Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Three Card Mohammad

During the last decade Muslims have been involved in violence in virtually every corner of the world: Manhattan, Madrid, Israel, India, Russia, Holland, Nigeria, Sudan, Cyprus, Kosovo, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, East Timor, and the Philippines – just to name a few off the top of my head. Islam plays a role in this violence in almost all cases. Yet, the level of discourse remains on the superficial level with an absurd banality that makes it more than obscene. “You can’t blame that on Islam because it’s only a few bad apples.” “Not all Muslims are terrorists.” “What about the violent people who aren’t Muslims?”

These kinds of remarks roll off people’s tongue as if they were profound self-evident truths known by even the simplest-minded everyday Joe. But what if someone said the following: “Sixty years ago, not all Nazis killed Jews, don’t over generalize.” “A hundred years ago, not all southern racists lynched blacks – it’s only a few bad applies.” That’s different, you say? “Nazism preaches such things. Racists harbor vicious hate that makes possible the atmosphere of lynching.” And, of course, it would be right to point that out.

But to point to Islam’s nature – its doctrines and history – leaves most people uncomfortable. Most would rather recede to the level of superficial blather. You’ll hear that Islam is just like Christianity, by people who’ve never read a book on Islam. You’ll be told that poverty, psychology, imperialism, male dominance, arid climate and a host of other standard factors are the real or “root causes” - religion being only a cover. Religious ideas – or any ideas – don’t really matter; this principle we are assured is the right … idea on the matter.

One tires of explaining the obvious. However, there is one subtle trick that traps many who try to discuss Islam’s inherent problems. This is a bait-and-switch game. One that moves the focus from the ideology of Islam to the demographic group: Muslims. Islam is understood by analyzing the belief system and asking what would that mean in practice? Muslims, as a nominal demographic group, includes those who practice the religion but it also includes those who merely label themselves “Muslim” out of tradition, respect for family, or fear of being killed as an apostate. Those who are lax or lapsed don’t embody the jihadist practice. And that’s good, of course.

Thus, when you point out that the life of Mohammad – a man who slaughtered, plundered, terrorized, conquered and oppressed – is a harmful example that inspires some Muslims to violence and viciousness, beware of the bait-and-switch: “But not all Muslims are like that.” Now we are focused on the nominal group – not the ideology and its effect when practiced.

If you read about the irrational hate taught in Saudi schools, spewed by religious authorities in Egypt’s mosques, or shouted by religious fanatics in Iran, be ready for the bait-and-switch: “I had an Arab taxi driver the other day who was very helpful.” Don’t laugh. I get this all the time. People mention individual Muslims, who they’ve met, and of course they find they’re normal everyday human beings. By the way, the majority of Arab-Americans are Christian.

The bait-and-switch is an attempt to make you look silly by turning your attention from vicious ideologies to innocuous members of a nominal demographic group. If you remain in the attack mode, you’ll just look stupid. And that’s the hope! By singling out harmless people unfairly, you’ll discredit your analysis. “You can’t say that about 1.2 billion people,” you’ll be told. Of course, there’s virtually nothing you can say about a billion people that goes beyond the superficial.

This game is not new. It was done with communism. “Oh, don’t judge by Stalin; he’s just one bad apple that’s hijacked communism.” After Mao, Brezhnev, Pol Pot, and others, this line wore thin. Over 100 million people died because of communism and a billion more enslaved. It wasn’t an accident. It goes to the very core of the collectivist philosophy that individuals can be disposed of for the greater good of the whole; the ends justify the means.

During the days when intellectuals were in denial about communism you could read the apologetics in magazines like The New Republic (Jan 1940) that denied that Stalin was a reflection of communism. It was “absurd to identify 170,000,000 people with one man,” referring to the people within Russia living under communism and the vicious dictator who ruled over them. But such a demographic observation doesn’t address the failures of communism. Indeed, the editors remained respectful of what they believed were economic progress and positive changes under communism’s first 23 years.

During the 1950s, it was the communists and their fellow travelers who wanted the focus to turn from the ideology and its practice to the individuals – some who were naïve. The idea was to make accusations of “communist” look stupid. Thus, when it turned out that Lucy Ball, as a young woman, enrolled in the Communist Party to please her grandmother (or aunt), the notion that this beloved women could be harmful made it seem silly to even raise questions about communism. Hollywood still uses this tactic to this very day.

However, communism has turned out to be the most destructive social movement in human history. Looking at individuals who may not embody the evil doesn’t change the nature of the horrors of the twentieth century under communist rule.

We need to do two things. We must face the threat of Islam but we must not allow ourselves to demonize a nominal demographic group. Justice requires that we give what is due: to expose what is vicious and praise what is benevolent. Moral integrity requires that we speak out to warn of the dangers that are and respect those who are harmless.

If we fail to face evil, we will suffer. If we exceed our mark and attack the innocent, we become fools and discredit our cause. Don’t fall for the bait-and-switch. Focus on the ideology and its meaning and those that actually put evil idea in practice. There’s much to discuss and learn and we must prepare ourselves to fight this war effectively.