat them, we have yet to see the Muslim Orwell emerge who will stand up to the Islamists. By way of excuse, we are told that clerics fear assassination or losing their power base or being seen as appeasers of the West. But principled men of all faiths have always been willing to run risks to bear witness against evil and we should expect no less from Muslim spiritual leaders. A more likely explanation is that too many of them sympathize with the methods of the terrorists. If the Muslim clerisy lacks the moral strength to confront terror perhaps it must come from the secular ranks. But here too, we find a void. If only a small minority of Muslims support Al Qaeda than why doesn’t the moral majority issue a round denunciation of terrorism – all terrorism – in unequivocal terms.

The Muslim community has been quite vocal in asserting its civil rights but strangely quiet in supporting the U.S. war effort against a regime that we now see suppressed fellow Muslims. Why? When it comes to standing up for America against a remorseless foe, the Muslim leadership – so vociferous in asserting Palestinian rights – seems to have lost its voice. It may be that in recent years the Islamists have seized the reins of Muslim organizations in this country, achieving what the Communists never succeeded in doing. Currently it appears that they have taken over a good chunk of the mosques, they have commandeered too many of the Muslim student organizations and they have virtually silenced any serious opposition from within the Muslim community. Muslims must ask themselves why is it that they complain (validly) about American support of non-democratic states in Egypt and Saudi Arabia but are silent about non-democratic states in Iraq, Syria and Libya or Syrian occupation of Lebanon. Why do we hear nothing from the American Muslim community about support for the democratic movement in Iran which, despite the oppression of the mullahs, has the support of three-quarters of the nation’s voters?

In Europe, there is a virtual hatred of the West preached in mosques from London to Cologne. Why, as an American, a Jew, a Westerner, should I find this reassuring? And why should I be welcoming to the people who preach it, who clearly seek my own physical destruction as well as that of everything I stand for? Must I convert to Islam and have my wife and daughter don chadors in order to appease them? Until I see a widespread movement among American (and hopefully other) Muslims to unequivocally reject the tenets of Islamism – which means ALL forms of violence, no excuse, no justification, no extenuating circumstances, I will mistrust their motives and their disclaimers. At this point, one must choose sides, and qualifications for terror and rationales for murder is choosing the wrong one.

When Imam Abdul Omar Rahman issues a fatwa saying that it is the duty of every Muslim to re-conquer every meter of Islamic land lost to the infidel, he is unfortunately well within the tradition of Islam where Muhammad’s last words on jihad were that struggle against the infidel was permanent and truce was temporary for tactical reasons. That a "truce’’ can last for a long time does not reassure me. What does it say about negotiations for a Palestinian state? If all of the Holy Land is an Arab trust for Islam then Muslims are, sooner or later, obligated to destroy the Jewish state and, if so, why should Israel make any concessions? We are not talking about rearranging the borders of Hungary and Romania, or carving a new state out of a neighboring one with appropriate political arrangements; we are talking about a religious obligation to annihilate another nation with the probability that most of its five million inhabitants would be butchered in a new Holocaust – which also has a precedent in the expulsion and despoliation of the Jewish tribes from the Hijaz in Muhammed’s time. Are American Muslims ready to sign aboard for this? What are the implications of their exhortations for "fairness’’ in the Middle East. What is "even-handed’’ about vitiating Israel’s strength until it is vulnerable to overwhelming Arab numbers? And why in the world should Israel – after Yasser Arafat at Camp David rejected its offer of 95 percent of the West Bank and Gaza and control of Arab Jerusalem as well as Muslim holy sites – now permit in Jerusalem a regime in thrall to Hamas and Islamic Jihad, pledged to Israel’s destruction?

Muslims in the West – and, for that matter, everywhere – will have to decide whether the holy obligation to reclaim Islamic land applies to Andalusia (al-Andaluz) and much else of Spain, France up to Tours, large chunks of Sicily and the Balkans to the gates of Vienna. And they must ask themselves, is the decision not to do so (if they so decide) arrived at because it is impracticable or immoral? The difference is critical. Such revanchist schemes may seem like madness but no less so than flying two airplanes into the World Trade Center. Chillingly Muslim extremists have already openly discussed a takeover of America. The fact that they are living a fantasy does not gainsay that some of them, with a net of supporters, are prepared to use violent means to advance their millennial aims.

There is certainly enough intolerance to go around in many religions. Judaism has its zealots, but they are marginalized in the West and are not the driving force in Israel, much less running the country which is still overwhelmingly secular and democratic. When Baruch Goldstein kills 29 Arabs in a mosque he is reviled by most of the Jewish community, not cheered as are the suicide bombers by the Arab street. At a West Bank university, Palestinian students set up an exhibition devoted to the grisly fruits of terror bombings, presenting "displays" of severed limbs and spattered Jewish blood. This could not have been done without the collusion of the Palestinian Authority. It is in keeping with its fostering suicide-bomber summer camps for children and using terror as a political tool. What kind of government can allow such things, and how can it possibly be considered a serious partner for peace? How can it be trusted to keep any peace?

Christianity fought almost two centuries of religious wars before an exhausted Europe was finally ready for tolerance. Islam has experienced schism, faction and sects but not a true Reformation. Worse still, it missed out on a Radical Enlightenment, withdrawing to tradition, piety and obscurantism at the very moment that the West was flowering with the political, commercial, social and technological benefits of both the Reformation and the Enlightenment. Little wonder then that Islam lost the ensuing footrace for supremacy. Since then, Islam has coveted the wealth and power of the West without being willing to accept the pluralism, tolerance, critical mindset and democracy that has made it possible. Arab states complain of being exploited by the West but refuse to accept their own cultural responsibility in falling behind. Asian states also endured colonial rule. But in Asia, nations from India to South Korea to Taiwan have all managed to achieve democracy and a degree of prosperity while Arab states still wallow in corruption, poverty and tyranny. Blaming their failures on the West, or on the existence of Israel, is a lame excuse that has gotten ever-fewer buyers and, in any case, won’t solve the problems of the people who live in these countries.

All monotheistic religions to some degree believe in the uniqueness of their own revelation, without which the foundation of faith that supports their belief would crumble. But in the modern world, most of the great religions have preached tolerance and the possibility that God may manifest His design to different faiths in different ways. The exception is Islam. Listen to the exhortations of Muslim preachers and their lay followers – who are forthright in asserting their beliefs – and we hear repeatedly the mantra that Islam is God’s final revelation, His last word to mankind. We are all inherently Muslims even if we don’t know it and it is for our own salvation that this discovery of our innate Muslimhood should be brought out. Infidels must be humbled. Friendship with them is forbidden. Like Communism, Islam offers its adherents an entire social fabric, a complete meaning for the world, man’s place in it and human destiny. It is comforting and inclusive to its adherents. But to those outside its circle, it appears unforgiving, contemptuous at best, intolerant at worst. For a Westerner to convert to Islam is a matter of private choice. For a Muslim to convert to another faith is a capital crime in nations ruled by strict Sharia. Think only of the aid workers in Afghanistan who were imprisoned and faced death before being rescued from the Taliban. And the local Afghans who may have been receptive to Christian teaching would have also faced a grim fate. No one would think twice about establishing a mosque in Rome, but imagine what would happen if someone attempted to build a church in Saudi Arabia. The idea of land being holy, starting with the Hijaz, moving to Jerusalem and then extending out to any territory that was once Muslim land, explains the impetus driving the attempts to re-conquer places like Kashmir and Chechnya, not as national quests but as sacred duties.

What is hard for us in the West to grasp is that after three centuries of imperial, national colonial, class, ethnic and cold wars – all fought for material goals after the worldwide triumph of secularism – we are now in a religious war, a throwback that the world has not seen on a global basis since the 17th century. It is a religious war that is intertwined with politics and masked by the appurtenances of modernity but at its heart, it is driven by an atavistic belief in a struggle to conquer an infidel culture that has humiliated Islam – the one true faith – for too long. And if you are armed with the only truth, then it is indeed your obligation to bring it to everyone else, by words if possible, by the sword if necessary. Anyone who opposes you, must be doing the devil’s work and is therefore fair game for destruction. It is no accident that America is called "The Great Satan," because that is exactly the way the mullahs perceive us. We are not an imperial overlord, or an economic oppressor; we are a demonic force for evil, that must be opposed with any means at hand. This sense of America as the wicked "other" is driven by religious conviction, which is what inspires the dedication of the Islamists and doubtless flutters the hearts of other Muslims who may be too timid to take up arms but feel a glow in contributing to their purchase. I find it hard to believe the disclaimers of many of the imams that President Bush trotted up to the national dais, who represented groups that themselves were supporting and apologizing for terrorist groups until Sept. 11.

Because America separates church and state, we assume conversely that all faiths do the same. But in Islam, the political and the religious are one, tied together in a single smooth tapestry. One explains the other, one justifies the other. Muhammed was not only a religious leader but a political one. He sought and held power. In America, people are free to believe, or not, as they choose. We encourage religious diversity and respect political dissent. To the extent that a religious institution exists as a place for an individual to make a private profession of faith, it is protected by the Bill of Rights. But when a mosque through its imam becomes an adjunct to a terror plot, as was the case with the first bombing of the World Trade Center, it is no longer a sanctuary. When it is the source of exhortations to commit mayhem, it forfeits the rights to be treated like one. Not that clerics of all faith don’t discuss public issues from the pulpit, but in Islam it is intrinsic and, given the rise of Islamicist proselytizing, an ideology that is inimical not only to the security of the West, but to its very idea. I am not sure that it is possible for Islam to extract the political from the spiritual, but until there is some separation of church and state, public and private, zealotry and tolerance, I fear that the mosque will be seen by most Americans like myself as a source of subversion and separation, a barrier that prevents the full integration of Muslims into Western society. It will be up to them to find a way to embrace both the duties of the heart and that of the citizen. Until they do, my Islamic problem and, more importantly, their Islamic problem, won't go away.

Jack Schwartz is a longtime New York newspaper editor.

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