Disparaging Islam: Who's to Blame?
It is indeed a sad sign of our time that public officials don't think twice before spewing their private venom about other religions and followers of other religions in public, with little regard to the damage it does to their own country, or their own religion. Comments by Malaysia's former Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohammad last October, and the U.S. Undersecretary of Defense, Lieutenant General William Boykin, captured the attention of the world media and were given the resounding reproof that they deserve.
Mahathir, in a speech during the concluding session of a meeting of the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) said, "We (Muslims) are actually very strong, 1.3 billion people cannot be simply wiped out. The Europeans killed 6 million Jews out of 12 million. But today the Jews control this world by proxy. They get others to fight for them." Boykin, in a speech to his fellow Evangelical Christians, described the U.S. peacekeeping campaign that pitted him against Osman Atto, a top lieutenant of General Farah Adeed of Somalia in the early 1990s, as a contest between two Gods. He went on to add, "I knew my God was bigger than his. I knew my God was a real God and his was an idol."
Of the two public officials, Boykin's remarks were most pejorative toward Islam and Muslims, and were repeated on several occasions before fundamentalist Christian audiences. Surprisingly, the reaction of President George W. Bush and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was mild. Bush stated that Boykin was wrong in his comments and they do not reflect the views of his administration. Rumsfeld, on the contrary, was too cavalier in observing that Boykin was exercising his freedom of expression. Neither Bush nor Rumsfeld cared to show any concern as to how the frequent manifestations of religious bigotry of a U.S. Government official would affect America's interests in the world of Islam, where those comments were fully publicized.
Boykin did apologize, but remains in his job. I wonder whether he would have survived in his job if he were to be even half as offensive toward Judaism, Blacks, or any other religious or racial minorities of this country. It is also a sign of how easy it has been in the post-9/11 era to say anything against Islam-no matter how ignorant and hateful-and not worry about its consequences. After all, Franklin Graham has insulted Islam not too long ago and even refused to recant his remarks, much less apologized for them. By the same token, Reverend Jerry Falwell has insulted the Prophet of Islam on more than one occasion. No public denunciation of either of them was made from any U.S. Government official. Graham and Falwell are religious representatives, not of some lunatic fringe, but mainstream Christianity. Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Washington, spoke for millions of American Muslims when he said about Falwell's remarks, "Anybody is free to be a bigot if they want to. What really concerns us is the lack of reaction by mainstream religious and political leaders, who say nothing when these bigots voice these attacks."
President Bush did hear a bit of Muslim criticism when he briefly met with Indonesian Muslim clerics. But I am almost certain even he did not capture the essence of Muslim anger at the frequent vilification of their religion in his own country. Of course, the feelings of anti-Americanism in Muslim countries will be further exacerbated by such a mindless disparagement of their faith in the United States.
In the post-9/11 era, the general response of American Muslims is to lay low and stay aloof of the conventional politics of America. Quite the contrary, this is an era when they must declare that they are just as much a part of the American socio-political milieu as anyone else.
The most potent and constructive way of responding to America's Islamophobes is for American Muslims to come out of their cocoons of political inactivity and alienation and become heavily engaged in the electoral process. Only by electing public officials who are as sensitive to their demands, needs, and political and social sensibilities as they are to those of other ethnic and religious groups can American Muslims flex their political muscles in the electoral arena of this great nation. As a democracy, America understands the numbers game, especially when voters show their approval or repudiation of issues of public policy through massive turnout. And no cause is nobler for American Muslims than to deprive these religious bigots the luxury of insulting Islam or Muslims without any fear of public condemnation, reproof, or recrimination.
Why should there be zero tolerance for any expression of racist or anti-Semitic attitude on the part of public figures, but not for their blatant prejudice and bigotry against Islam? By remaining aloof from conventional politics, American Muslims can only blame themselves for allowing their faith to become an easy prey for the Islamophobes of America.
The Writer is an Independent Strategic Analyst based in Alexandria, VA, U.S.A.