The ongoing unrest in the Middle East is a sort of model for how ideology colors perception. To the Left, it is a clear instance of a popular uprising, a demand for democratic institutions by an oppressed people. To a few on the neocon Right, it is proof that President Bush was essentially right in his belief that the “liberation” of Iraq would lead to the democratization of the Middle East, this despite the fact that the U.S. has shown very little sympathy to other instances of democracy in the area when it did not go our way, as when the Palestinians elected Hamas. And despite the fact that America has supported various dictatorships in that part of the world, so long as they served our purposes.
I, like so many, do not know exactly what to make of the situation in the Middle East, but I am certain that both of these are examples of wishful thinking.
But there is another view from the Right, and it is this I wish to address: the idea that what is happening is a move by Islam to establish a worldwide caliphate. Generally, the involvement of the Muslim Brotherhood in the overthrow of Mubarak is seen as “proof” of the insidious involvement of Islamic militants.
It is hard to know where to begin analyzing the foolishness of this. It is symptomatic of a tendency for some Americans to generalize about Islam in a way that is totally unrealistic. Islam is not a monolith; is in fact at least as diverse as Christianity. The idea that “Islam” is capable of a united front against anybody is ridiculous. Besides the two main divisions of Sunni and Shia, there are any number of smaller factions, not to mention the various rival schools amongst either of these. And let us not forget that the original companions of Muhammad began fighting with one another almost before his corpse was cold.
Yet anti-Muslim activists speak as if, say, the Muslim Brotherhood and Al Qaeda are in one camp. In fact, they are bitter rivals. The Muslim Brotherhood may have its roots in radical Islam, but today they pursue their ends peacefully. Their website is full of denunciations of Al Qaeda and terrorism. What? The Muslim Brotherhood is not a terrorist group? No, actually they condemned the 9/11 attacks. So did Hamas, Hezbollah, and every major Muslim organization. And, according to polls, 97% of Muslims worldwide.
This is one of the least reported facts in recent history.
Now, 3% of a billion and a half Muslims is still a huge number of terrorist sympathizers, but it is also a far cry from a billion and a half potential terrorists.
The anti-Muslim rhetoric in this country since 9/11 reminds me of nothing so much as the anti-Catholic rhetoric of the 19th century (which still exists in some quarters): suspicion of the foreigner and his strange religion, which is held to be hostile to democracy and American values, allegations of inherent violence, and the rest. “Proofs” are presented that this religion does not worship the true God but is rather an adaptation of pagan beliefs (the allegation that Allah is the moon god oddly is reminiscent of similar charges that Catholics worship Isis and her son).
In fact, Christians have more in common with Muslims than with Jews. Judaism has traditionally held that Christ was a false prophet, and that -it pains me to even write this- He was born of an illicit union between His Mother and a Roman soldier. That is what the Talmud alleges, thought thankfully there are Jews today who have a more positive view of Our Lord. Muslims, on the other hand, believe that Christ is a true prophet, that He was born of a Virgin, that He ascended into heaven and will return to judge the world. Christians may mock and condemn the founder of Islam, but Muslims always speak respectfully of Christ and His Mother.
But isn’t Islam inherently violent, a religion of the sword? And is it not the historical enemy of Christendom?
We must be careful here, for the roots of our own religion are also violent. The Hebrews were a warlike people who saw their wars as divinely ordained. And while the Quran condemns the killing of non-combatants, the Old Testament claims that God commands this in several instances.
It is certainly true that Islam differs immensely in its founding from Christianity. Muhammad commanded an army, and executed his enemies. Islam is hardly pacifistic. But we should be wary of believing that it is a religion that cannot evolve; while there are still violent Jewish extremists, for example, most of Judaism has moved beyond this. Islam is still a young religion, in its adolescence if not its infancy. Like the Old Testament, there is much in its scriptures that points to a more transcendent faith than the sword-wielding of its heritage.
But what of the history of aggression? Well, history must not be a prison; a little over a century ago Protestant Americans were burning Catholic churches and convents. Only a few centuries ago Catholics and Protestants in Europe were killing each other. And in relatively modern times we have seen a peaceful religion emerge from violent roots. I speak of Mormonism, which at one time had its own militia, and which slaughtered a wagon train of “gentiles” in the Mountain Meadows massacre. To be sure, there is still a violent Morman minority, just as there is a violent Jewish minority and a violent Christian minority.
However visible, the violent are even today a minority in Islam. Mindless antagonism against whole peoples is counterproductive, creating radicals where there were none. We should rather follow the example of the Catholic Church, which seeks common ground and understanding with Muslims.
Read Full Post »