“The ambassador answered us that their right is founded upon the Laws of the Prophet, that it is written in their Koran, that all nations who do not bow to his authority are sinners, that it is their right and duty to make war upon them wherever they can be found, and to make slaves of all they can take as prisoners and that every Mussulman who is slain in battle is sure to go to Paradise.”
You could easily attribute the above passage to the report of a sermon by Ayman Al-Zawahari or Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi or an Iranian mullah. Quite astonishingly, it isn’t.
These are the words of Thomas Jefferson, then the U.S. ambassador to France, reporting to Secretary of State John Jay, a conversation he had had with Sidi Haji Abdul Rahman Adja, Tripoli’s envoy to London, in 1786 — more than two and a quarter centuries ago.
This was before Al Qaeda and the Taliban, before the creation of Israel or the Arab-Israeli conflict, before Khomeini, before Saudi Arabia came into existence, before drones, before most Americans even knew what jihad or Islam was, and most importantly – well before the United States had engaged in a single military incursion overseas or even had an established foreign policy.
Had Adja misinterpreted the Quran and given the whole Islamic faith an unbending, uncompromising, unforgiving visage? Have all of the others who came after him done the same?
Let’s think about this for a minute…….
Sometime around 1986, I made my one and only attempt to try and understand the ideological workings of Islam, partly because I had a new friend who was Muslim (I had never known a Muslim closely before then) and partly out of plain curiosity.
I asked her to find me an easy to understand book on her faith and she happily obliged. One evening when I was at theirs for tea, she handed me a tiny booklet, written in English by a New Delhi-based Indian imam and published by the well known Indian publishers, Rupa.
When I started to read the foreword by the author, I was horrified at the vitriol aimed at folks of other non-Abrahamic faiths, especially Hinduism. The gist of his intro was that, while Christianity and Judaism had a tiny iota of legitimacy, anyone who wasn’t a Muslim shouldn’t even exist.
Doggedly I pressed on and made it till page one hundred, when I couldn’t take it any more. The venom floored me and I felt like I had been punched in the face. Instead of enlightening the reader on what Islam was, the book was more on what the others weren’t. That a Muslim could publish such scorn in a Hindu-majority society like India, horrified me but when I think of it now, it makes me marvel at the tolerance and the openness toward censorship that existed then. Ironically, just two or three years after this incident, India would be forced to ban Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses.
Of course, my friend may not even have read the book herself before handing it to me and I am sure she wouldn’t have offered it had she read it herself. But I am equally sure she would have approved of it’s message in private. The whole experience left me with a sense that with Islam we have a faith that is unbending, for which nothing else, no other belief, matters.
Perhaps it is due to this innate intolerance that I have yet to come across in my lifetime even the most ‘moderate’ Muslim who has sought out and tried to understand Hinduism, or Buddhism or any other non-Abrahamic faith. No Muslim has ever asked me a single question about the Bhagwad Gita or Ramayana – even in jest. My understanding of this is that for a Muslim, even seeking to be innocently curious about a polytheist religion like Hinduism, is considered a sin.
In any case, the point is no longer relevant to me now. I am an agnostic who is a micro-inch away from becoming a full-blown atheist. My mantra now is a simple one …. ‘F—k them all’. And as a result I am a far better adjusted human today. Atheism is fun. Atheism is quirky. Atheism enhances critical thought. Atheism is good.
And my atheism is going to be a special hybrid – one big, calloused and gnarled middle finger sticking up in the air, with grubby fingernails.
Recently a American Muslim evangelical channel called Halal Tube caught my eye when I was trolling through the ITunes Store for current affairs podcasts. It is a collection of sermons by a Pakistani-American Muslim cleric named Yasir Qadhi, a Salafist scholar with a long pedigree that includes a PhD from Yale University. He likens the Islamic message that he endorses, to nothing more radical than those practiced by conservative Christian groups and Orthodox Jews in America, particularly with regard to dietary laws, and modesty in dress codes for women.
What made me cringe a bit was his strident tone when it came to choices – if I am a Muslim and I am, for whatever reason, disillusioned with Islam and would like to convert – this is a grievous sin in Islam. Some Islamic nations will prosecute it as a capital crime with a death penalty, no kidding. Qadhi makes Islam sound like the Ndrangheta – once you’re in, there is no way out, except feet first. He makes his faith seem suitable only for programmable dummies, not for discerning, analyzing, philosophizing human beings.
The podcasts aim to show American Muslims a way to live as modern Muslims in America, while balancing both, their faith and it’s dictates on one hand and their place in American society as law-abiding citizens of the United States.
One sermon that I sat through appeared particularly mature and forthright, filled with genuine concern at the current Islamophobia raging through the US, after the recent Paris terror attacks. The hate is being zealously stoked by bigots like Donald Trump and Ben Carson. Here is a smattering of the venom that these two are capable of……
Trump – In a recent speech in Alabama, Trump claimed that he had actually seen Muslims in New Jersey celebrating the fall of the World Trade Center, on 9/11. He told his audience: “Hey, I watched when the World Trade Center came tumbling down. And I watched in Jersey City, New Jersey, where thousands and thousands of people were cheering as that building was coming down….. ”
A day later, on ABC’s “This Week,” Trump insisted: “It did happen. I saw it. It was on television. I saw it. There were people that were cheering on the other side of New Jersey, where you have large Arab populations. They were cheering as the World Trade Center came down.”
Trump’s statement is a lie. Right after 9/11 no evidence was ever found about the above sightings which turned out to be nothing more than vicious rumors, spread just to inflame white Christian Americans’ passions.
Carson – In an interview last week, Carson told reporters in Nevada that he had seen ‘newsreels’ of Muslims in New Jersey cheering the attacks.
Reporter 1: Dr. Carson, were American Muslims in New Jersey cheering on 9/11 when the towers fell — did you hear about that or see that?
Reporter 1: Yes. Can you expand on that?
Carson: Well, you know, there are going to be people who respond inappropriately to virtually everything. I think that was an inappropriate response. I don’t know if on the basis of that you can say all Muslims are bad people. I really think that would be a stretch.
Reporter 1: But did you see that happening though on 9/11?
Carson: I saw the film of it, yes.
Reporter 2: In New Jersey?
(The next day, Carson denied that he was talking about New Jersey and blamed the media for ‘misunderstanding’ him.)
I don’t have to be Dale Carnegie to be able to understand why Yasir Qadhi is apprehensive of a spurt in hate crimes. Actually, innocent Muslims are now having it from both ends. To say that they have the short end of the stick will be a flaming understatement. Just how much of an understatement is borne by the statistics……..
During 2014, an overwhelming majority of the fatalities from terrorism were in Islamic nations – Muslims killed by other Muslims –
- Iraq – 32%
- Nigeria – 25%
- Afghanistan 15% TOTAL : 91%
- Pakistan – 6%
- Syria – 9%
- Somalia – 2%
- Yemen – 2%
If I was a peace-loving Muslim I would be telling myself, ‘it is time for me to stop being a sucker’.
The backlash may have already begun. Here are some worrying news reports of the past seven days…..
Last Tuesday, Spirit Airlines removed four passengers, reportedly of Middle Eastern descent, from a flight out of Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Airport after a witness reported suspicious activity. Details of the ‘suspicious activity’ emerged later – the Middle Eastern passenger had reportedly been watching a news report on his cell phone.
Last Wednesday, US citizens from Philadelphia, Maher Khalil and Anas Ayyadm were asked to step aside before boarding a Southwest flight at Chicago Midway airport. A fellow passenger had heard them speaking Arabic and complained to staff of being afraid to fly on the same aircraft. They were questioned by police.
This week, after passing through regular security checks at Newark Liberty International Airport on her way to a holiday in Istanbul, Kameelah Rasheed, Fulbright Scholar and Stanford alumni, was pulled aside for further questioning by customs officers. She was later allowed on the flight, but eventually forced to leave the aircraft ahead of takeoff to be interrogated by an FBI agent.
Such incidents are going to only intensify and spread through not only the US but the rest of the non-Islamic world, as it grows more and more polarized and the time has come for all Muslims living in non-Islamic societies to seriously think of ways to address the Islamophobia, as otherwise, it is only going to get worse.
Foremost, there has to be a realization that it is time to stop being apologists and believing that it is only the Wahabis, the Salafis, the Deobandhis and the other violent Islamic fanatics who ‘interpret’ the faith in a twisted way. Muslims must come clean and face the fact that the way they practice their faith needs a tweak.
As for the Arabs, they have let the ‘paleface’ run their lives and determine their destiny for a hundred years now. They aren’t occupied anymore. It is time that they stood on their own feet and stopped expecting the west to hold their hands.
Islam needs introspection and a makeover – a transformation to something more light-hearted. Just as Buddhism and Hinduism and even Christianity have no qualms about living with other faiths, getting into inter-faith marriages, converting, enduring cartoons, criticisms and lampoons and simply laughing at themselves, so has the time arrived for Islam to get off that high horse and be more human.
Muslims have to love Allah, not fear him. Their faith has to soften it’s edges and get a life. They have to begin to enjoy themselves – laugh, dance, sing, pinch, poke, tickle – whatever. Who said Allah isn’t fun-loving? Why do we always conjure up a vision of a stern, frowning, disapproving, humorless God?
Muslims have to inject more comedy in their lives. Wouldn’t it be great if guys like Seth Myers, Jimmy Kimmel or Jimmy Fallon converted to Islam and we still found them funny? If Robin Williams had been a Muslim would we have ever had any Islamophobia?
Perhaps it is time for Islam to stop behaving like my grumpy uncle from Red Deer.