Bigotry in Islam ? And Here


By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF



http://www.nytimes.com/2002/07/09/opinion/09KRIS.html?todaysheadlines



The Islamic world represses women, spawns terrorism,

is prone to war, resists democracy and has contributed

remarkably few great scientists or writers to modern

civilization. So it's time to defend Islam.



In speaking to Arab friends, I've reproached them for

the virulent anti-Semitism in their societies. But

it's a cheap shot for us to scold Arabs for

acquiescing in religious hatred unless we try

vigorously to uproot our own religious bigotry.



Since 9/11, appalling hate speech about Islam has

circulated in the U.S. on talk radio, on the Internet

and in particular among conservative Christian pastors

? the modern echoes of Charles Coughlin, the "radio

priest" who had a peak listening audience in the

1930's of one-third of America for his anti-Semitic

diatribes. 



"Islam is, quite simply, a religion of war," Paul

Weyrich and William Lind, two leading American

conservatives, write in a new booklet titled "Why

Islam Is a Threat to America and the West." Mr. Lind

said of American Muslims: "They should be encouraged

to leave. They are a fifth column in this country."



Ann Coulter, the columnist, suggested that "we should

invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert

them to Christianity."



The Rev. Franklin Graham, son of the Rev. Billy Graham

and a prominent evangelist in his own right, said of

Islam: "I believe it's a very evil and wicked

religion." The Rev. Jerry Vines, past president of the

Southern Baptist Convention, declared that the Prophet

Muhammad was "a demon-obsessed pedophile."



President Bush set an example of tolerance immediately

after 9/11, but lately has been quiet. He should

denounce the bigotry, rather than (as he did by

speaking to the Baptist convention after the

"pedophile" slur) condoning it. If we want Saudi

princes to confront their society's hate-mongers, our

own leaders should confront ours. 



One problem with this prejudice (as with Osama bin

Laden's) is that it blinds the bigots to any

understanding of what they deride. If Islam were

really just the caricature that it is often reduced

to, then how would it be so appealing as to become the

world's fastest-growing religion?



Islam already has 1.3 billion adherents and is

spreading rapidly, particularly in Africa, partly

because it also has admirable qualities that anyone

who has lived in the Muslim world observes: a profound

egalitarianism and a lack of hierarchy that confer

dignity and self-respect among believers; greater

hospitality than in other societies; an

institutionalized system of charity, zakat, to provide

for the poor. Many West Africans, for example, see

Christianity as corrupt and hierarchical and flock to

Islam, which they view as democratic and inclusive.



One can dispute that, and it's reasonable to worry

about the implications of the spread of Islam for the

status of women and for the genital mutilation of

girls. But simply thundering that Islam is

intrinsically violent does not help to understand it

and picks up on racist and xenophobic threads that are

some of the sorriest chapters in our history.



Of course, Islam is troubled in ways no one can

ignore. The scholar Samuel Huntington has noted that

the Islamic world has "bloody borders," with conflict

around much of its perimeter. Of the 26 countries torn

by conflict in the year 2000, 14 have large Muslim

populations. And on average, Muslim countries mobilize

twice as large a share of the population in armed

forces as do predominately Christian countries.



This is fair grounds for debate, but the sweeping

denigrations of Islam are mush. Critics often quote

from the Koran, for example, to argue that Islam is

intrinsically violent ("fight and slay the pagans

wherever ye find them, and seize them, beleaguer

them"). But the Koran, like the Bible, can be quoted

for any purpose. After all, the New Testament embraces

slavery ("Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear

and trembling"). 



In times of stress, even smart and sophisticated

people tend to be swept up in prejudice. Teddy

Roosevelt said in 1886: "I don't go so far as to think

that the only good Indians are dead Indians, but I

believe nine out of ten are, and I shouldn't inquire

too closely in the case of the tenth. The most vicious

cowboy has more moral principle than the average

Indian."



History suggests that focusing on the moral

deficiencies of other peoples simply underscores our

own. 





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