Malice for Muslims

By Tom Krattenmaker

(Originally published in The Oregonian, Jan. 6, 2008)

The overarching threat to our nation and world is . . . no, not poverty, water shortages or disease. No, not nuclear weapons or global climate change. If we are to believe many speaking out in the political arena these days, there is something more menacing on the horizon: Muslims.

You thought social conservatives were principally concerned about same-sex marriage and abortion? Judging from the rhetoric of Republican presidential candidates and the Christian right figures whose favor they court, the chief problem of our age is Islam and its 1.3 billion adherents, or at least its “extremist” wing.

“Jihadists” and “radical Islamists,” we are told, hate American freedom and hate Christianity. According to those sounding the new alarm, our Middle Eastern enemies are determined to impose harsh Islamic rule on the United States and the rest of the Western world. We even have an increasingly popular label for these bin-Laden clones: “Islamo-fascists.”

Yes, there is political gain to be had in casting aspersions on Muslims and their religion, which is a big reason why this rhetoric is on the ascendancy. But it is demagoguery of the cheapest sort, and it is time for Americans to call it to a halt. This form of bigotry not only demeans a religion and its mostly peaceful followers, but it also degrades the quality of political discourse in this country at the expense of all of us.

“Family values,” you might have noticed, are getting nowhere near as much airtime with social conservatives as in campaign seasons past. Helping fill the rhetoric vacuum are these stirring examples from candidates and advocacy groups:

From Mitt Romney, who has repackaged himself in pursuit of the Christian conservatives deemed key to capturing the GOP nomination, comes the contention that “jihadism (is) this century’s nightmare –violent, radical Islamic fundamentalism.” The former Massachusetts governor has also stated that there would be no place for a Muslim in his Cabinet should he win the White House.

From former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, and winner of last week’s Iowa caucuses, we learn that “Islamo-fascism” is “the greatest threat this country’s ever faced.” Of course, Huckabee might have been forced into his uber-hyperbole by an earlier accusation from the Family Research Council that he failed to grasp the dire nature of the radical Islamic threat.

Don’t worry –all this attention on radical Islamists need not distract from the “pro-life” agenda. Because, according to Rick Scarborough, president of the conservative Christian group Vision America, resisting militant Islamists “is the ultimate life issue. . . . If radical Islam succeeds in its ultimate goals, Christianity ceases to exist.”

Tossing nuance to the wind, the author Robert Spencer goes a step further and says Islam itself is the problem. He claims in his incendiary book titles that Christianity is a religion of peace –and Islam isn’t –and that Islam is the world’s “most intolerant religion.”

We could go on. From Christian conservatives including Franklin Graham and Pat Robertson calling Islam inherently evil and/or violent, to malicious slurs about Democratic candidate Barack Obama’s supposedly hidden Muslim background, the national political rhetoric is contaminated by the implicit –and at-times explicit –demonizing of a particular religion and its adherents.

Muslims are easy scapegoats. Numbering just a few million, they comprise a tiny portion of the electorate in this country. If a winning candidate alienates this group, he or she can probably write it off as a price worth paying. But one group experiences the consequences very directly and very disproportionately –our Muslim fellow citizens.

Wajdi Said emigrated to Oregon from Yemen 15 years ago. He is executive director of the Muslim Educational Trust, which runs a small Islamic school in Tigard, and is an active participant of the Portland-area interfaith community. Said shakes his head when he reflects on the rampant Muslim-bashing he sees today. “It’s all about politics and how to get votes,” he says. “Unfortunately, the way to get votes is to beat the old drums of fear and bigotry.”

Attacks on Muslims –physical as well as rhetorical –are on the rise in this country after remaining relatively rare in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. Portland witnessed a disturbing display of the impulse in November, when callers to conservative talk-radio station KXL began stoking patently false rumors that Said’s school was an undercover training center for Muslim terrorists.

Religion on trial

Why, Said asks, is Islam itself put on trial for the misdeeds of zealots who misappropriate its name and tradition? As he and others point out, no one pins the Oklahoma City bombing on Catholicism (Timothy McVeigh was raised in the Catholic church) or the Atlanta Olympics bombing on Christianity (Eric Rudolph is a fundamentalist Christian who cited his religious beliefs as justification for a series of bombings in the Southern U.S. that killed two and injured more than 100 people).

Said’s point becomes even more relevant in light of new reports about the flourishing of crusader-style Christianity in the U.S. military. Just before Christmas, and other Internet media outlets ran a photo of Army trainees at Fort Jackson, S.C., posing with their weapons and a Bible. The soldiers were participants in a program whose name bears a creepy mix of religious and military terminology: “God’s Basic Training.” Reports have also surfaced of a military police office in Kansas displaying a poster urging the killing of enemy leaders in the Muslim world and converting their people to Christianity.

Christians are purely peaceful, and Muslims the inherently violent bunch?

Obviously, any serious discussion of these issues does need to account for the reality of the too-numerous incidents in which those acting in the name of Islam have bombed, murdered, and condemned anyone not conforming to their view of the world.

The question cannot be lightly dismissed by liberals, who are sometimes tempted to view the terrorist threat through excessively rose-tinted glasses. The headlines furnish a steady stream of bad public relations for the Muslim faith –terrorists pulling off suicide bombings under the banner of Islam, for example, or followers of the Prophet demanding the execution of a British teacher in Sudan who allowed her students to name a teddy bear Muhammad.

Terrorist threats

As conservatives correctly stress, the global terrorist threat is real; there indeed are a good number of violence-mongers, some influenced by a distorted understanding of Islam, who wish to harm Americans and American interests. We need to confront the threat with skill and resolve –and, yes, with force at times. What the “radical Islam” fighters too seldom acknowledge, however, is that the vast, vast majority of Muslims –most of them living outside the Middle East, incidentally –continue to go about their lives in a quiet, peaceful fashion.

It is vitally important to cite the right enemy. It is not Islam –a complex and in many ways compelling religion that, like Christianity and other faiths, is sometimes prone to ugly misuse. The enemy is not religion, but those who use religion to divide people and stir hatred.

One person well worth listening to on these matters is the Chicago-based writer and activist Eboo Patel, an American Muslim originally from India. As he travels around the country bringing young people together in interfaith dialogue, Patel stresses that the fundamental divide today is not between Christianity and Islam. It’s between religious totalitarians bent on imposing their hard-edged beliefs on the rest of society and pluralists who not only recognize, but celebrate, religious diversity.

Patel made his point in especially poignant fashion following Mike Huckabee’s acceptance of an endorsement from Tim LaHaye, a Christian right icon who is coauthor of the best-selling (and quite violent) “Left Behind” series. As Patel noted in his Washington Post blog, LaHaye’s endorsement took the form of a battle cry. By way of endorsing the self-described “Christian leader” Huckabee, LaHaye declared that our “Judeo-Christian” heritage is under assault by jihadist forces more destructive than anything we’ve faced since Hitler. Defeating these enemies, LaHaye claimed, “will require renewed resolve and spiritual rearmament by the evangelical pastors in America.”

Patel asked, “Does Mr. LaHaye understand that the radical jihadists are just as dangerous to me and other mainstream Muslims as they are to him?”

We might also ask: Do LaHaye and fellow fear-mongers understand that confronting the terrorist threat with Christian crusader language not only motivates would-be “jihadists” but contributes to a clash-of-civilizations dynamic that leads us farther from peace between peoples and religions?

And just as important, do we understand that the more we drone on about Muslim fundamentalists, Islamic extremists and “Islamo-fascists” –coming close to smearing of a whole religion in the process –the more we resemble those we vilify?