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July 9, 2002
Bigotry in Islam And Here
he Islamic world represses women, spawns terrorism, is prone to war, resists democracy and has contributed remarkably few great scientists or writers to modern civilization. So it's time to defend Islam.
In speaking to Arab friends, I've reproached them for the virulent anti-Semitism in their societies. But it's a cheap shot for us to scold Arabs for acquiescing in religious hatred unless we try vigorously to uproot our own religious bigotry.
Since 9/11, appalling hate speech about Islam has circulated in the U.S. on talk radio, on the Internet and in particular among conservative Christian pastors the modern echoes of Charles Coughlin, the "radio priest" who had a peak listening audience in the 1930's of one-third of America for his anti-Semitic diatribes.
"Islam is, quite simply, a religion of war," Paul Weyrich and William Lind, two leading American conservatives, write in a new booklet titled "Why Islam Is a Threat to America and the West." Mr. Lind said of American Muslims: "They should be encouraged to leave. They are a fifth column in this country."
Ann Coulter, the columnist, suggested that "we should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity."
The Rev. Franklin Graham, son of the Rev. Billy Graham and a prominent evangelist in his own right, said of Islam: "I believe it's a very evil and wicked religion." The Rev. Jerry Vines, past president of the Southern Baptist Convention, declared that the Prophet Muhammad was "a demon-obsessed pedophile."
President Bush set an example of tolerance immediately after 9/11, but lately has been quiet. He should denounce the bigotry, rather than (as he did by speaking to the Baptist convention after the "pedophile" slur) condoning it. If we want Saudi princes to confront their society's hate-mongers, our own leaders should confront ours.
One problem with this prejudice (as with Osama bin Laden's) is that it blinds the bigots to any understanding of what they deride. If Islam were really just the caricature that it is often reduced to, then how would it be so appealing as to become the world's fastest-growing religion?
Islam already has 1.3 billion adherents and is spreading rapidly, particularly in Africa, partly because it also has admirable qualities that anyone who has lived in the Muslim world observes: a profound egalitarianism and a lack of hierarchy that confer dignity and self-respect among believers; greater hospitality than in other societies; an institutionalized system of charity, zakat, to provide for the poor. Many West Africans, for example, see Christianity as corrupt and hierarchical and flock to Islam, which they view as democratic and inclusive.
One can dispute that, and it's reasonable to worry about the implications of the spread of Islam for the status of women and for the genital mutilation of girls. But simply thundering that Islam is intrinsically violent does not help to understand it and picks up on racist and xenophobic threads that are some of the sorriest chapters in our history.
Of course, Islam is troubled in ways no one can ignore. The scholar Samuel Huntington has noted that the Islamic world has "bloody borders," with conflict around much of its perimeter. Of the 26 countries torn by conflict in the year 2000, 14 have large Muslim populations. And on average, Muslim countries mobilize twice as large a share of the population in armed forces as do predominately Christian countries.
This is fair grounds for debate, but the sweeping denigrations of Islam are mush. Critics often quote from the Koran, for example, to argue that Islam is intrinsically violent ("fight and slay the pagans wherever ye find them, and seize them, beleaguer them"). But the Koran, like the Bible, can be quoted for any purpose. After all, the New Testament embraces slavery ("Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling").
In times of stress, even smart and sophisticated people tend to be swept up in prejudice. Teddy Roosevelt said in 1886: "I don't go so far as to think that the only good Indians are dead Indians, but I believe nine out of ten are, and I shouldn't inquire too closely in the case of the tenth. The most vicious cowboy has more moral principle than the average Indian."
History suggests that focusing on the moral deficiencies of other peoples simply underscores our own.