Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, June/July 1997, pg. 36

Speaking Out

The Image of Islam in the West

By Paul Findley

Seven years ago, shortly before his death and 50 years after I had been his student, Malcolm Stewart, a retired professor of ethics and religion at Illinois College, Jacksonville, Illinois, wrote a brief but profound commentary. In response to an article I had written about the need for better understanding between Christians and Muslims, Stewart wrote these words:

"I believe, as expressed by Hans Kung and many others, that there will not be peace in our world until there is peace among the religions of the world. And there will not be peace among the religions until the adherents of the religions come to understand one another. Such understanding seems to me to be crucial in our world today. The expressed purpose of each religion is peace, unity, harmony. It is interesting to speculate what might be accomplished if the religions could only cooperate to achieve their expressed goal."

Professor Stewart also wrote that in the process of establishing cooperation among the major religions "the beginning point is to emphasize the similarities, the likenesses, the agreements, not the differences."

There are, of course, substantial differences in the three greatest monotheistic faith traditions, Islam, Christianity and Judaism. The differences are often cited. There are also vital, fundamental similarities, likenesses and agreements that are of far greater importance than the differences, but the similarities are rarely mentioned, much less emphasized.

The greatest barriers to understanding and cooperation are ignorance and its ugly step-child, bigotry. Despite enormous strides in mass education during the century now coming to a close, and the magic of the information superhighway, ignorance and bigotry remain among the worst enemies of peace.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the realm of religion. U.S. Christians are woefully ignorant and misinformed about Islam.

This reality is profoundly menacing, more so than ever before in history, and to support that rather sweeping declaration I call attention to these factors:

First, the situs of this ignorance and misinformation is the nation with the world's greatest military machine and arms development and procurement complex. From that pinnacle the United States is expected to provide leadership and support in many parts of the world, especially the Middle East. Several of the leading states in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia among them, have looked to the United States for help in defense of borders, as well as vital military equipment, supplies, maintenance and training. Ignorance and bigotry remain among the worst enemies of peace.

Second, the Middle East policies of this military powerhouse are dangerously manipulated by the major source of anti-Islam bias, namely the U.S. supporters of Israel. These supporters routinely exaggerate and often misstate the differences between Islam on one hand and the Christian and Judaic faiths on the other.

To an alarming extent, they engage in a deliberate campaign to defame Islam. It arises from the false and dangerous pretext that Islam threatens Western civilization, which, by their definition, consists mainly of the United States and Israel.

The real reason, I believe, is Israel's perceived need to conjure up and nurture a common enemy in order to maintain unconditional, uncritical U.S. support, politically, militarily, economically and diplomatically. In years past, the Soviet Union was cast as the common enemy of the United States and Israel. That enemy disappeared with the breakup of the Soviet state, and supporters of Israel, urgently needing a new one, fastened on Islam and have undertaken a thorough campaign of defamation ever since.

Israel's U.S. supporters in America constitute a political influence that is unmatched by any other lobbying activity in America. To an alarming extent, the government of the United States, not just the West Bank and Gaza, is Israeli-occupied territory. Since Israel came into being in 1948, with only a few rare and brief exceptions, the U.S. government has provided that state with unqualified aid. In each of the past 30 years the level of aid has been massive and steadily increasing.

The late Ambassador George W. Ball was accurate when he said, "Whenever the Middle East is at issue, Congress behaves like a bunch of trained poodles, jumping through hoops held by Israel's lobbyists." This, sadly, is also true of officials in the executive branch.

Violated Principles

This undeviating, enormous support has occurred despite Israel's gargantuan, sustained violations of the human, political and property rights of Muslims and its racist policies against all non-Jews. In effect, the American people finance a foreign government that violates the most cherished principles of our society.

Third, these U.S. sources of bigotry and misinformation are not even an arm's length from the heartland of Islam, thanks to the information superhighway and other advances in physical sciences.

Like it or not, the people of the United States and the people of Saudi Arabia, and other parts of Islam, once virtually isolated from one another, are now next-door neighbors. Our lives and destiny are inextricably intertwined, and it behooves both sides to find a way to live in harmony, unity and cooperation.

This fact underscores the importance of the question: How is Islam viewed in the West?

In responding, I must explain that my comments will relate almost exclusively to the United States. It is, of course, only a part of the West but, because of its superpower status and unique relationship to Israel, a very important part. I will offer generalizations, recognizing that numerous exceptions can be cited to each.

Also, as a Christian, my observations relate mainly to the reaction of Christian Americans. The reaction of Jewish Americans I can measure only as a bystander.

When I lecture in the United States, I sometimes begin by asking individuals in the audience what comes immediately to mind when the word Muslim is mentioned. Almost always the answer is terrorism. In public discourse, the words Muslim and terrorism are linked together. The linkage is false and offensive of course, but it recurs nevertheless.

The sad, harsh reality is that most Americans view Islam with concern, if not alarm.

Muslims are seen as the most common source of terrorism and senseless violence.

Muslims are almost always portrayed as the bad guys, Jews as the victims.

Muslims are viewed as worshippers of an alien deity, intolerant of other religions and eager to use physical force to expand Islam.

Muslims are often cited as a sinister threat to representative democracy and the U.S. Constitution, and many Americans question their basic loyalty as U.S. citizens.

Islam is considered by many normally well-informed people as anti-Jewish and biased in favor of African Americans.

This is because their impression of Islam is heavily influenced by Minister Louis Farrakhan, leader of the organization called the Nation of Islam. Farrakhan's primary interest is an understandable focus on the plight of African Americans, and my impression is that Muslims generally, including many of African ancestry, question the legitimacy of his identification with Islam.

But because Farrakhan is the only personality appearing frequently on U.S. network television who presents himself as a Muslim, it is not surprising that many Americans mistakenly identify Islam with his primary focus on the problems of African-Americans. Moreover, Farrakhan is frequently reported as expressing anti-Jewish and bigoted comments. When this happens it is not surprising that poorly informed Americans conclude that these expressions accurately reflect Islam.

Most Americans believe that Islam subjects women to harsh and demeaning discrimination and relegates them to a status inferior to men. Little is being done to counter these false images.

Muslim Americans, although the second largest and fastest growing religious community, have not yet become a significant influence on public policy, and they have only begun to defend Islam from negative stereotyping. No Muslim occupies an elective office or a prominent appointive position in the entire federal government or in any state government.

Many Muslims are first-generation citizens and are reluctant to speak out. Indeed, most Muslims tend to keep their religious affiliation a secret from neighbors and other acquaintances. A young Egypt-born professional, when asked what she does to correct false images, said she prefers to answer only by the example of her own behavior.

Personal behavior is a worthy response but, in my view, not enough effectively to counter the campaign to defame Islam. U.S. Muslims must become active in the American political system, a system that supporters of Israel use assiduously.

Muslims have not followed the example of other religious faiths by using television advertising and other means of mass communication to provide the American people with correct information about their faith. In contrast, U.S. Jews, although less numerous than U.S. Muslims, usually respond instantly, massively and effectively to any development that tends to cast even a slight shadow over Judaism or Israel.

What should be done? The false stereotypes about Islam must be demolished and the truth advanced aggressively. Each of us must assume a responsibility in this undertaking, no matter where we live or what we do for a living.

Muslims everywhere must bestir themselves and develop an effective public relations campaign that will correct false stereotypes of Islam and demonstrate the goals that Muslims share with Christians and Jews.

I close my remarks by citing my own modest endeavor. I have drafted a folder that I believe can help dismiss the false stereotypes and create goodwill for Islam. It is intended for the use of U.S. Muslims. I was inspired to the task when I attended a workshop on false stereotypes some months ago in Malaysia and prepared the text in consultation with scores of Muslims worldwide.

Inspired also by the thoughts of my religion professor of many years ago, I have emphasized "the similarities, the likenesses, the agreements, not the differences" of the major religions. I too am convinced that "there will not be peace in our world until there is peace among the religions of the world."

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