Monday, July 09, 2007

When Will Leaders Understand Islam ?

The fact that Islam is more than religion continues to escape the average American, including our president. Note his oft repeated words at the recent rededication of The Islamic Center in Washington, DC June 27, 2007: “The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. That's not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace. These terrorists don't represent peace. They represent evil and war.”

Now, in the aftermath of 9/11/2001, we need to realize that Islam is much more than a religion. It is not just a set of beliefs and a code of ethics that govern the life of individuals and their families. Our president referred with admiration to the OIC (Organization of the Islamic Conference) which represents 55 Islamic countries. That should be proof enough of the politicization of Islam . Here is what the scholar Bernard Lewis had to say about this point:

“In the modern world, the political role of Islam, internationally as well as domestically, differs significantly from that of its peer and rival, Christianity. The heads of state or ministers of foreign affairs of the Scandinavian countries and Germany do not from time to time foregather in a Lutheran summit conference. Nor was it customary when the Soviet Union still existed, for its rulers to join with those of Greece and Yugoslavia and, temporarily forgetting their political and ideological differences, to hold regular meetings on the basis of current adherence to the Orthodox Church. Similarly, the Buddhist nations of the East and Southeast Asia, the Catholic nations of South America, do not constitute Buddhist or Catholic blocs at the United Nations, nor for that matter in any other of their political activities.

“The very idea of such a grouping, based on religious identity might seem to many modern western observers absurd or even comic. But it is neither absurd nor comic in relation to Islam. Some fifty-five Muslim governments, including monarchies and republics, conservatives and revolutionaries, practitioners of capitalism and disciples of various kinds of socialism, friends and enemies of the United States, and exponents of a whole spectrum of shades of neutrality, have built up an elaborate apparatus of international consultation and even, on some issues, of cooperation. They hold regular high level conferences, and despite differences of structure, ideology and policy, have achieved a significant measure of agreement and common action.” p. 26 The Multiple Identities of the Middle East, by Bernard Lewis.

During the modern era, several European nations colonized large areas of the Muslim world, thus gaining a direct knowledge of Islam. During the early and late Middle Ages, it was Muslims who colonized several European countries. The Arab-Islamic conquest of Spain began in 710, and lasted until 1492! Most of Central and Eastern Europe came under Islamic rule for hundreds of years.

The first American military encounter with Muslims occurred soon after independence. The pirates of Tripoli terrorized maritime trade in the Mediterranean, so the U.S. Navy had to deal with them. Then, early in the 19th century, American missionaries entered several Middle East provinces of the Ottoman Turkish Empire. They built schools and hospitals, and played a big role in the renaissance of Arab culture. As a result of their presence, national Protestant churches were also formed.

It was after World War II that the United States got very involved in the Muslim world. Oil was discovered in Saudi Arabia in the 1930s, and U.S. oil companies were the first to develop and market it. When the French and British pulled out of the area in the aftermath of World War II, it was the United Sates that sought to fill the vacuum.

A leading expert on the history of the Arabs and of Islam was the late Lebanese/American Philip Hitti, who taught at Princeton University for almost fifty years. His book, Islam: a Way of Life has three parts. Part One, Islam As Religion; Part II, Islam As State; and Part III, Islam As Culture.

This development of Islam into a “way of life,” is rooted in its specific history, a history that is inextricably wedded to its founder, Muhammad. Born in Mecca in 570 AD, he began preaching the absolute unity of God. At the age of forty, in 622, he migrated with his some of his followers to Medina. There, he acted both as Prophet and Statesman. By 632, the year of his death, he had conquered Mecca, and gained the submission of the warring tribes of Arabia. His successors, the Caliphs, began the conquests of the Persian and Byzantine Empires. By 732, the new Arab-Islamic Empire stretched from Spain to India!

After the Mongolian invasion of the Middle East, and the fall of Baghdad in 1252, the newly Islamized Turks took over the cause of Islam and continued its conquests. In 1453, they brought an end to the Byzantine Empire when they overran Constantinople, and changed its name to Istanbul. The Ottoman Turks colonized vast territories of Central and Eastern Europe. They laid their first siege of Vienna in 1529, only twelve years after Martin Luther began the Reformation! Had the Turks succeeded in conquering Austria, the history of the West would have been radically different!

An objective study of the rise and expansion of Islam points to the fact that it spread primarily through the futuhat, i.e., conquests. In fact, Islam regards wars of conquest, as an essential part of the faith, calling them, Jihad. We do not minimize the fact that Islam is a religion, like other religions. It is a theistic religion, teaching that God is both the Creator and the Governor of the world. It has its religious rites and houses of worship, as well as a specific code of ethics. On the other hand, Islam has a political component that is essential for its proper functioning, and the well-being of the community of believers. Muslims must live under “Shari’a,” the Islamic law, and their rulers are expected to enforce it. Since, Islam is religion, politics, and culture in one entity Muslims carry with them the ideal of ultimately establishing an Islamic regime where the rule of Allah takes a concrete shape in the here and now.

As a result of this monolithic view of life, and the theocratic motif that is of the essence of Islam, it has not fostered any sort of societal pluralism among the subject peoples. Islam brought to an end the existence of the church in North Africa. In the Middle East, the one-time Christian majority has over the years become a small and marginalized minority.

“To write and speak honestly about the topic of Islam is not easy. It goes against the spirit of multiculturalism and pluralism that pervade our modern Western civilization. We believe in the freedom of religion, and the US Constitution guarantees this freedom to citizens and residents alike. This is a cornerstone of our way of life. But what if a specific religion brings to America a political baggage that is regarded by it adherents as part and parcel of their faith, but which happens to be incompatible with our modus vivendi? Is it wrong to face this reality a nd discuss it openly, without being charged with racial or religious prejudice? To ignore this subject is tantamount to burying our heads in the sand, and to invite unforeseen troubles in the future.” (Bat Ye’or in The Decline of Eastern Christianity Under Islam)

On June 27th President Bush spoke at The Islamic Center in Washington, DC.
“We need to rally the voices of Muslims who can speak most directly to millions in the Arab world left behind in the movement toward freedom and prosperity, For decades the free world abandoned Muslims in the Middle East to tyrants, and terrorists and hopelessness. This was done in the interests of stability and peace, but the approach brought neither. The Middle East became the incubator for terrorism and despair, and the result was an increase in Muslims’ hostility to the West I have invested the heart of my presidency in helping Muslims fight terrorism, and claim their liberty, and find their own unique paths to prosperity and peace.”

Considering his audience Bush made some rather strange statements which could have been challenged by even the simplest scholar. Since when did we abandon them to themselves? Wouldn’t the slightest move have been considered as meddling with their internal affairs? After a lengthy recitation of all our recent helpfulness in times of natural disasters Bush ended with another enigmatic jumble of words.

“So today, in this place of free worship, in the heart of a free nation, we say to those who yearn for freedom from Damascus to Tehran, you are not bound forever by your misery. You plead in silence no longer. The free world hears you. You are not alone. America offers you its hand in friendship. We work for the day when we can welcome you into the family of free nations. We pray that you and your children may one day know freedom in all things, including the freedom to love and to worship the Almighty God.”
Bassam and Shirley Madany

For complete text from the White House: