Challenging ignorance on Islam: A ten-point primer for Americans

By Gary Leupp

"We should invade [Muslim] countries, kill their
leaders and convert them to Christianity." 

Columnist Ann Coulter, National Review Online, Sept.
13, 2001 

"Just turn [the sheriff] loose and have him arrest
every Muslim that crosses the state line." Rep. C.
Saxby Chambliss (R-GA), chairman of the House
Subcommittee on Terrorism and Homeland security and
Senate candidate, to Georgia law officers, November

"Islam is a religion in which God requires you to send
your son to die for him. Christianity is a faith where
God sent his Son to die for you." Attorney General
John Ashcroft, interview on Cal Thomas radio, November

"(Islam) is a very evil and wicked religion wicked,
violent and not of the same god (as Christianity)."
Rev. Franklin Graham, head of the Billy Graham
Evangelistic Association, November 2001. 

"Islam is Evil, Christ is King." 

Allegedly written in marker by law enforcement agents
on a Muslim prayer calendar in the home of a Muslim
being investigated by police in Dearborn, Michigan,
July 2002. 

People with power and influence in the US have been
saying some very stupid things about Islam and about
Muslims since September 11. Some of it is rooted in
conscious malice, and ethnic prejudice that spills
over into religious bigotry. But some is rooted in
sheer historical and geographical ignorance. This is a
country, after all, in which only a small minority of
high school students can readily locate Afghanistan on
the map, or are aware that Iranians and Pakistanis are
not Arabs. As an educator, in Asian Studies, at a
fairly elite university, I am painfully aware of this
ignorance. But I realize it serves a purpose. It is
highly useful to a power structure that banks on
knee-jerk popular support whenever it embarks on a new
military venture, at some far-off venue, on false
pretexts immediately discernable to the better
educated, but lost on the general public. The
generally malleable mainstream press takes care of the

I don't mean to suggest that the academic cognosenti,
as a "class," habitually counter this ignorance and
protest the imperialist interventions that Washington
routinely undertakes. Some of them may indeed support
the venture, cynically asserting that the advertised
pretext fulfills some sort of valid function,
regardless of the lies and distortions that surround
it. (I think of the depiction in the media of the
"Rambouillet Accords" concerning Yugoslavia in 1999 as
"the will of the international community," when one
Contact Group member, Russia, rejected the US-dictated
plan for Kosovo outright, and several European states
only signed on after their arms were twisted nearly
out of their sockets. I think of the calculated,
extreme exaggeration of the number of Kosovar victims
of Serbian forces as the bombing of Yugoslavia began.
The lies surrounding that bombing were obvious to
anyone studying the situation, but even some rather
progressive academics were all for "Operation Allied 
Force.") American academe is---unfortunately---
whatever its right-wing critics may contend, not
particularly left or anti-imperialist. In any case,
such ignorance is not just a national embarrassment;
it's really dangerous. Raw material for a made-in-USA
version of fascism. 

To understand the contemporary world, we all need to
know something about Islam-beyond the inane
contribution of the Attorney General cited above. So I
have prepared this little primer on Islam for
Americans (suitable for ages 13 and above, so
appropriate for high school use), dealing not with its
theology so much as its general character as an
important force in the world, presently encountering
unprecedented, unprincipled attack from various
quarters. (Oh, and by the way, I'm not a Muslim, but
what those on the Christian right revile as a "secular

1. Islam has been around for approximately 1400 years.
Established on the west coast of Arabia 900 years
before European settlement in America, and spreading
rapidly throughout Southwest Asia and North Africa
soon thereafter, it was not designed as an anti-US

The basic teachings or requirements of Islam are not
difficult to grasp. They constitute the "Five Pillars
of Islam": (1) profession that there is no God but God
("Allah," in Arabic), and his Prophet (the last of the
prophets, the "seal of the prophets") is Muhammad; (2)
daily prayer; (3) fasting during the month of Ramadan;
(4) charity; and (5) the pilgrimage to Mecca. Whatever
you may think of this package, it's not terribly
threatening to the non-Muslim. 

2. Islam's teachings are contained in a fairly compact
book, the Qur'an, which Muslims believe was dictated
to the Prophet Muhammad by the archangel Gabriel. They
believe of it precisely what Jews and Christians
believe of their scriptures: that is, it's the Word of
God. This book, like the Bible, demands belief in
monotheism; refers to Adam, Noah, Abraham, Jesus, etc.
(far more space is given to Mary, mother of Jesus, in
the Qur'an than in the New Testament); has a
substantial legalistic component reminiscent of the
Old Testament Book of Leviticus, and poetic content as
beautifully uplifting as the Book of Psalms. For
religious and secular scholars alike, it is absolutely
clear that Islam stems from the Judeo-Christian
tradition. Indeed, we should think in terms of the
"Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition." 

(Some fundamentalist Christians, of course, see Islam
as the work of Satan, and medieval Christians in
Europe saw it as a heresy rather than as "paganism.
The point is---for better or worse---Muslims have a
whole lot more in common with the dominant religious
trends in the US than do, say, Buddhists or Hindus.) 

3. Muslims are about 20% of the world's population;
Christians, about 30%. (The US Muslim population is
estimated between 5 and 8 million; US Jews between 5
and 6 million). The global Jewish population is
statistically quite small, so one can say the
Judeo-Christian-Islamic population is roughly half the
world's total. The consequences of a protracted
religious war, pitting Christians and Jews against
Muslims, are highly unpleasant to consider. 

4. The Qur'an depicts Jews and Christians as "People
of the Book," meaning that they have their own
scriptures bestowed upon them by God (Allah is simply
the Arabic world for God, related to the Hebrew
Elohim; we should see it as analogous to the German
word Gott, the French Dieu, or the Spanish Dios. It's
not the personal name of a deity within a pantheon,
like Thor, Aphrodite or Siva.) 

Muslim scripture counsels respect for these
communities, and indeed, in the history of Islam,
within Islamic societies Jews and Christians have
fared FAR better than non-Christians in Christendom.
Muslims ruled all or part of Spain from around 800 to
the late 15th century, when Columbus' great patrons,
King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella "drove the Moors
(Muslims) out of Spain," forced everybody to embrace
Catholic Christianity (or be killed), and promoted the
exquisite Christian tortures of the Inquisition. Under
Muslim rule, Christian and Jewish communities
generally flourished from Spain to Iraq. On the other
hand, until recent times, Christian intolerance
prevailed throughout Europe. 

5. The Qu'ran does NOT call upon Muslims to KILL all
non-Muslims. It calls for the destruction of
"infidels," meaning principally Arabs who, during the
time of Muhammad, practiced idolatry and polytheism.
Again: this is a seventh-century book, produced in a
specific historical context! It, and the Muslim
religion, should be studied and understood
objectively, dispassionately. Islam emerged very
quickly, and within decades united under its
banner-the banner of monotheism---the various tribes
of Arabia. Its violent rejection of idolatry, however
offensive to the modern, secular, humanist mind, is
hardly unique. It can be compared to the ferocious
suppression in Christian Europe of paganism (often
associated with witchcraft). 

And for perspective, while the Qu'ran does call for
the extermination of "infidels," the Old Testament is
replete with its own exhortations to genocide.
According to the Biblical narrative (of dubious
historicity, but believed by hundreds of millions),
the Hebrews under Joshua's leadership, invading Canaan
from Egypt, killed twelve thousand "men and women
together" in the town of Ai-because God wanted them to
(Joshua 8:25). The Hebrews put all the people of Hazor
to the sword (they "wiped them all out; they did not
leave one living soul." Judges 11:14). The poetics of
hatred are as conspicuous in the Bible as in the
Qu'ran. A personal favorite of mine, from Psalm 137,
refers to the Babylonians: "A blessing on him who
takes and dashes your babies against the rock!" Such
references are characteristic of
Judeo-Christian-Islamic literature, and are best
examined in historical perspective. 

6. Islamic "fundamentalism" is not a species apart
from other fundamentalisms, including the Christian,
Jewish, and Hindu varieties. They are all anti-modern,
anti-science, anti-intellectual, rarely harmless and
potentially (if not necessarily) fascistic. They
demand belief in received dogma, inscribed in texts,
rather than open-ended scientific inquiry. They either
legitimate the existing order, or call for a return to
a past social order in which class and gender
relations were properly sorted out in line with the
Divine Will. 

Some (including non-religious people in or from Muslim
countries) criticize Islam (appropriately, in my view)
for what they consider backward and reactionary
features. This is not the place to deal with such
criticisms, nor am I the right person to do it. I will
merely observe what many others have observed:
Christendom underwent the Enlightenment-an evolution
towards secularism, rationalism, and scientific
thought in the seventeenth and eighteenth
centuries-which the Islamic world, in general, has not
yet experienced. To become "modern" (more
specifically, to become capitalist), the West had to
become more ideologically tolerant (i.e., less
religious), and allow a freer market in ideas than had
been possible when the Church monopolized learning. If
mullahs monopolize education in much of the Muslim
world, they serve a function identical with that of
Europe's medieval Catholic clergy. 

But our own Enlightenment is not irreversible. Top US
officials reject the theory of evolution in favor of
the ludicrous "theory" of "creationism," and seek to
criminalize abortion on the grounds that a fetus is a
human being created by God. Recent changes in US law
(allowing the use of vouchers to support religious
schools at taxpayer's expense), and the failure of the
courts to prosecute behavior which plainly violates
the constitutional separation of church and state,
demonstrate that medieval thinking and fundamentalism
retain a strong hold in sections of US society, and
are well represented in the Bush administration. The
American people are, I submit, far more threatened by
Christian fundamentalism than its Islamic counterpart.
And for a Pentecostalist Christian like John Ashcroft,
who believes every word of the Bible literally, to
inveigh against Islam (as he has) is (to use the
English proverb) the "pot calling the kettle black." 

7. Islamic fundamentalism (or what some, including CNN
Moneyline's Lou Dobbs calls "Islamism," meaning a
specifically political Islam) has NOT, historically,
posed a great threat to Western interests (by which I
mean corporate, oil, and geopolitical interests) but
rather been exploited to SERVE those interests.
Remember Lawrence of Arabia? What was his objective
other than to forge a British alliance with the
Hashemites, who would certainly qualify as "Islamists"
by Lou Dobb's standards, during World War I? Later,
the British boosted the Saudi royal family (patrons of
the Wahhabi school of Islam, usually described as
among the most conservative, embraced by Osama bin
Laden as well as the Saudis in general) into power.
The US inherited Saudi Arabia as a client state after
World War II, and we all know how well US oil
companies have done there ever since. (Aramco alone,
prior to its nationalization in the mid-1980s, yielded
some $ 3 trillion from the Arabian reserves.) 

The US helped create, recruit, and finance the
fundamentalist Mujahadeen, including some 30,000 young
volunteers who came from throughout the Muslim world
to fight "godless Communism" in Afghanistan in the
1980s. The US encouraged them to view their war as a
jihad (in the sense of a "Holy War," a meaning the
term usually does NOT carry), and put many in contact
with young Osama bin Laden, then an ally. The Reagan
administration was in love with fundamentalist Islam,
so long as it served its purposes. 

The California-based company Unocal was cordially
negotiating right up to Sept. 11 with Afghanistan's
Taliban for an oil pipeline through Afghan territory,
State Department official and oilman Zalmay Khalilzad
was arguing up through 1998 that the Taliban were
friendly, potential business partners who did "not
practice the anti-US style of fundamentalism practiced
in Iran." 

8. Muslims of the world have many thoroughly
LEGITIMATE reasons to resent US policy. Nearly
absolute support for the settler state of Israel in
its relationship with the indigenous Palestinian
people. Imposition of brutal sanctions on Iraq,
contrary to logic and morality. Maintenance of bases
throughout the Persian Gulf, in defiance of local
sensibilities and interests. Support for brutal
regimes, including that of the Shah of Iran and that
of Indonesia's Suharto (who unquestionably has more
blood on his hands than even that arch-villain and
former US buddy Saddam Hussein). 

9. Muslims typically DO NOT hate the US as an abstract
concept, reject US culture in toto, or seek the
destruction of American civilization. Many are,
indeed, uncomfortable with some aspects of American
behavior, as are most people in the world, from
Central America to Japan. But a Zogby International
poll, released June 11 of this year, shows that in
nine Muslim countries, including Bangladesh and
Malaysia, the most admired foreign country is the US 

10. Muslims and Jews in Palestine/Israel have NOT
always hated one another, and the current Middle East
conflict does NOT go back many centuries. Rather, it
began with the influx of foreign Jews into the region
after World War I, which became a flood as a result of
the Holocaust, and with international support resulted
in the formation of Israel as a specifically Jewish
state in 1948. Jewish settlement and terrorism
(well-documented by the Jewish Israeli historian Ilan
Pappe) resulted in the displacement of 750,000
Palestinian Arabs (including both Christians and
Muslims). The Arab-Israeli conflict is not,
fundamentally, about Islam, or a clash between Islam
and other faiths, but about this-worldly land
grabbing, settlement, dispossession and oppression
that has enraged the Muslim world, as it should enrage
any thinking, moral human being. Unfortunately,
fundamentalist Christians in this country tend to
depict this history of injustice as the fulfillment of
Biblical prophecy, and they will brook no dissent when
it comes to the Zionist cause that they have embraced
as their own. ("God gave them the land, so don't
bother me with historical details. End of
discussion.") Hard to imagine a delusion more
injurious to world peace and to the cause of justice. 

Finally: In understanding Islam, Americans should give
some thought to one of the pivotal episodes in world
history, the Crusades, or Wars of the Cross, that
ripped up the Holy Land between 1096 and 1291. During
these two centuries, European Christians seeking to
"win back for Christendom" territory that had fallen
to the Muslim Turks-territory that had been ruled by
Muslims since the early seventh century anyway, on
terms generally agreeable to Jews and Christians as
well as Muslims-committed unspeakable atrocities. In
July 1099 Jerusalem was conquered, the Roman Catholic
soldiers massacring all the Muslim and Jewish
inhabitants, including women and children. Nor was the
Crusaders' zeal exhausted upon non-Christians;
frustrated at lack of success in Palestine in 1204,
they instead sacked Constantinople (modern Istanbul),
then the center of Eastern Orthodoxy. In comparison,
the behavior of the Muslim armies was chivalrous, the
twelfth-century Kurdish leader Saladin in particular
winning high praise from Christians and Muslims alike
for his humanity. 

The Islamic world remembers the Crusades; George Bush,
like many Americans, is clueless about them. Hence his
amazingly dim-witted reference to the "War on
Terrorism" as a "Crusade" last September 16-a
statement that produced immediate, widespread outrage
in the Muslim world. No offense intended, no doubt.
But such ignorance, in action, in a world where
religious prejudice generates idiotic action from
Belfast, to the Balkans, to Gujarat, to the Moluccas,
is perilous ignorance indeed. 

Gary Leupp is an an associate professor, Department of
History, Tufts University and coordinator, Asian
Studies Program He can be reached at:


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