Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality
Fighting Hate with Lies
By David G. Young
Washington, DC, October 30, 2001 --
The past six weeks have featured numerous reports of physical attacks on Muslims or Middle Eastern-looking people in the United States. Thankfully, these acts of violence have been relatively few, and those that do occur appear to be perpetrated by the same bigoted types who would have otherwise directed their hate toward other minorities. Mainstream Americans have engaged only in less egregious forms of harassment -- such as kicking Arab-looking passengers off of airplanes because they don't like the way they look.
Americans' intense anger at their Muslim neighbors has been kept in check by soothing pronouncements from America's cultural elite. The real Islam, they say, is a peaceful religion. Those who rammed airplanes into buildings filled with innocents cannot be true Muslims.
"The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam," declared President Bush on a visit to the Islamic Center near the Vice President's residence. "That's not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace."1
Though the President's statement was certainly useful in deflecting Americans' anger from innocent Muslims, his statement was also completely false. Islam is not a peaceful religion.
If the suicide bombers who attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were solitary cases of Islamic violence, it might be easy to dismiss them as aberrations. But countless cases of Islamic-sponsored violence abound. Indeed, it is difficult to find a corner in the entire Muslim world that is untouched by religious violence and hatred.
At the Western end of the Islamic world, in the Algerian Maghrib, fundamentalist Muslim guerrillas have been killing seemingly indiscriminately for almost a decade. This war has featured hundreds of beheadings of non-Muslim foreigners as well as the Islamists' domestic enemies. In nearby Sudan, the fundamentalist government has been violently suppressing the desperately poor non-Muslim south. And in neighboring Egypt, Islamic fundamentalists have been fighting the secular government and foreign influences, most infamously by machine-gunning a busload of Western tourists at Luxor in 1997.2
Continuing east in the Muslim world, religious violence is rife in the Palestinian territories and Lebanon. Iran is only recently moderating from two decades of Islamic fundamentalism plagued by violence. In Afghanistan, even before the attacks on America, the ruling Taliban had been killing rival militiamen for their lack of Islamic vigor, and they used artillery to blow up the country's premier archaeological treasure -- giant Buddhist statues in cliffs near Kabul -- because they were un-Islamic.
The next Islamic country over, Pakistan, has been covertly sending holy warriors across the border into Indian-controlled Kashmir to end Hindu rule of the territory. And in formerly peaceful Indonesia on the eastern end of the Islamic world, Islamic militants have started slaughtering Indonesian Christians near Ambon, and threatening to attack Westerners on Java.
With all these colossal examples of Islamic brutality (and there are countless more), how can President Bush even think to equate Islam with peace? Islam is simply not a peaceful religion. The fact that many of its followers live peacefully lives does nothing to discount the religion's widespread use to justify violence.
Islam, however, is not alone. Christianity is often used to promote violence, too. When acknowledging its historic faults, Christians typically mention the medieval crusades. While such a reference may be valid, it's a bit disingenuous to focus on thousand-year-old acts of violence when countless contemporary atrocities are committed in the name of Christianity. Orthodox Christian fighters in Bosnia and Kosovo, for example, systematically slaughtered Muslims by the thousands in the past decade. In Western Europe, ample Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland have until very recently been enthralled at the idea of killing each other in the name of religion.
Judaism, despite its small number of adherents, has a proportionally huge number of violent fundamentalists. The ultra-Orthodox Jewish settlers occupy fortified outposts in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in order to claim land for Judaism, despite the fact that it has been home to Muslim and Christian Palestinians for centuries. These settlers are well armed and regularly kill the Palestinians who rightfully seek to recover the land.
Meanwhile, Hindu zealots throughout the Indian subcontinent are currently waging violent religious pogroms against Muslims in Kashmir, minority Christians in India, and Buddhists in Sri Lanka.
Even Buddhism, considered the most peaceful of the major religions, has been used as a vehicle for violence. The nationalist Buddhist clergy in Sri Lanka have lobbied for harsher measures in the war against the Hindu separatists in the north.
The point is that all of the world's major religions are used for violent ends, and it is much, much more common than followers would like to believe. The fact that religious violence in the West has declined over the past several centuries has much to do with the expanse of education and the corresponding rise in secularism. The Christian world isn't less violent than the Muslim world because Christianity is less violent. It is less violent because the West isn't all that Christian anymore.
All religions are dangerous and potentially violent, precisely because they teach followers to rely upon faith. Faith teaches followers to put aside logic and reason and instead dogmatically follow the teachings of the clergy. Followers of such a system are at an inherent risk of being led to violence.
But religion is not the only source of violence. Unfortunately, secular vengeance is alive and well in America today. Muslims and Middle Eastern-looking people living in the United States are at serious risk of becoming victims of vigilantism. It is the government's urgent responsibility to protect its Muslim residents, but it must do so without the condescension and simplistic falsehoods offered by the President. Americans do not need to be told of the peacefulness of Islam in order to avoid violence. They should avoid violence simply because violence is wrong.
1. The White House, Remarks by the President at Islamic Center of Washington, D.C., September 17, 2001
2. CNN.com, Gunmen attack tourists at Egypt's Luxor temple site, October 17, 1997