Let's Not Paint Islam with a Broad Dark Brush

The appalling and barbaric activities of the so-called Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL), coupled with the recent murders in France and increased terrorist threats worldwide, have unleashed a very widespread Islamophobia, particularly in the United States. President Obama has been severely criticized for refusing to identify this wave of barbaric activity as "Islamic." Turn on any television talk show and you can now hear commentators saying that there is something dark and demonic at the very heart of Islam and the Koran that seeks to torture and destroy the "Infidel" indiscriminately; that Islam seeks worldwide dominion (a renewed Caliphate); that Muslims are natural terrorists and the sooner we all realize this the more likely we are to keep our heads.

This is paranoia. And dangerous nonsense.

Don't get me wrong. I know there are thousands, even hundreds of thousands of radical Muslims worldwide, perhaps even a few millions, who are determined to attack non-Muslims (Jews, especially Zionists; Israel; Christians in "Islamic" lands; the secularists of western Europe; and the Great Satan itself, the United States). Some of these radicals operate inside the United States. More are trying to come. Some are embedded in our military. They are perpetrating their sadistic crimes in the name of a certain strain of Islam, and they are finding justification for their thuggery in they way they interpret some verses in the Koran.

Even though the American people are suffering from severe Middle East fatigue, and we are heartily sick of the nightmare of that portion of the globe (a nightmare we have helped to create and exacerbate), I believe we are going to have to find the resolve to join a coalition of other civilized nations, including Jordan and Iran, to crush ISIS and its cousins with whatever force is necessary to make them disappear. If we do not, we are likely to pay a severe price at home and abroad.

But we should not regard ISIS as Islam any more than we should regard the Irish Republican Army as Ireland.

You would think it would need hardly be said that the overwhelming majority of Muslims worldwide, something approaching 99.99%, are perfectly peaceful people going about their lives in ways startlingly similar to the way we go about our lives. They live in houses. They cook meals. They visit shops to buy what they need. They love their children and want the best for them. They attend religious services. They engage in sport. They are as appalled by ISIS as we are, and nearly as bewildered.

It would be a tragic mistake for us to paint all Muslims with a broad, bigoted, intolerant, and reductionist brush. When Timothy McVeigh brought down the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995, we did not brand all people of the rural heartland as anarchists and kooks, even though thousands of peaceful and law-abiding people shared some of McVeigh's critique of the government of the United States. Just because some thousands of Mormons (or rather, people of Mormon heritage) practice polygamy, and thousands of monogamous Mormons feel sympathy with that practice, we don't brand Mormonism as a polygamous religion. Al Capone was a gangster. He was not Chicago. He was not capitalism. He was not America. Just because the Reverend Pat Robertson said that the 9-ll attacks were God's retribution for abortion, homosexuality, and separation of church and state, we don't dismiss all evangelical preachers as out of touch with basic reality. ISIS is not Islam. It is a tiny virulent strain of "Islam." It must not be allowed to discredit or tarnish Islam. All responsible Muslim clerics have a duty, in my opinion, to repudiate the rhetoric and barbarism of ISIS with unambiguous condemnation.

I have good Muslim friends in Chicago. They are Palestinian Americans. They both have good professional jobs. She's an educator. He works in media. They have one child, a boy, another on the way. They drive SUVs, own a nice house, go to movies, watch over their aging parents, get traffic tickets, worship in moderation, shop at malls, spend time when they can with their large extended family. They believe in the American Dream.

Hmmm. Just like us.

They are not particularly fond of Israel ("the Zionist State"). They decry many of America's foreign policies, particularly with respect to Israel and the Middle East. But they are sickened by what radical Islamic groups are doing all over the world. More than that, the see that this recent wave of barbarism might lead to a backlash against the more than one billion Muslims worldwide who are perfectly peaceful and law-abiding. Nothing could convince my friends to commit an act of violence against non-Muslims—or against anyone else. Like the rest of us they were appalled by 9-11. Unlike the rest of us, they spent many subsequent months frightened for their safety in the United States. They were, and are, subject to violent denunciations by perfect strangers. They understood why some Muslims in the rest of the world cheered as the World Trade Center's towers came down, but they did not condone such "celebrations."

Even the Muslims of the most volatile regions of the Middle East tend to differentiate Americans from official American policy. One of the most fascinating moments in John Hockenberry's 1996 memoir Moving Violations: War Zones, Wheel Chairs, and Declarations of Independence, is when he attends the funeral of the Ayatollah Khomeini (June 11, 1989) in a wheel chair. More than a million people were in the streets of Tehran shouting "Death to America, Death to the Great Satan." As Hockenberry struggled to move forward through a sea of angry Muslims, those around him invariably stopped their shouting to offer friendly greetings and help move his wheelchair along through the mass. Then they resumed their anti-American slogans.

They don't "hate us because we are free." Most Muslims don't hate us at all. Those who do hate us tend to point to specific foreign policy concerns: economic colonialism, the military-petroleum-Hollywood complex, and principally our seemingly uncritical support for Israel. Hate has many expressions. Violence is very seldom one of them. The overwhelming majority of Muslims are perfectly peaceful. Just like you.

Islam is one of the world's great religions. It is monotheistic. It has in its 1400-year history generated great architecture, great city planning, beautiful and at times profound literature, a large body of pure science, philosophy, and theology, and a deep respect for the stability of family. When Europe was lost in a morass of ignorance and illiteracy, Islamic scholars and clerics kept alive the work of Aristotle and countless other ancient writers. True, there are pockets of darkness in today's Islam, and to a certain extent the great world religion "seems" to have been hijacked by small numbers of vicious extremists and nihilists to justify their rage against the West (not to mention Islamists of a different stamp). But there are pockets of darkness in Christianity, too. And in Judaism. And in Hinduism. And in Rotary and Chambers of Commerce, for that matter.

The worst thing we could do is lump all Muslims into one grim box. It's not accurate. It's not fair. It's not in keeping with our Bill of Rights. It's not in keeping with the deepest ideals of the American tradition. Above all, it's counterproductive to the goal—which is to enjoy peace and security no matter where we happen to live or travel.

We all know these things. We have to practice them with good sense and moral courage.