Demonizing Islam threatens religious freedom

Sunday, August 6, 2006

When Christian activists burned a Quran in Mississippi last month, you could almost hear Osama bin Laden cheering them on.

For years al-Qaida has spewed propaganda to convince Muslims that America’s “war on terrorism” is a thinly disguised “war on Islam.” Now Christian Right groups are helping to make al-Qaida’s case.

The Mississippi burning of Islam’s holy book was part of an anti-abortion rally held by Operation Save America. According to their leader, the Rev. Flip Benham, this wasn’t the first Quran-burning — and won’t be the last.

Islam opposes abortion, but that makes no difference to Christian groups bent on saving America from a list of evils “detestable to the Lord.” Along with Supreme Court decisions and the rainbow flag (other things tossed into the fire), the Quran represents what they describe as “an insidious lie perpetrated by Satan himself.”

Attacks on Islam from the Christian Right began soon after 9/11 when the Rev. Franklin Graham labeled Islam a “very evil and wicked religion.” Soon other evangelical leaders weighed in, using the “war on terrorism” as an opportunity to reignite historic Christian-Muslim tensions. Jerry Falwell described Muhammad as a “terrorist” — remarks that helped spark deadly riots in India. Pat Robertson called Islam “a monumental scam.”

More-responsible evangelicals understand the danger of turning the terrorism fight into a new crusade. The National Association of Evangelicals has called for more “temperate speech,” arguing that spreading the Gospel doesn’t require demonizing other faiths.

Polls show most Americans, including most evangelicals, continue to have a generally favorable view of Islam. But the more groups like Operation Save America conflate “Islam” and “terror,” the greater the American climate of hostility toward Muslims.

Now some local pastors are translating anti-Islamic rhetoric into action. Recently the Rev. O’Neal Dozier, a prominent Florida minister, spoke on radio about Islam as a “dangerous religion.” Dozier is organizing fellow pastors to block an Islamic center in their neighborhood because, he says, “we don’t want our area to be a breeding ground for terrorists.”

Although none of these ministers advocates violence against Muslims, their attacks may encourage more-extreme Christians to assault Muslims and Islamic places of worship. For American Muslims, America is becoming an increasingly dangerous place. In the last few weeks, a pig head was thrown into a mosque in Maine, a bullet-ridden Quran was deposited in front of a Tennessee mosque, and an Islamic center in Ohio was threatened (the same site where a pipe bomb exploded last December). Religious freedom doesn’t mean much if you live in fear of practicing your faith.

Christian Right attacks on Islam put the Bush administration in a tough spot. How do you keep repeating “Islam is a religion of peace” when growing numbers of your political base take the opposite view? Yet the danger to the U.S. increases if the “war on terrorism” is seen abroad as a “war on Islam.”

Let me anticipate a flood of e-mails by acknowledging widespread impatience in the U.S. with the administration’s mantra about Islam as a peaceful religion. For many Americans, avoiding any mention of Islam in discussing terrorism ducks the reality of daily acts of destruction by al-Qaida, Hezbollah and related groups carried out in the name of Islam. Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., gave voice to this frustration recently when he termed terrorism a tactic, not an opponent; the real enemy is what he called “Islamic fascism.” Others have proposed “Islamic terrorism” or “Islamic extremism.”

While I agree about the need to accurately name the enemy, I don’t agree that the terrorist groups threatening us are “Islamic” anything. Islamic means “of Islam” — and terrorism is no more Islamic than Christian Identity, a violent hate group in the U.S., is Christian.

Despite the risks of any term linking “Islam” and “terrorism,” we need an honest phrase that describes extremists seeking to destroy us. Members of all these groups are Islamists: those who use Islamic religious precepts to form a political ideology. But since some Islamists favor an Islamic political order but condemn acts of terror, the term “Islamist” (favored by some in the press) is insufficient.

The most accurate description, I would argue, is “Islamist terrorism,” a term used by the authors of The 9/11 Commission Report but not widely adopted in journalism or public discourse. “Islamist terrorism” still carries the danger of identifying Islam with terrorism in the popular mind, but it’s better to acknowledge the challenge frankly than to tiptoe around it.

Naming the enemy, of course, means little without a concerted effort by news media, government and schools to educate Americans about the struggle within Islam between the vast majority of Muslims who reject terrorism as un-Islamic and those radical Islamists who believe violent opposition to the West is what God requires.

America’s war against Islamist terrorists is not a war on Islam. We must do everything we can to counter the Quran-burning crowd. Only by protecting the religious liberties of American Muslims — and defending their faith against scurrilous attacks — can we make common cause with Muslims throughout the world who feel their religion has been stolen and defamed.

Charles C. Haynes is senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, 1101 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, Va. 22209. E-mail:

Tags: , , ,