Dr. James J. Zogby is founder and president of the Arab American Institute .
In a week filled with bad news for religious understanding, there was some good news as well.
I don’t know why Pope Benedict XVI sought to quote what could only be described as an anti-Muslim diatribe to open his speech on the unacceptability of using religion to justify violence. It would have been more appropriate for him to choose a quote closer to home. After all, the 14th century source he cited was no angel, and the period in which he ruled, sandwiched as it was between the bloody Crusades and the equally bloody Inquisition, could have provided Benedict with enough material to make his point—without resorting to a sweeping mischaracterization of Islam.
Of course, the topic needed to be addressed, but in our troubled period, heeding Jesus’s injunction to “remove the beam from your own eye” first, before trying to “remove the splinter from your neighbor’s eye” and leading by example, would have been the wiser course.
To be sure, religion is being abused, as it has been for millennia. Listening to or reading the poisonous utterances of bin Laden, al-Zawahiri and Zarqawi or any of those who are being called “al-Qaida’s second generation” makes it clear that there is a problem that Muslims must address. But listening to Christian evangelists like Pat Robertson and a whole host of other preachers or Israel’s racist ideologues makes it clear that there are problems all around.
If the Pope’s remarks didn’t help, neither did recent comments by President George W. Bush. In a series of speeches delivered in the last weeks, culminating with a televised address to the nation on 9/11, the president shamelessly sought to exploit fear and enflame passions to win support for his increasingly unpopular war in Iraq. Putting “flesh on the bones” of his earlier use of the term “Islamic fascism” (an expression first coined by anti-Muslim ideologues), the president repeatedly conflated 9/11 with the Iraq war, blurred differences between Sunni and Shia extremists in the Middle East and Iran, ominously warning that, should we lose in Iraq, a “radical caliphate” extending across continents would be the outcome.
Bashing Islam and preying on the public’s fears is demagoguery at its worst.
Thankfully, the story doesn’t end here. There are challenges to those negative currents and they provide hope. On 9/11, for example, we at the Arab American Institute hosted a commemorative luncheon featuring a Washington-area Imam and an Arab Christian priest, a leading Jewish rabbi and an Episcopal Bishop. Their combined message of understanding and hope stood in stark contrast to the intolerance that is so prevalent.
On the very next day two seemingly unconnected events provided additional evidence that there can be change.
In a powerful address before the Arab American Institute, Senator Russ Feingold, D-Wis., took direct aim at the president’s use of the term “Islamic fascism” saying:
We must avoid using misleading and offensive terms that link Islam with those who subvert this great religion or who distort its teachings to justify terrorist activities. I call on the president to stop using the phrase “Islamic Fascists,” a label that doesn’t make any sense, and certainly doesn’t help our effort to fight terrorism. When the president of the United States uses that phrase, he offends peaceful Muslims around the world, and he shows that he doesn’t understand the enemies that we are up against. It’s obvious that the administration made a deliberate decision to use this term. I believe that this is a serious mistake. It’s time for the president to repudiate this term and instruct people in his administration to cease using it. What is so hard about referring to the enemy as al-Qaida, its affiliates, and is sympathizers?
Also, on September 12, Minnesota’s Democrats voting in their state’s primary election chose State Senator Keith Ellison to be their nominee for the U.S. Congress. Because the district he will represent is overwhelmingly Democratic, Ellison is almost certain to win in November. At that point, he will not only become Minnesota’s first African American member of Congress, he will also be America’s first ever Muslim elected to Federal office. Because Ellison was associated early on with Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam (during the period of the Million Man March), his opponents have waged a relentless campaign against him. Ellison weathered these storms and won—though his intolerant foes have continued their efforts at defamation.
But despite these persistent signs of bigotry and intolerance, Ellison’s victory, Feingold’s courage and the message of understanding delivered at our 9/11 interfaith gathering should remind us all that there is hope for a change.