Enough Already with "The Trouble with Islam"

In a recent Wall Street Journal editorial titled "The Trouble with Islam," the author regurgitated all of the familiar canards about the inherent backwardness of Islam: that the religion at core promotes violence toward unbelievers and toward women, that the Quran calls for death to the Jews, that all attempts of interfaith dialogue in the West are based on a hopeless naivete and that the violence in Iraq proves that Muslims are prone to violence.

The article was written by a Muslim, by that does not make it any more true than had it been written by a Jew, a Christian, and atheist or a Hindu. The statements above are at best half-truths, in that at various points and in various scriptural passages, support for those attitudes and behavior can be found. But belonging to a religion does not confer expertise or suggest knowledge, and may in fact preclude a clear view. The success of a recent book by Ayaan Hirsi Ali has been aided by that fact (which I have heard a number of people say verbatim) that because she is a Muslim woman, she speaks for Muslim women. Well, perhaps, but the tendency to generalize about the experience of all based of one's personal experience has been the source of unending grief in the world. At best, it can be a benign form of narcissim; at worst, it is a recipe for imposing one's experience on everyone else, and denying others the validity of their experience and interpretations.

There is no denying that the world today is marked by a high level of violence in select parts of the Muslim world; it is equally true that there have been high levels of violence in Columbia and in multiple parts of sub-Saharan Africa, where Islam is not present. Not to mention North Korea. Humans are perfectly capable of fighting for any number of reasons, and will use whatever creed or ideology is convenient to support them. But the close association of Islam with violence and terror is a triumph for a cabal of loosely connected groups who have managed to define a religion followed by as many as 1.2 billion people in a narrow, limited fashion. In the process, both Muslims and people in the West have forgotten a legacy that extends across fourteen centuries, which have seen conflict, for sure, but have also witnessed high levels of toleration and long periods of live-and-let-live. For centuries after the Arab conquests in the 7th century, for instance, a small Arab Muslim elite ruled over vast numbers of Christians and significant Jewish minorities. Those non-Muslims were largely left autonomous, save for taxes, and while their lot was not necessarily easy, no society in those centuries celebrated human rights or individual freedoms.

And there can be no question that until the 20th century, it was vastly preferable to be a Jew in Muslims society than under Christian rule. The degree to which that changed with the creation of Israel in 1948 and with the sad, tragic expulsion of Jewish communities who had been living Iraq, Egypt, Syria, and Morocco for more than a thousand years, is hard to reconcile with the long legacy that preceeded it, but that is not an excuse for forgetting that the intense animosity between Muslims and Jews is a modern phenomenom and not woven into the fabric of either tradition (for those who then ask, what about the execution of one of the Jewish tribes of Medina by Muhammad or the occasional outbursts in medieval Baghdad, remember that violence against groups who fell out of favor was part of life in all parts of the world, and had more to do with power and who had it than religion and who didn't).

History is rewritten by every generation, and today, the history of relations between the faiths is being rewritten to emphasize the times of conflict and violence and erase the legacy of coexistence. Coexistence doesn't mean warm and fuzzy comraderie - often it means simply living side-by-side without violence and hate flaring up on a regular basis. But that coexistence is woven into the past, even if it is increasing forgotten, and even as people have begun to believe that there can be no other path for Muslims, Christians, and Jews except for animosity and war. Yet history and religion are not destiny, and much like the Quran and the Bible, they offer examples of everything. The Quran may preach violence in one verse, and peace in another. Which is true? Both. The Bible, remember, was used to justify slavery until the 1860s in the United States, yet who would read the text that way now? These traditions are infinitely malleable and that is why they have survived.

For now, we would be wise to step back and take a deep breath. There may be some trouble with some Muslims, and the same might be said of some Jews and some Christians. But that tells us little about any of the three religions, and says only that humans are and have always been a flawed contentious lot. We have our good moments as well, and that too should be remembered, especially in our angst-ridden present.