Watch out: War on terrorism should not mean war on Islam

Sunday, August 18, 2002

Watch out, America.

A growing number of media commentators, religious leaders and elected officials are pushing to transform the war on terrorism into a war on Islam.

Franklin Graham and other Christian ministers are now loudly condemning Islam as a “religion of violence.” They would have us believe that the 9/11 hijackers didn’t hijack Islam (as President Bush insists) – they were only doing what the Quran commands.

My mailbox is full of letters from people who feel this way. Typical is the woman who writes to inform me that Islam is “a fanatical religion that is being thrust upon us under the guise of political correctness.”

Clearly the war on terrorism has unleashed deep resentments about Islam in America — and provided a golden opportunity for those seeking to advance anti-immigration, anti-Muslim or other agendas in the name of preserving a “Christian nation.”

Watch out, America. This war of words is already escalating into acts of intolerance and hate against Muslim Americans — and risks further alienating us from the world’s 1.2 billion Muslims.

Consider the current uproar over a summer reading assignment at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. Incoming freshmen are required to read Approaching the Qur’an: The Early Revelations by Michael Sells, a scholar of comparative religions at Haverford College. When they arrive on campus this fall, they’ll briefly discuss the book in small groups led by a member of the faculty. Students who object to the reading may “opt out” and write a paper explaining why they did so.

From the over-the-top reaction, you might think that reading this book threatens the health of the nation. A group called the Family Policy Institute filed suit, claiming that the university is violating the First Amendment by promoting Islam. Fox’s Bill O’Reilly has taken to the airwaves to complain that the university was teaching “the religion of our enemy.” He compared assigning the Quran to assigning Hitler’s Mein Kampf. Meanwhile, outraged North Carolina legislators just voted to cut off funds for the assignment. One lawmaker declared that students shouldn’t be “required to study this evil.”

Sorting through all of this anger and ignorance is tough. But let’s at least clear away the First Amendment issues. It isn’t unconstitutional for the university to teach about Islam. Sells’ book merely introduces students to material from one of the world’s most influential books. Religious liberty isn’t violated by asking students to read these “early revelations” (especially since the university permits students to complete an alternate assignment if reading the book offends their faith).

Of course, the fact that the assignment is constitutional doesn’t make it above criticism. More reasonable critics have suggested that study of the Quran would make more sense in the context of a course on Islam taught by a qualified teacher. And others have noted (rightly) that in past summers the university hasn’t assigned readings from Christian, Jewish or other scriptures.

The loudest critics, however, could not care less about what the First Amendment says – or how best to teach about Islam or other religions. They seem determined to use this controversy as an opportunity to demonize Islam.

This is dangerous and wrong. But since most Americans know little or nothing about Islam (and since the 9/11 terrorists claimed to be acting in the name of Islam), it’s all too easy to convince people that Islam is an evil and violent faith.

One of the most frequent (and insidious) tactics used to attack Islam is the practice of lifting a few verses out of the Quran to “prove” that Islam promotes violence. But this is a deeply flawed and misleading way to understand the core beliefs and practices of any religious tradition.

During the Civil War era, for example, selected passages from the Bible were frequently used to defend slavery. But many Christians rejected that interpretation, pointing out that the abolition of slavery was required by the core teachings of Jesus Christ.

Taken in context — and understood in the light of a careful study of Islamic history and practice — there is much evidence to suggest that President Bush got it right: For the vast majority of Muslims, Islam is a religion of peace that calls adherents to love of God and compassion toward others.

Islam is not the root cause of the 9/11 attacks, just as Christianity is not the root cause of the violence (on both sides) in Northern Ireland. In both cases — and in many other conflicts throughout history — religious teachings are politicized, distorted and then used as a tool by fanatics to advance their cause.

Shame on O’Reilly (who apparently has no shame), Franklin and everyone else who is using the war on terrorism as an opportunity to promote a simplistic and unfair picture of the Muslim faith.

The best answer to bad speech is good speech. To find out the truth about Islam, speak to your Muslim neighbors, visit your local mosque or Islamic center, read a book about Islam written by a competent scholar.

Watch out, America. Don’t let the war on terrorism become a war on Islam. That would threaten religious liberty at home – and encourage division and violence throughout the world.

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