Islam and the West

A close reading of 19th and early 20th Century history shows that anti-black racism was commonplace and acceptable even among the most 'liberal' and 'enlightened' members of polite (white) society. It didn't look like bigotry to them, of course, but rather seemed like a simple acknowledgment of black people's ''shiftlessness" and idle nature.

Today's politically correct form of bigotry is prejudice against Islam. One billion Muslims are slandered daily in 'polite discourse' throughout the Western world - that 'civilization' that we're told is at war with a more barbarian Islamic culture. If we want to claim the mantle of civilization, isn't it time we started acting civilized?

The Pope's speech is the most prominent example of the week and, while it's not the only one, it's a good place to start. I read both the speech and the so-called 'apology' carefully. (Update: The Pope issued another apology today, but I haven't been able to locate the entire text.)

Here's what the Pope did: he inserted an extremely harsh denigration of Muhammed and the entire Islamic faith into an otherwise interesting discussion of the conflict between faith and reason.

You know the details: that he quoted these words of a Byzantine emperor with approval (in context, there was no other way the words could have been intended): " "Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new," the Pope quoted, "and there you will find things only evil and inhuman."

Since the entire Muslim faith is based on Mohammed's utterances, there could be no more categorical and scathing indictment of the religion.

That's not all the Pope said. He also dismissed the fundamental tenet of Islam expressed in the Quran, "there should be no compulsion in religion." This statement, which directs Muslims to be as tolerant as any human beings on earth, is dismissed by the Pope. "According to the experts," he said, "this is one of the suras of the early period, when Mohammed was still powerless and under threat."

He went on to refer to later injunctions to holy war. The Pope's implication (and his error of exegesis) is two-fold: First, no major Muslim scholar or imam believes that suras written later supersede earlier ones. They are all the word of God, according to Muslims, to be equally respected.

Secondly, according to most experts, those injunctions to holy war were specific to the place and time of the battle, much as they are in other holy texts from the Gita to the Bible. (In other words, when it reads "strike the infidels to their fingertips" the word infidels refers to the combatants in the specific battle being described, not non-believers in general. See Reza Azlan's "No God But God" for details.)

The Pope attempted to use an academic argument to dismiss the notion that Islam is a peaceful religion. This aspect of his attack on the faith has been under-reported. It is also a major tactical problem for those of us concerned with reducing Islamic terror. Not only is it false, it supports the arguments of radical Muslim extremists who make similar arguments to support the notion that it is permissible to kill civilians in a holy war.

The Pope's "apology" was no such thing. Although he claimed that the emperor's words were not his own, he alternate explanation for his use of them made no sense. More importantly, he did not withdraw his challenge to the notion of Islam as a peaceful religion. His apology essentially said, reading between the lines, that "Muslims believe in God, but I don't retract my statement that their religion is one of hate."

(Again, I have not been able to review the Pope's second apology in full. It may be more comprehensive and effective.)

There is ample evidence to support the argument that all faiths are religions of hate, just as there is evidence that all are religions of love. We don't need religious leaders inflaming sentiments against other faiths with inflammatory statements they refuse to retract.

Needless to say, no statement justifies violence. Muslims should follow the injunctions of those religious leaders that encourage them to be patient in the face of prejudice. "Jihad" as inner struggle calls them to exercise greater forbearance and tolerance than the violent actors of the last few days have displayed.

As I pointed out elsewhere, less than one Muslim in 43,000 has ever joined a public demonstration or reacted violently against anti-Muslim statements, whereas one American Catholic priest in 20 has been accused of molestation (and protected by his Church.) Yet I would fight any broad characterization of Catholics based on the child abuse scandal, just as I fight the Pope's outrageous statements about Muslims this week. I hope his most recent statement is sincere and healing.

And in response to those predictable comments, already coming in, that say "Where are the Muslims who object to terrorism?" I offer this as a start: Here I describe the fatwa against terrorism issued by American Muslim leaders, and this article describes a similar fatwa endorsed by over 500 British imams.

There are many more such rulings and statements throughout the world, some of which were issued at personal risk - but you don't hear about them in our society's biased climate. Makes you wonder what else we're not hearing, doesn't it?

And the Pope was not the only person spreading prejudice this week. Christopher Caldwell, reviewing Ian Buruma's new book in the New York Times, makes a statement that is breathtaking in the breadth and casual nature of its bigotry.

Caldwell recounts the very abusive and ugly acts of Theo Van Gogh, the anti-Islamic activist murdered by Muslim extremists. He notes that Buruma compares Van Gogh unfavorably to Voltaire, since Voltaire challenged the Catholic Church while Van Gogh attacked a small, powerless, already-disliked group. Caldwell then adds:

"That is unfair. Voltaire did not risk, with his every utterance, making a billion enemies who recognized his face and could, via the Internet, share information instantaneously with people who aspired to assassinate him."

This is as bigoted a statement as can be imagined. To Caldwell, a billion people are all willing to slaughter a stranger because of his hate speech. Every Muslim a murderer. Caldwell goes on to say, "We need a much more flexible definition of the word 'minority' in a world thus networked." In other words, despite the fact that people are now spitting on Muslims in the streets of Denmark and burning their mosques in the US, it doesn't matter. They're not members of a despised minority in those countries, despite all appearances. They're part of a worldwide community of crazed would-be killers.

By Caldwell's logic Jews aren't a minority either, since they can connect to Israel through the Internet, and the assassinations conducted by the Jewish Defense League should reflect badly on all Jews.

The Times informs us that Caldwell is a contributing writer to the Times Magazine and is writing a book on "immigration, Islam, and Europe." That means we can look forward to more biased rhetoric in the near future. That's unfortunate, to say the least.

Andrew Sullivan was eager to jump on the hate bandwagon in his TIME blog, too. "What's striking to me about Benedict's account of Islam is his suggestion that compulsion and violence are not extrinsic to Islam but intrinsic to its vision of humankind's relationship with the divine," he writes, correctly discerning the Pope's meaning. "In the current climate," adds Sullivan, "it is an inflammatory but courageous one."

That's far from true. No particular courage is required to denigrate a despised people from the safety of the Vatican or the American media. Haters offer each other a lot of support and comfort, and will always have cheerleaders like Sullivan. Catholics like Sullivan are able to find common cause with atheists like Sam Harris who use cheap appeals to anti-Muslim bigotry to promote their diminished conception of atheism.

Sullivan closes with a call for an "Islamic reformation," but how can a fundamentally violent faith reform itself? His call rings of hypocrisy. His ugly distortions of the faith undercut those who are already struggling to reform the faith, by confirming Muslims' worst fears about Western bigotry - on the website of America's famous news magazine.

The mentality of Caldwell, Sullivan, and the Pope is more appropriate for a slave ship than for the world we share today. Their politely phrased statements might as well use the "n" word, for all the bigotry they contain. This form of prejudice has no place in modern society.

(This post has been modified for language.)