46% Are Negative About Islam. Are They Right?

Today's poll that 46% of Americans now have a "negative view" of Islam reminded me of the morning after 9/11, when I drove over to a Borders bookstore in LA looking for books on Islam and the Arabs.

Like many shocked Americans, I wanted to know "why the terrorists hated us." I had majored in history and spent some time among Muslims in South Asia, but there was obviously a vast amount I didn't know.

That morning, the store I visited had almost no books on Islam, reflecting America's general disinterest. There were shelves and shelves of books on Christianity and Judaism, and lots of books on Buddhism and Hinduism. But as for Islam, there were just a few Korans and a couple of titles by Karen Armstrong and Bernard Lewis.

Flash forward to today: That same bookstore is packed with titles on Islam and the Arabs, their history, philosophy, culture, politics, religion, and of course their grievances against a West that has often ground them in the dust.

Unfortunately, many of these books make you feel, if anything, less sanguine about Islam in the world today.

For example, I had assumed that the terrorists hated the West primarily because we had treated Arabs and Muslims so badly for so long. There's no denying that we have, and there's no question that our behavior has given extremists handy recruiting tools.

But the more I read of the distant past -- before the US or Israel even existed -- the more disturbed I became by the level of violence and xenophobia that seems built into the foundational texts of Islam.

I had not realized, for example, that Mohammed himself, who was in many ways an enlightened figure, had also ordered the execution of all the adult male Jews in Medina when he ruled there, accusing them of treason against him.

I was surprised to discover that Mohammed himself had ordered the murder of a famous female poet who wrote verses insulting him, and ordered the deaths of quite a few other people who criticized him.

I also had not realized that a depressing cycle appeared in Islamic history after Mohammed's death.

Muslim societies would sometimes liberalize, loosen their puritanical strictures, become tolerant, and then face violent "revolutions from below" in which angry reformers would arise to drag society back to the fierce Islam of the earliest years. In that sense, Khomeini's Shiite revolution, and today's resurgence of militant Sunni orthodoxy, are just modern incarnations of something that has happened time and again.

So I'm not terribly surprised by the new poll, and I don't chalk it up to mere ignorance about Islam. Today's headlines full of militancy, violence and xenophobia are echoed in history books and even theological texts that tell of the same thing.

The larger question really is: does Islam have to be militant, violent or xenophobic?

And there, the answer is clearly no. Because Islam's long history is full of periods where it was as peaceful -- or even more peaceful -- than other regions and religions.

I recommend, for example, Maria Rosa Menocal's "The Ornament of the World," which shows an open, tolerant Islam that flourished in Spain for centuries. And everyone should read Fouad Ajami's "Dream Palace of the Arabs," which tells of the rich intellectual and literary movements of the mid 20th century Arabs, and how their dashed dreams paved the way for today's militancy.

Today's bookstores are also full of works by contemporary Muslims like Reza Aslan who seek to reform Islam from within. True, such reformers are on the defensive at the moment. But it's also true that they are able to reconcile Islam with an open and tolerant worldview.

I guess my take-home message is this:

Yes, Islam is a religion with a disturbing "foundational story" that gives today's violent militants a lot more aid and comfort than, say, Jesus or Buddha would give to violent Christians or Buddhists. But no, Islam does not have to be violent or militant. Most Muslims are not. Most never were.

Unfortunately, if we succumb to purely negative views about Islam, and if we keep sending troops to fight Arabs in illegitimate oil wars, we both give ammunition to Muslim extremists and push moderates into their own negative counter-reaction.

If so, that would be a bad mistake, because there's plenty in Islam's foundational story and theology to give violent Muslim bigots the justification they seek. And you don't have to be a Western bigot to say so.