Some years ago I fell to chatting with an engineer who was helping me record an audio book about Islam. This good-hearted woman tied herself into knots assuring me that she had nothing against Muslims. She wanted to learn about Islam, she said; she had no wish to trample on our sensibilities. She told me of a Muslim girl who had moved into her school district and of how the school district had taken extraordinary steps to accommodate this girl's culture so as not to offend her. What these assurances made me feel was ashamed of myself and my fellow Muslims. Why, I wondered, does everyone have to bend over backward to avoid offending us? People of other persuasions all have to tolerate ridicule at times, insults at times, and they roll with the punches. Why is it that we alone can't get along in this clamorously multicultural world?
I know that many people are cautious about offending Muslims these days, and sadly I know why. It's not because respect for Islam has spiked or admiration for the Prophet has surged. It's because, in places like Pakistan, mullahs are beating and disfiguring and slaughtering people they consider disrespectful. It's because, when a British citizen published--in Britain--a book that including bawdy hints about the prophet's wife Ayesha, Iran's top Muslim cleric felt entitled to put a bounty on the writer's head, making him a hunted man to this day and getting two translators of his work killed. It's because, when some Danish cartoonist drew lampoons of the Prophet Mohammed, Muslim mobs burned down buildings and killed some of their own to express how offended they were. Last week, in France, twelve staff member s of a satirical magazine were gunned down for making disrespectful fun of Prophet Mohammed. Right now, the Saudi government is publicly flogging blogger Raif Badawi once a week, every week for 20 weeks for supposedly having insulted Islam.
Does all this create respect for Islam? Is dread the same as respect?
Let me be clear. Je ne suis pas Charlie Hebdo. As far as I can tell, that newspaper is a tasteless bully. Good satire uses provocation to deepen understanding. These guys were out to pulverize understanding intentionally by defaming Islam to stoke hatred of Muslims. I can't approve.
But I doubt their screeds resonated with much of anyone except people already hostile to Islam. Quite another story are the men who burst into their offices and gunned them down. Those thugs sent a message that resonated with millions. Those guys did change attitudes. They made people who were previously friendly to Islam suspicious of it. They made people previously neutral on Islam see it as a loathsome phenomenon in the world. If Charlie Hebdo was out to soil the good name of Muslims, these thugs did more to promote the agenda than the murdered staffers could have done working overtime for a thousand years.
Are Muslims violent by nature? Of course not. What are Muslims doing when they're being Muslims? They're working, raising their families, and trying to get by, same as anyone. What do Muslims do for fun? They chat, they sing, they philosophize, they tell jokes, they thrill to sports and enjoy good food and appreciate long walks on the beach. It's shameful slander when a right-wing radio talk-show host says (as I heard one say recently) that Muslims celebrate their holidays, not by lighting candles as other faiths do, but by dragging someone into a park and beheading him. Yes, that is outrageous, hateful talk.
But Muslims of good faith have squandered too much energy insisting to the west that they are not terrorists and that Islam is the religion of peace. The hour for addressing the west has passed. Muslims need to face inward now, and utter some hard truths to one another. They need to say, yes this faith is under attack, and yes Islam has enemies who are working relentlessly to dishonor the community--but these enemies are not America or Israel or Jews or Hindus or Germans or the French.
They're closer, these enemies. They've wormed into the heart of the community. They mask themselves with undeserved honorifics such as sheikh and mullah and maulana. They insult the memory of great souls who have worn these titles in the past. They wear beards, some of them, as an outward show of devotion. With the Qur'an in one hand and a machine gun in the other, they burn down embassies and kill ambassadors; they buy and sell children, strap bombs to them, and blow them up in pursuit of their political ambitions; they stamp on women for demonstrating a will of their own and in general bend every effort to making life more miserable and insecure for Muslims everywhere. It's not enough to keep telling non-Muslims, "Don't judge us by those few creeps." Muslims have to turn now and address those few creeps, those false guardians of the faith, with one simple declaration: You are not Muslims.