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Things were a lot simpler before Osama bin Laden replaced our own Muhammad Ali as the face of Islam in this country.
Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, many Americans, myself included, have been wrestling with the question of what to make of the religion of Islam. Is it, as President Bush says, a "religion of peace" that has been perverted by extremists? Or is it, as some conservative Christian leaders assert, a force for evil? The Rev. Franklin Graham, son of Billy Graham, has called Islam "a very evil and wicked religion." He later explained he was condemning Islamic extremists, not all Muslims. Then along came the Rev. Jerry Falwell to denounce Islam's founder, Mohammed, as "terrorist."
The one thing I'm sure of is that there are better authorities on Islam than Graham or Falwell. I stumbled upon one in the latest issue of Reason magazine, where Boston Globe columnist Cathy Young puts this debate into an illuminating historical perspective. She reminds us that every belief system, or religion, that lays claim to One Truth, or One God, holds the seeds of violent intolerance. The same questions now being asked about Islam have been asked about Christianity in the past.
Young writes that, as the religious scholar Alex Kronemer has pointed out, "Mohammed was no bloodier a figure than Moses -- and the Bible contains plenty of language no less violent than the Koran's. At one point, Moses takes the Israelites to task for sparing the women and children of a vanquished enemy tribe and instructs them to kill all the male children and all the women, except the virgins, who can be taken as slaves and concubines. Mosaic law also makes idolatry or the worship of other gods a capital offense, along with a host of other crimes, including adultery, cursing one's parents and sodomy."
In his book The Name, Franklin Graham writes, "Islam -- unlike Christianity -- has among its basic teachings a deep intolerance of those who follow other faiths." There is some truth to that. Last week, we saw an ugly example of Islamic intolerance in Kaduna, Nigeria. Violence erupted as thousands of Muslims, who are in the majority, took to the streets to protest plans to hold the Miss World pageant in their country next month. Christian youths retaliated. More than a hundred people were killed in three days of rioting, and another 500 were injured. The violence was terrifying, but it was not terrorism. It was a clash between Muslims and Christians.
However, Christianity has its own history of intolerance."Throughout history," writes Young, "people professing to follow Christ have killed, tortured and persecuted countless men and women (most of them Christians) in the sincere belief that they were not only protecting good Christians from being seduced by heresy but saving their victims' souls from eternal damnation."
Falwell may not want to admit it, but Christianity has had its Taliban moments -- the burning of women accused of being witches, mandatory attendance at sermons, the persecution of Jews and the bloody Crusades, to name a few. As Young reminds us, Martin Luther's 1543 polemic The Jews and Their Lies urged Christian rulers to rid their lands of the "abominable blasphemy" spread by Jews and "act like a good physician who, when gangrene has set in, proceeds without mercy to cut, saw, and burn flesh, veins, bone and marrow." His advice also included "to set fire to their synagogues," destroy their homes and forbid rabbis to teach "on pain of loss of life and limb."
Fortunately, in the past 500 years Christianity has evolved into a more tolerant religion, although it hasn't always lived up to the meaning of the cross. Consider the failure of Protestant churches in the South to confront the evil of racism during the civil rights revolution. The sad truth is that Christianity, as practiced in most Southern churches in those days, was tightly woven into the fabric of racial segregation and racial violence.
The Sunday morning sermons across the South did little or nothing to cool the boiling kettles of hate or to disturb the conscience of Christians as the haters in their midst bombed black churches, terrorized their black neighbors and murdered civil rights workers. The Ku Klux Klan, a twisted band of homegrown terrorists, appropriated the cross, perverted its meaning and made it a flaming symbol of hate. The few ministers who dared to speak out against this terrorism were driven from their pulpits by congregations that included so-called respectable citizens.
That Islam has produced its share of fanatics should come as no surprise. Every religion has its extremists, and there can be no denying that Islam's rigid and intolerant orthodoxy is making the world a more dangerous place.
Young writes: "Searching the texts of various faiths to discover which is the most inherently bellicose may be an interesting exercise, but what's relevant is whether there is something in Islamic culture today that encourages the spread of violent fanaticism. Some scholars who reject attempts to demonize Islam itself nonetheless agree that al-Qaida-style terrorism is not a fringe phenomenon but a reflection of a dangerous and pervasive brand of extremism. Why this extremism has emerged is a complicated question that includes a mix of historical, social, economic and religious factors."
It is a complicated issue -- too complicated to leave to fanatics of any faith. Religion always has been a powerful force in this world, for good and evil. We should never, in the name of tolerance, make the mistake of closing our eyes to the threat of religious extremism, whatever its source.