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Today’s Special on the Menu of Hate
Published on Thursday, July 11, 2002 by
Today’s Special on the Menu of Hate
by John Liechty

On September 15, 2001 The Guardian published “Religion’s Misguided Missiles”, a comment by Richard Dawkins that sought to explain the motivations behind what had happened four days before. Dawkins’ conclusion is summed up in two memorable sentences: “To fill a world with religion, or religions of the Abrahamic kind, is like littering the streets with loaded guns. Do not be surprised if they are used.”

Most of the people closest to me adhere to a religion of “the Abrahamic kind”, and I can’t say I agree with Dawkins’ claim that their lives have been “devalued” by their faith or by their faiths’ proposition that there is life after death – “dangerous nonsense” according to Dawkins, as evidenced in the dangerous nonsense of September 11. Personally, I am as disposed to listen to a rabbi, imam, priest, or poet telling me that death is not the end as I am to a scientist telling me that it is. “All goes onward and outward,” Whitman wrote. “Nothing collapses, and to die is different from what anyone supposed, and luckier.” The notion does not devalue my life.

Not that I blame Dawkins for keeping a wary and skeptical eye on religion. As Mark Twain observed, man is “the only animal that has the True Religion – several of them… the only animal that loves his neighbor as himself and cuts his throat if his theology isn’t straight.” Nevertheless, I think it is misguided to blame religion so unreservedly for atrocities of the 9/11 order. Should we write off the Christian faith because in 1864 an elder of the Methodist church in Denver decided it was his Christian duty to exterminate Indians, and led a band that murdered 200 people, most of them women and children? Should we write it off because Nat Turner, a devoutly religious slave, was directed by Christ in a vision to "slay your enemies with their own weapons,” and in 1831 led a band that hacked 57 people to death, most of them women and children? It seems ludicrous to suppose that the atrocities of people like Chivington or Turner were inevitably and exclusively products of their religion.

If we hesitate to blame Christianity for the Sand Creek Massacre or Nat Turner’s Rebellion, then we might hesitate to lay the blame for the perversions of September 11 on Islam. Yet, as Nicholas D. Kristof’s recent op/ed piece in the New York Times points out, Americans seem increasingly fond of ascribing blame to Islam and equating it with a canon of presumed defects. Islam is ____. The culture of bigots congregated in the lower bowel of the internet is happy to fill in the blank. But the bigots can be found in churches and political forums and academia as well. Kristof’s article notes that Reverend Franklin Graham has declared Islam to be “a very evil and wicked religion,” thus redirecting the venom his father (Reverend Billy) spat at the Jews. It seems that Islam has become Today’s Special on the menu of intolerance and hate.

Of course, defects exist in the Islamic world, (a statement no more astounding, upon reflection, than that houseflies exist there). There is anti-Jewish anti-Semitism, but we would do well to consider that the widespread contempt in Islam for the likes of Ariel Sharon may have more to do with the man’s political style than with anti-Semitism. Otherwise, what should we call the widespread respect for Yitzhak Rabin that existed in the Muslim world – “pro-Semitism”? We would do well to recall that while Christian Spain was expelling its Muslims it was also expelling its Jews, and that both groups took refuge in Islamic North Africa. The most appalling eruptions of anti-Semitism in history have occurred in Christian Europe. Yes, Al Qaida’s anti-Jewishness is dangerous and foul. So let’s blame the attack on a synagogue in Tunisia on Al Qaida – not on Islam and its 1.3 billion adherents, the vast majority of whom were as disgusted by it as anyone else.

We tend to court the notion that the Islamic world is somehow more violent or war-like than our kinder, gentler corner of Christendom where a murder is reported every 27 minutes and an assault every 31 seconds. Samuel Huntington’s observation that there is a disposition toward conflict in the Islamic world is often cited. Less often cited is his observation that the alleged disposition is attributable to demographics, to populations containing unprecedentedly high proportions of young, unemployed males. Islam is reflexively associated with “jihad”. We are less quick to consider our own versions – “just war” for instance, the Christian ideology that dextrously manages to sidestep the teachings and example of Christ. The horrors of Jewish “holy war” are amply illustrated in the vengeance on Midian, described in Numbers 31. The Old Testament God has more in common with Huitzilopochtli than we care to admit. And if someone cared to calculate the gallons of blood spilled in the name of religion, Islam would come away looking relatively clean.

Islam represses women? Certainly some men and some institutions in the Islamic world do. I wonder if some men and some institutions elsewhere in the world could be said to repress women. Perish the thought. It is worth noting that the founder of Islam, Mohammed, was given his job by a wealthy, independent merchant named Khadija, who eventually married her employee. The proposition for marriage was made by Khadija, incidentally, not Mohammed. Veiling a woman’s face and female circumcision are nowhere endorsed in the Koran, though they are widely thought to be “Islamic”. They are no more Islamic than the Chinese practice of “beautifying” women by binding their feet from infancy was Buddhist or Taoist or Confucian. Such practices are less common and less widely endorsed in the Muslim world than we want to believe. Before it became politically expedient for Europeans or Americans to find the Taliban’s dress code for women abhorrent, it was already abhorrent to most Muslims.

Islam has its bigots, but the overwhelming majority of Muslims are not bigots – they are decent, respectful, tolerant people and their religion has made them moreso, not less. It is true that one’s religion can sometimes nurture bigotry. So can one’s culture. So can race, language, the side of the street one lives on, and just about every aspect of human existence. Bigotry is the fruit of untended arrogance, ignorance, hatred, and intolerance – a parasitic shoot that can graft itself to most anything. We’d best attend to pruning our trees, not cutting them down. Or cutting down the trees of others. More than our apologists, Islam deserves our apologies.

John Liechty teaches in Muscat, Oman. E-mail:


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