Hearing Muslim Voices
Something truly remarkable in Muslim-Christian relations happened this month, and yet few Americans are aware of it. 138 Muslim religious scholars from over 20 countries signed an open letter to Pope Benedict and to some two dozen leaders of Orthodox and Protestant churches. Overwhelmingly conciliatory and non-polemical, the document simply lays out evidence from the Bible and Qur’an that all three Abrahamic faiths share a common focus on the “two great commandments,” love of God and love of one’s neighbor as oneself. But this most noteworthy development has been almost totally ignored. It has received virtually no electronic media coverage and been consigned to back page blurbs of major newspapers.
Had the letter been a venomous diatribe against Christianity and the leaders of the many churches, it would almost certainly have grabbed banner coverage. The letter is historic in many ways, and marks the anniversary of a letter seeking deeper understanding and reconciliation, from some three dozen Muslim scholars in the weeks following Pope Benedict XVI’s address at the University of Regensburg. No direct response was forthcoming from the Vatican at that time, and press coverage virtually disregarded the Muslim voices then, too. Why is it so difficult for us to hear Muslim voices for moderation and peace, and so easy to hear only voices calling for indiscriminate violence in the name of Islam?
Print and electronic media coverage of events in Iraq and Afghanistan continues to be slanted toward “bad news” – spectacular violence apparently perpetrated by “Muslims,” infighting among Muslim politicians in the Middle East and South Asia, quests for suspected weapons of mass destruction, and alleged pervasive plotting to undermine and overthrow “Western Civilization.” Increasing availability of cable TV programs and books that purport to offer the “truth” about Islam and Muslims reflect an American populace increasingly adamant in its suspicion of all things “Islamic.” Hardly surprising, since the purported “truth” – that Islam is inherently violent and bent on world domination, and that no Muslim can be trusted – provides a clear, black-and-white, know-your-enemies narrative that’s frighteningly easy to sell.
Here’s the problem: that narrative is constructed, beginning to end, of pumped-up stereotypes, half-truths, ideological assumptions, and outright bigotry. Truth-tellers blithely toss around oversimplifications like “Clash of Civilizations” and “Return of the Caliphate” as descriptors of a global state of unfolding religio-cultural conflict. Blended with various versions of Christian end-time scenarios, such expressions dovetail nicely, if ironically, with a growing belief that Islam and Muslims are the very embodiment of the apocalyptic horrors foretold in biblical prophecies.
The problem is exacerbated by the widespread but unfounded perception that Muslims have remained silent about the horrors that have been visited on so many people here and abroad beginning with September 11, 2001. Where are the Muslim voices denouncing terrorism, many ask. Why have Muslims, both here and abroad, apparently given at least tacit approval to the grim work of suicide bombers?
The straightforward answer to these questions is that Muslim religious leaders and ordinary citizens alike have, in fact, been energetic in responding to the outrages that have been the scourge of Muslims as well as non-Muslims. Hundreds of counter-fatwas (legally advisories issued by Muslim jurists) have been issued, explaining in unambiguous detail Muslim abhorrence of all forms of suicide (whether rationalized as “self-selected martyrdom” or not), mass murder, and the destruction of life and livelihood perpetrated against innocent people of every faith and culture. Readers who would like to sample some of this pervasive yet un-reported Muslim outrage need only visit http://www.theamericanmuslim.org/, a St. Louis-based web site, for a most enlightening tour of responses of every sort in various media. Why are so few Americans aware of all this activity? Because it does not support the acceptable narrative – the one in which Muslims are unredeemed and unredeemable perpetrators of violence. Period.
Most troubling of all, the voices that purport to tell the “truth” about Islam and Muslims are again shouting from electronic and print soapboxes that this recent remarkable Muslim outreach to the leaders of Christian groups is no more than a ruse, a smokescreen to cover their sinister designs. They are, after all, followers of the nefarious Muhammad and constitutionally incapable of either telling the truth or relenting in their mandate to conquer the world for their fascist faith. In short, when it comes to being informed about Islam, most Americans hear only voices from the ideological extremes: non-Muslims espousing hatred and suspicion of Muslims, and Muslims distorting their tradition beyond the recognition of most of their co-religionists.
Willingness and ability to hear Muslim voices begins with the simple acknowledgment of our shared humanity. That openness can flourish only with the further affirmation that, like most other people, the vast majority of Muslims abhor all forms of violence and long for peace and justice.
Professor of Theological Studies
Saint Louis University