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A Christian-Muslim Exchange: Islamic Encounters -- Part 3

Fr. Richard John Neuhaus

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"Venomous diatribe." "Hateful xenophobia." "Doing the work of Adolf Hitler." "Agitating for a new crusade." "Obviously mentally ill." Such were among the sentiments expressed in response to my review in the October 1997 issue of Bat Ye'or's important new book recently published in this country, The Decline of Eastern Christianity Under Islam: From Jihad to Dhimmitude (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press). In my comment I indicated the difficulties in establishing a respectful dialogue with contemporary Islam, but it really need not be this difficult.

To be fair, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) should not be taken to represent contemporary Islam. The attack initiated by CAIR produced dozens and dozens of letters from as far away as Australia, some of them accompanied by hundreds of signatures of Muslims who claimed to be deeply offended by the review. The campaign stopped short of issuing a fatwa against the editors, although there was a little nervous joking around here about who would get to open the mail. The campaign obviously had the aim of intimidating into silence anyone who dares to say anything less than complimentary about things Muslim. Just as obviously, such an effort is entirely counterproductive.

Many of the protesters made a point of saying that they were converts to Islam, usually from Christianity, and some had most uncomplimentary things to say about the religion they had left. The spokesman for CAIR stressed, in several telephone conversations, that he is an American-born convert and resents my "instructing" him on how we conduct civil conversation in this country. For all I know his family came over on the Mayflower, but the fact remains that issuing press releases and flooding the internet with condemnations of those with whom one disagrees is not the best way to nurture a constructive dialogue.

The first press release called on the Catholic Church to investigate, disown, and otherwise do something about this renegade priest who had written not nice things about Islam. Amazingly enough, the monsignor who is general secretary of the bishops conference responded to CAIR by distancing the conference from the review in FT and offering assurances of the bishops' exquisite sensitivity and eagerness for dialogue. Quite predictably, CAIR seized upon his letter as the occasion for another press release trumpeting that the bishops of the United States had repudiated my review of Bat Ye'or, which no doubt came as a surprise to the bishops. As it happens, several bishops had indicated to me their appreciation of the review, and my own bishop, Cardinal O'Connor, was entirely supportive. Nonetheless, the letter from the conference secretary created a little flap in the Catholic press. It's not every day that the office of the bishops conference issues a review of a book review or, however inadvertently, makes itself party to an attack on a priest who has editorially displeased a bullying interest group. Of course I am assured that that is not what was intended, but it is a curious little episode that should not be entirely forgotten.

As the Bat Ye'or book underscores, there are very important questions to be engaged in the complicated relationship between Christians, Jews, and Muslims, and I will return to them in due course. Meanwhile, one hopes that everyone will learn from this incident a little something about what is not helpful. For instance, Imam Michael G. Kilpatrick, national president of the Islamic Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, announces his group's support for the CAIR initiative: "We call upon people of the Catholic religion and people of conscience worldwide to condemn Mr. Neuhaus for his extremist attitude toward the religion of Islam and Muslims here in the United States." Strong stuff, that. It is manifest that most of the protesters had not read the item in question, having simply reacted to the alert sent out on the internet (more than half the protests were e-mailed), and quite a few are confused about who wrote the offending article. Some demanded that "Mr. Neuhaus" editorially condemn the author and never let any such thing appear in FT again.

"Beware and be Forewarned..."

Almost all deplored my woeful ignorance of Islam, on which I readily admit I am no expert, and many charged Bat Ye'or, a distinguished scholar, of not knowing what she was talking about. "The fact that she says she is opposed to Muslim-bashing shows that that is what she is doing," one writer insists. It is hard to get an acquittal under such rules. Various parties contributed to my education by sending stacks of books and pamphlets on Islam, and one suggested that I visit a website devoted to educating Americans on Islam, which I did. There I found a discussion of terrorism in which I learned that those who "set themselves up as enemies of God and the Muslims . . . are themselves at least mild terrorists." "If they do so then Muslims have a duty to oppose this force--with force if necessary and if it will be effective and decisive. In this way only those who are themselves 'terrorists' have cause to fear the use of force by Muslims." That was not terribly reassuring.

Mark Bober writes, noting that his Muslim name is Umar Hussam Al Deen and describing himself as "a white American Muslim and former member of the 'Catholic' Church." "I assure you that you are not dealing with the poor folk duped into trinitarianism every other Sunday. Now beware and be forewarned that Islam is on the rise in America as well as around the world." This was typical of many warnings that there is big trouble ahead if we non-Muslims don't watch our step. Ayman Sokkarie of the Islamic Center of South Florida declares, "Let me tell Mr. Neuhaus that Islam will be re-established whether he feared that or not and the world will see how just Islam is and how false all other ideologies are. It is just a matter of time."

Most of the writers expressed particular outrage that I had written that there are probably about two million Muslims in the U.S., half of them being American-born blacks. "Everybody knows," I was instructed, that there are eight million, and one writer asserted that it is "well documented" that there are twelve million. Needless to say, no documentation was supplied. In their 1993 book, One Nation Under God: Religion in Contemporary American Society, based on the largest survey of religious self-identification ever conducted, Barry Kosmin and Seymour Lachman reported that there were 1.5 million Muslims, half being American-born blacks. (They discovered that many people with "Muslim sounding" names turned out to be Christians who had fled the Middle East.) Taking subsequent Muslim immigration into account, my guesstimate was "about two million." Quite possibly there are considerably more. Nobody knows, and the U.S. census does not ask about religion. A reporter at a national newspaper tells me, "We usually say four to six million, which has the merit of warding off protests from Muslim groups. But nobody really knows." The majority of protests received here claim that Islam is the fastest growing religion both in the U.S. and the world, a claim that is very doubtful on both scores. But I am impressed by how important this "triumphalist" reading of history is to many Muslims.

In the review I alluded in passing to the significance of this discussion for politics in the Middle East. For the protesters, this factor is of much more than passing importance. A petition of protest from the Islamic Center of Long Island includes more than three hundred signatures and declares, "It is obvious that such anti-Muslim writers [Bat Ye'or and Neuhaus] want to poison the relations between Muslims and Christians in America and the world for their racist political agenda in Palestine." The echo of the infamous UN resolution on Zionism as racism is, to put it gently, troubling. The reactions to FT are divided between those who present Islam in America as nothing more problematic than another participant in the gorgeous mosaic of American religion and those who present it as a world-conquering force arrayed against everyone else, especially against Jews and their Christian dupes.

For some, Islam is the historic champion of liberal tolerance. One almost expected those letters to be signed by John Stuart Muhammad Mill. For instance, "Islam completely did away with slavery and treated all human beings as equal, despite their race, color, creed, or origin, and treated everybody the same, with respect and brotherhood, from the very beginning, i.e., the seventh century, whereas the West could not do so till the nineteenth century." The key role of Muslims in the African slave trade over the centuries and slavery today in places such as Sudan are conveniently overlooked, as of course is the entire history of "dhimmitude" so carefully documented by Bat Ye'or and others. One may sympathetically try to understand the reasons for such defensive denials of the undeniable, but it does not help the discussion of these matters.

Against Self-Deception

A few protests acknowledge that some Muslims have at times done some bad things, but then quickly add that that has nothing to do with Islam. This, too, is understandable. Some Christians have done horrible things over the centuries, and we Christians insist that Christianity should not be judged by what they did--or by what some still do. The facial symmetry between Islam and Christianity in this regard does not bear close examination, however. Contra secularist claims, the liberal democratic tradition is in largest part the product of Christianity, especially the Christian imperative of self-criticism and openness to the other. It is no accident, as our Marxist friends used to say, that liberal democracy and constitutional government arose in cultures that understood themselves to be Christian. To date, there have not been similar developments in Islamic societies. This does not mean that Islam is necessarily incompatible with liberal democracy, although some who protested what I wrote do not disguise their contempt for democracy and other alleged diseases of what they view (with some justification) as the decadent West.

These are excruciatingly difficult questions. We cannot allow our consideration of Islam to be dominated by much that is today done in the name of Islam. At the same time, we deceive ourselves and do not help anyone if we join those Muslims who excuse or deny what is done. An editorial in Strategic Review of Fall 1997 notes that, of the almost one billion Muslims in the world, there is a radically politicized faction, and in that faction there are those who are prepared to sacrifice their lives by suicide in waging what they believe to be a war of the children of light against the children of darkness.

"Where the United States is concerned, the cost has already been unacceptably high. The suicide bombing of the Beirut-American headquarters in October of 1993--241 U.S. servicemen killed; Pan American Flight #103 at Lockerbie, Scotland, where 250 were killed; the Khobar Towers residence at Dharan in Saudi Arabia--19 Americans killed and 118 wounded; the World Trade Center in New York, where 19 were killed and 500 injured. And now, by sheer good luck, a frightened Middle Easterner led the New York police to two suicide bombers, complete with five bombs. One was killed while attempting to detonate his bomb. Their aim was to attack the busiest subway junction in New York City. It is plain that the terrorism crescendo is growing. It has reached the United States and we are doing too little to control it."

Of course it is necessary to guard against alarmism, but it would be foolish to deny the legitimate concern about Islamic terrorism (meaning terrorism committed by Muslims and claiming to be inspired by Islam) both here and elsewhere in the world. At this point a discussion that is already dicey gets dicier. The executive director of CAIR, Mr. Nihad Awad, writes me: "In view of Mr. Emerson's past history of false and defamatory attacks on the American Muslim community and on CAIR, we would consider the irresponsible repetition of his unsupported charges as evidence of 'actual malice' on your part. Similarly unsubstantiated charges from other sources, published with reckless disregard for the truth, would be regarded in the same light."

A Matter of Credibility

I expect the lawyers would tell me that CAIR is threatening to sue if I mention charges by Mr. Emerson and others. Since I may have already crossed the line by quoting Mr. Awad's letter, I might as well go ahead--with utmost responsibility and careful regard for the truth, and certainly without malice. Steven Emerson has written in the Wall Street Journal and elsewhere about the entanglement of Muslim groups in this country with terrorist groups, such as Hamas, in the Middle East. I have read with care a packet of materials sent by CAIR, attacking Emerson and others who allege that CAIR is, at least indirectly, supportive of terrorist activities. I have also read with care the charges against CAIR. Satisfactorily sorting out all the details would require that I devote the rest of my life to the study of Middle East politics and the connection with certain Muslim groups in the U.S., and even then I would surely not get to the bottom of things. My best judgment is that the critics of CAIR are credible and that CAIR is less than candid about its connections with the politics of the Middle East. Confidence in CAIR is not enhanced by its hamfisted efforts to intimidate and silence its critics.

Turning from CAIR itself to the criticisms generated by its campaign, one is struck by the importance of the Jewish factor. In some instances, this is chiefly a matter of animus toward Israel. Others, however, give expression to a poignant desire for Muslims in this country to be recognized, along with Christians and Jews, as full partners in America's religious triumvirate. This, too, is perfectly understandable. Some were upset by my reference to the Judeo-Christian tradition, and many were outraged by my speaking of "the delusion that a Muslim-Christian dialogue can be constructed on a basis more or less equivalent to the Jewish-Christian dialogue of recent decades." In fact, it is pointed out, Muslims have in several parts of the country joined local Jewish-Christian dialogues, and everyone gets along very nicely. I do not doubt it.

There are dialogues and then there are dialogues. Some Jewish-Christian dialogues are exercises in niceness, pretending that differences make little or no difference. To such dialogues Muslims, or for that matter almost anyone else, can be invited without difficulty. Then there is dialogue that is in service to the truth, and the truth is that Islam is not to Christianity what Judaism is to Christianity. For starters, Islam is not, as Judaism is, an integral part of the Christian understanding of the story of salvation. In view of the attention given in these pages to Jewish-Christian relations, I assume readers can readily come up with other differences that make a big difference. Does this mean there should not or cannot be Muslim-Christian dialogue? The answer is emphatically in the negative. Such dialogue becomes increasingly imperative, and we must hope it will become increasingly possible with Muslims who recognize the wrongheadedness of reactions such as that orchestrated by CAIR.

An Opening Comment

Among the numerous responses to the internet alert is a letter by AbdulraHman Lomax, an American convert to Islam in Sonoma, California, and addressed to other Muslims. "Scholarly and respectful replies to the article [in FT] would be helpful. Hostile or disrespectful comments would be counterproductive and harmful to the image of the Muslim community." After responding to specific assertions in the article, Mr. Lomax notes my statement that "I am convinced we must do everything we can to nurture constructive relations with Islam" and he writes, "We are obligated to take Neuhaus at his word. Perhaps we can take his article as an opening comment in a dialog which will ultimately clear the air. Before they can develop a deep communication, friends sometimes must air the grievances and fears that have been kept hidden, and, in the light of open conversation, these can be relieved." The people at CAIR forwarded his letter. One wishes they had followed his counsel.

Not long ago, Prof. David F. Forte of Cleveland-Marshall College of Law testified before a congressional committee on Islam and human rights. The subject was what some call Islamic fundamentalism (an unhappy term that imposes an American Protestant experience on Islam), what others call Islamism (a term mainly limited to scholars), and what yet others refer to simply as radical Islam (which, it is objected, is radically un-Islamic). It is the Islam of terror and despotism, and, whatever it is called, Forte says it is a heresy. "It has gained the reins of power in Iran and the Sudan. It threatens Algeria, Bangladesh, Egypt, even Saudi Arabia. It cows a timid government in Pakistan to accede to its program. It persecutes minorities, particularly Christians. But its real objective is to steal the soul of Islam, to change that great religion's tradition of art, culture, learning, and toleration into its own image of rigid and tyrannical power."

It is for Muslims to protect "the soul of Islam." We can help by not equating Islam with the evil done in the name of Islam, while, at the same time, not letting an "ideal" Islam obscure the Islam of historical and contemporary fact. We can help by recognizing the diversity within Islam and the claims made for its more humane social expression in places such as Indonesia, while not forgetting that country's massacre of Christians in Timor, and not forgetting the politics of Islam in the lands mentioned by Prof. Forte. We can help by reaching out to Muslims here in America, in the hope of engaging within the bonds of civility our commonalities and differences, always, as St. Paul says, speaking the truth in love. And we can help by informing ourselves through the reading of books such as Bat Ye'or's The Decline of Eastern Christianity Under Islam: From Jihad to Dhimmitude.

A Christian-Muslim Exchange: Islamic Encounters -- Part 3

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