There is an interesting form of political correctness that is widespread in the West. It is not new and it’s so prevalent that it almost goes unnoticed. Let me explain. If I were to criticize communism, socialism, authoritarianism, or fascism, or the people who adhere to these beliefs systems, no one would question my right or justification for doing so. They may disagree with me, but not declare that I was wrong to express negative opinions. In other words, political beliefs and systems are fair game for criticism.
However, were I to take the same approach to a religion or its adherents, I might be subject to severe criticism from good-natured, fair-minded people who weren’t even followers of those religions. I might be called intolerant or worse. Now I say this is an issue in the West, because it is not an issue in the Muslim Arab world. In that world there are generally no strictures against being critical of Christianity, Judaism, or any other religion that isn’t Islam. Indeed, there is a widely used name for followers of these religions; they are called “infidels”. It is not a compliment. In fact, in Islam, or to use the politically correct term, in “fundamentalist Islam” (actually Islam is fundamentalist by nature and practice), it is a serious crime to leave Islam for another religion, with many even believing the legal Islamic penalty as ordained by the Quran is death.
Some of this is true not just among “fundamentalists” (not the death penalty part), as I discovered first-hand not long ago. I got to know a group of American Sufis, who practiced a brand of Islam that is as liberal, mystical, and open-minded as any. Yet, these good people who were born Christians and Jews believed that their former religions were severely flawed because they didn’t accept Mohammad as The Prophet. Of course, all religions believe they are supported by the truth, but I had never heard someone tell me that all religions, except one, were essentially wrong. The only other place I had heard about a similar view was the Catholic Church, but they no longer takes such a position. The Sufis also believed it was wrong (or too difficult) to marry a non-Muslim. If liberal-minded Sufis thought this way, I could only wonder what fundamentalists thought.
These thoughts arose partly in reaction to an interesting book review (Chicago Tribune, May 24, 2008) of the book The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century by Steve Coll . The reviewer praises the book as one of a handful of recent books that are necessary reading for anyone trying to understand the origins of the current international crisis. The author is a Pulitzer Prize winner for Ghost Wars about the CIA’s secret operations in Afghanistan. The review makes a number of interesting points about the Bin Laden and the al Saud families and their interconnections. The al Sauds are the creators and rulers of Saudi Arabia, a country that, like the modern state of Israel, only came into existence in the first half of the 20th century.
Rather than paraphrase I’m going to quote the relevant passages: “ What’s most striking about Coll’s book is it’s undidactic but unflinching account of just how rancidly dysfunctional the Saudi royals governance has been….Corrupt, hypocritical, frightened, and inept at everything but self-preservation, the Sauds have essentially looted their country’s foreign-development oil riches, using the bin Ladens to dole out development only when it was absolutely necessary to placate a restive populace.”
The most famous bin Laden, Osama, was a member of an elite high school when he joined the radical Muslim Brotherhood, and like his family he had already adopted the strict Wahabi brand of ultrapuritanical Islam. He was radicalized not primarily in response to America or the west but in reaction to the Sauds and his own family.
The reviewer concludes: “ Finally, Coll’s book makes an important contribution to the contemporary debate by putting to rest the myth that jihadism is fueled by a passion to see justice for the Palestinians. In fact, garden-variety anti-Semitism of the most repellent kind has been part of the Saud/bin Laden axis from the start. Abdul Aziz [the primary founder of Saudi Arabia] was a rabid anti-Semite, although he never met a Jew nor heard of Zionism. Faisal, apparently the best of the Saudi kings because he stole the least, nonetheless peddled every sort of outlandish anti-Semitic conspiracy theory, along with copies of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” [an infamous forgery that supposedly was written by Jewish leaders as the blueprint for the Jewish secret plot to take over the world].”
He ends the review by describing a group in America called the World Assembly of Muslim Youth led by an Osama family member that reaches out to American Muslims with statements such as: “The Jews are enemies of the faithful, God and the angels; the Jews are humanity’s enemies: they foment immorality in this world.” By the way, that man is here on a Saudi diplomatic passport and the quote comes from Wahabi religious materials. From what I can tell, in Saudi Arabia and much of the Arab Muslim world, the quoted statement wouldn’t be considered either radical or controversial.
I began by discussing American Sufis, and I don’t want to suggest that their beliefs made them anti-Semitic. But there does seem to be a connection that can run between thinking a people’s religion is wrong and misguided and despising the people who practice that religion. I believe all too many Muslim Arabs have slid down that slippery slope. We in the West, of course, don’t want to make a similar mistake regarding Islam. Indeed, there exists today in the West an admirable effort to understand the world from which the Islamic terrorists have risen. I applaud that effort. I do not believe in hating those who declare themselves to be your enemy, or anyone else for that matter.
But I also don’t believe that understanding is the same as justifying. It would be extremely naïve to look at the Middle East situation, and world-wide terrorism in general, without taking into consideration the powerful pathological anti-Semitism that has flourished in Arab countries historically. Arab anti-Semitism can be traced all the way back to the time when the Middle Eastern Jews rejected Mohammed as The Prophet while he was alive. Today, while over a million Arabs live in Israel, almost no Jews still live in Arab countries. Many left because they no longer felt welcome.
Obviously, not all Arabs or Muslims are anti-Semitic, but it is always difficult for individuals to resist a pervasive cultural phenomenon—for example, imagine what it would have taken for southerners to resist racism during the time of slavery. Obviously, I’m not advocating we respond to anti-Semitism with anti-Muslim sentiments. On the other hand, just because we are dealing with a religion, especially one where the religious and political are deliberately intermixed (there is no ideal of separation of church and state in Islam), does not mean all criticism is unjustified. I’m advocating looking with an open-mind and an open-heart, but to be willing to see what is real, whether we like it or not. And then perhaps we can find some way to bring positive change to what we don’t like.
An enemy generally says and believes what he wishes. 1788