The weeks immediately following the tragedy of 9/11 showed some of the best features of the American spirit. Led by the White House, the media took pains to distinguish between the actions of a few and the beliefs of the many. Assuring the Muslim majority that they were friends abroad and good citizens at home were matters of principle. By December it had all changed. Unable to comprehend and discriminate, there was a visible and palpable hardening of American intellectual arteries, and the policy of the White House fell under those who felt no embarrassment at villification when faced by a religion they could not control or understand. The intellectual vacuum was readily felt and the Press began to engage in a thoughtless drum beat; the idea “let’s Nuke Mecca” was floated.
Into this vacuum others have rushed in—a list of mediocre sensationalist works can be found in most bookstores, but these can be ignored. Recently however, tele-evangelists have rushed in to provide spirit to the fumbling intellectuals. An initial round of viciousness was followed by partial retractions. The elections were followed by a distancing of the White House from such attacks, and this has led to new and improved attacks on Islam. It is only to be expected that ministers of Christianity will attempt to spread their faith—but there are many ways of explaining the virtues of Christianity and none requires the demonstrably uncomprehending viciousness we see today.
The instant reaction to such smear propaganda is to respond in kind; this is not at all desirable, but it serves to curtail the one-sided babble that some news media are now prone to. Such a path is not open to Muslims, who believe that Abraham, Moses and Jesus were all prophets of Allah, and entitled to the greatest respect. So we have to rely on logic and hope that words carry meaning to those who wish to hear.
Let me begin by noting that much confusion and ill-will are generated by the inexcusable (and in my opinion, incomprehensible) failure of Muslims to distinguish between the followers of Judaism—a religious faith; the people who share the ethnicity of being a Jew— a social/cultural fact; and the practice of Zionism— a political platform, some or many of whose positions have been opposed by many Jews. (Personally, I have felt that the case for the Palestinians can be made without ever using the word “Jew”)
To respond to the tirade is not to criticize Christians or Christianity. Many ministers and churches have exhibited a degree of compassion and fairness that does credit to the higher spirituality of Christianity. In particular, Muslims have to appreciate the fact that so much fairness emanates from the Catholics, with the Pope himself serving as a beacon. This is a welcome sign for the future; the Catholics not only have a very sophisticated understanding of theology, but they are also responsible for erecting and sustaining much of that which we call Western Civilisation.
The latest to re-enter this fray, in a Sunday morning interview broadcast by ABC, is the Rev. Pat Robertson. His earlier views are now restated, the same content is moderately phrased and given a scholarly veneer. Rev Robertson is confident of his history and proclaims repeatedly his concern for the truth alone. It was more of an audience granted by Rev Robertson than an interview conducted by a critical journalist. That some individuals will have extreme views is but a feature of intellectual openness. But when the main news media grant adoring exposure to extremist views, it is a subtle way of shifting the common presumptions that must guide all discourse. Muslims are now to be presumed guilty unless they can prove themselves innocent. Rev Robertson believes that the President is of the same mind as himself but that the President says otherwise because of political expediency. On a fundamental issue such as this, the remark is tantamount to accusing the President of keeping quiet about, and even denying, his real beliefs, in order to manipulate both World opinion and Muslim allies. I leave it to the President and the Reverend to sort out whether this is not just an accusation of hypocrisy.
The general failing of Rev Robertson’s argument can be stated as follows. The pursuit of Truth, the formation of any intellectual argument, requires any of us, and the Rev Robertson as well, to select facts. By using care he has assembled a collection of half-truths to engage in propaganda. It is only proper that, as an evangelical minister, he should wish to convert everyone, including Muslims, but the method now being used is unlikely to persuade any thinking mind
The issues are deep, so I will not pretend to illuminate them in a few paras but request those who consider such questions important to go back and read for themselves in depth. It is the method of approach that decides many issues and which characterises an argument as rational or otherwise. It will suffice to illuminate how the Rev Robertson thinks by a few issues
a Rev Robertson states that Islam is a violent religion and the proof lies in that it’s Prophet was a warrior. This is an interpretive logic which says that if someone is found in one role, it is legitimate to characterise his entire life as being defined by that role. If accepted, this interpretive scheme would allow some ridiculous conclusions. It would permit us to claim that Christianity is about woodwork because Jesus was a carpenter
b. When verses upholding violence are quoted from the Bible—a psalm which praises the killing of babies was referred to— these were not discussed for their bearing on the capacity of Judaism or Christianity for violence. Apparently, interpretive criteria are valid only for the religion of choice. The interviewer was told by Rev Robertson that such quotes were not relevant to the issue and he meekly silenced himself.
c. Muslims are supposed to consider Jews as being apes and swine, on the basis of some Koranic verses. This language expresses the anger of Allah at the disobedience of the Jews. It has no relevance to how Jews are considered as human beings, as other verses and the historical practice of Muslims show. Apparently, Rev Robertson believes in a theory of literary interpretation which insists that words can only carry a literal meaning while Muslims are guilty of believing that words may be used to convey imagery and that all references on a given topic need to be considered before one can arrive at a final assessment.
d. Reference is made to the fact that the adult males of the Bani Qurayzah were executed after a battle, in order to illustrate the bloodthirstiness of the Muslims for Jews. Simply reciting this fact as the basis for an opinion is like saying that Americans consider Japanese to be sub-human and the proof lies in the fact that America dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. No background, no context and no perspective seems to be the Rev Robertson’s preferred mode of history when it comes to Islam.
With such models of reasoning, it is no surprise that Rev Robertson is able to persuade himself that the Nazis were bad, but did not compare with the Muslims in terms of their treatment of the Jews. (I am happy to note that the ADL condemned the attacks of people like Rev Robertson).The student of history would know about the many Jews who not only lived safely and comfortably, but even flourished, during the many ages of Muslim rule. However an investigation into this issue might spoil the case for making Muslims more hateful than the Nazis.
Perhaps the most serious problem presaged by this interview is not the expected virulence of a particular interpretation of Christianity, but rather the subservient and adoring manner in which the interview was conducted. It is entirely possible to be respectful about Christianity and yet be questioning and critical when someone moves outside their theological specialty. Otherwise, the media are serving to create a climate of opinion which serves to rationalize contempt and hatred as natural and just.
When ministers of Christianity take such positions it is no surprise that interested political ‘intellectuals’ will emerge from the woodworks and reveal themselves. Dana Millibank tells us in the International Herald Tribune (Dec 2,2002) that Kennth Adelman repeats the view that the founder of Islam was a “warrior” to suffice as his justification for smearing Islam and Eliot Cohen feels that Islam is inherently violent and that Islam’s real views can be found by “an hour spent surfing the Web”. One could as easily conclude that Internet was set up in order to facilitate pornography—which is how the extremist clerics do portray the West. There is a persistent thirst for turning a part into a whole. The extremes agree in their intellectual methods.
It is a pity for us all that the most prominent tele-evangelists are unwilling to recognise that the primary function of such systematic half-truths is to make Americans suspicious of Muslims when they encounter them at home and to be indifferent to their fate when they read about them abroad.
SALIM RASHID is Professor of Economics, University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign. His most recent book, Economic Policy for Growth: Economic Development Is Human Development, was published by Kluwer (2000). He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org