Thoughts on Islam and the West


In the aftermath of each terrorism event, there is usually a flood of comments in the media seeking to explain why it happened. We have had incidents of this type attributed to individuals from the full spectrum of backgrounds and characteristics. Christians, Jews and Muslims have all killed and destroyed in the name of their faiths, and not only in the distant past. Nevertheless it is undeniable that the defining characteristic of violent extremism today is a connection to Islam. Be honest, when you see the latest atrocity on the TV news, don’t you nod your head resignedly when you hear the names of the suspects?

Trying to understand this absorbs us. We ask, “Why do Muslims hate the United States?” No one, other than perhaps Donald Trump, thinks that this is a universal attitude. But the general perception persists, based on recurring terrorist acts and also the sight of cheering crowds in the Muslim world whenever some disaster befalls the West, and in particular the United States. If they don’t hate us, they are certainly putting on a great performance. Nevertheless, any generalization encompassing 1.5 billion individuals world-wide must be viewed skeptically, many of whom probably have little or no interest in the United States.

This topic whetted my curiosity, so I made my usual excursion into the wilds of the Internet. There is no shortage of opinions, many filled with supporting data. The sources cover the gamut from academic scholars to the clearly deranged. It is fairly easy to filter out the latter since their diatribes usually veer into off-topic rants. Keeping in mind the limitations of this kind of research, I did find a fairly clear dichotomy of views.

One large group of postings challenges the premise of the question. They usually point to peaceful statements and actions of many Muslims, here and abroad. They note the great contributions of American Muslims to our culture and economy. They record almost universal condemnation of terrorist acts. In other words, they see the terrorist incidents that worry and inflame us as an aberration, unrepresentative of Muslim attitudes. Their conclusion is that Islam is a peaceful faith with no ideological animus to the West or the United States. Scholars also mention that readings from the Qur’an that seem antagonistic to nonbelievers are taken out of context and often represent anachronisms or mistranslations. Our Judeo-Christian texts certainly are subject to the same problematic interpretations.

The second equally large group of postings, quite to the contrary, point to historical actions by the West over centuries that fully justify fear and hatred by Muslims, including here at home. These actions include direct conflicts between Christianity and Islam as far back as the Crusades. To demur on the basis that such ancient grudges are irrelevant today is to misunderstand the way Islamic scholars pass down oral histories from generation to generation. In addition, western colonialism and the slave trade are also cited as more recent wrongs. While we may view these as secular issues, Islam doesn’t make the same fine distinction between matters of church and state that Christianity does. Or course these perspectives are often overstated for effect. Nevertheless, the basic historical context appears reasonable to a degree. Their conclusion is that Islam has every justification for seeing us as an enemy to be feared and opposed, violently if necessary. Far from denying that Muslims hate us, they see this as an entirely reasonable attitude, exactly as we would feel in their place.

So where does that leave us? Both of these viewpoints can’t be simultaneously correct, or at least not generally speaking. The Islamic world is no more uniform than is the Christian world. For those portions properly characterized by the first viewpoint, we have nothing to fear and should not paint them with such a broad brush. For the rest, we must be wary and careful in our dealings. The problem is that people don’t come with nice identifying badges on their clothing. So the widely mocked proposal by Trump to “ban them all” can’t be rejected out of hand. The real problem is that we cannot insulate ourselves thereby. No wall is tall enough and no immigration policies are impenetrable enough to keep out a determined foe.

I have no prescription for resolution of this issue, and I suggest that anyone who tells you he does is likely a fool or an ideologue. But some actions could help, and for these we must look both to ourselves and to those Muslims in leadership roles, here and abroad, who desire a rapprochement.

For ourselves, our first step should be to recognize the dichotomy I have described and cease lumping all Muslims in the same category. We can have friends in the Muslim world if we treat them as we would wish to be treated. We should not hesitate or fear to negotiate with Muslim nations, regardless of their discouraging rhetoric. It is true that we have made mistakes in the past in some negotiations and treaties, but avoiding diplomacy on that basis is to assume that we don’t learn from our mistakes. I believe that, in general, we do. Most importantly, we need to cease assuming that our ways should be theirs too. Beliefs that we deem unseemly or even barbaric may be intrinsic to their way of life and not, as we often assume, simply deviant behavior. Basically, trying to “reform them” to our way of life, politically or socially, is none of our business and, worse, is a fool’s errand.

But as I have said, both sides of this dispute have a role. I don’t claim to be well-informed, but it appears to me that friendly Muslim leaders here and abroad have not been pulling their weight in resolving our differences, even if we take at face value their remonstrations to the contrary. The promotion of hatred within Mosques and Madrassas is a matter of record. I see little evidence that those in a position to change this have done much at all, while it is no secret that some governments continue to provide financial support for this regressive activity. None of our actions will succeed while this pattern of subversion continues. All this talk of spying on religious institutions at home betrays our values and would likely be counterproductive. However, American Muslim leaders surely know where to look and they could reform from within if they truly wanted to. I think we should put them to the test.