December 2, 2002
"I think Muhammad was a terrorist ... a violent man, a man of war," said the Rev. Jerry Falwell on "60 Minutes." He added, "Jesus set the example for love. ... Muhammad set an opposite example." Murderous riots broke out in India, and an Iranian cleric threatened Falwell with assassination. "The Koran teaches that the end of the world will not come until every Jew is killed by Muslims," says the Rev. Pat Robertson. He compares the Koran's message on Jews to "Mein Kampf." "There is no doubt the religion of Muhammad ... is extreme and violent."
"I don't believe this is a wonderful, peaceful religion," adds Franklin Graham, son of Billy Graham, "When you read ... the verses from the Koran, it instructs the killing of the infidel ... those that are non-Muslim."
What does President Bush think of this bashing of Islam by his Christian friends? He rejects it. "Islam is a religion of peace."
Colin Powell is less charitable: "We will reject the kind of comments ... where people in this country say that Muslims are responsible for the killing of all Jews, and who put out hatred. This kind of hatred must be rejected."
Is Islam a religion of peace? Why, then, was an American Christian woman murdered in south Lebanon by an Islamic fanatic, after Christians were warned to stop proselytizing for the faith?
If Islam is a religion of peace, how do you explain four days of Muslim rioting in Kaduna, Nigeria, against a Miss World pageant, after a journalist wrote that Muhammad might have chosen one of the beauty queens as one of his wives? Those riots left 1,500 hospitalized and 215 dead.
Islam has "bloody borders," says Harvard Professor Samuel Huntington. Is he not right? From Algeria to Afghanistan to the Philippines, Muslim insurgencies rage in a dozen countries.
Yet the president, too, has a point. In America, a huge Islamic community lives at peace with its Christian and Jewish neighbors. Around the world are a billion Muslims, only a tiny fraction of whom are waging jihad against Christian minorities or their own rulers.
How to explain the dichotomy? We are at the beginning of a religious and political revolution in the Islamic world. Like all revolutions, it is marked at its extremes by militancy, intolerance and a sometimes murderous xenophobia. What is being worked out, often violently, are the terms of Islam's engagement with a hedonistic, triumphalist West that both attracts and repels the Muslim faithful.
In northern Nigeria, this revolution is religious and cultural -- at war with both Christianity and a neo-pagan MTV culture. In Algeria, Islamic jihadists seek to overthrow a secular-socialist state brought to power by the war of independence. In southern Lebanon, militants want Christians out, now that Hezbollah has driven the Israelis out. In Palestine, Hamas and Islamic Jihad add religious fanaticism to a nationalist cause. Should Arafat become president of Palestine, he will face an Islamic party more rabid than the religious parties Sharon must cope with.
In Chechnya and western China, Islamic guerrillas seem more secessionist than fundamentalist. In Egypt, Islamic extremism is manifest in assassination attempts of pro-Western scholars, the slaughter of tourists and the persecution of the Copts.
Yet, while all this violence is the daily fare of our front pages, how many Islamic terrorists, guerrillas, assassins and rioters are there, when you consider that if they add up to 1,000,000, it would be less than 0.1 percent of the Muslims on earth? And not all the causes for which Muslims fight -- independence for Chechnya and Palestine, secession from Russia, Indonesia and China -- are inherently unjust or evil.
Islam is in a revivalist phase. In the lands where it is predominant, there is often little tolerance of rival religions seeking the conversion of Muslims. So it is that Falwell, Robertson and Graham, too, have a point. Between militant Islam and Christian fundamentalism, there is an unbridgeable chasm of belief, and in the Islamic world, devout Christians are citizens under suspicion -- just as Jews and Muslims were in Isabella's Spain and Catholics were in Elizabethan England.
Yet, in his sense that we must avoid war with militant Islam, lest we find ourselves at war with all Islam, President Bush is surely right.
In the last century, America was threatened by a global communist revolution. Avoiding all-out war, we outlasted it. And we can outlast this Islamist revolution. What we must avoid is a war of faiths, a war of civilizations between Islam and America. And those who propagandize for such a war are the unwitting or willful collaborators of Osama bin Laden.
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