A FEW WEEKS AGO, I WENT TO A LECTURE by a supposedly prominent academic, who was giving a small group of us a primer on the history of Islam.
He recounted the life of Muhammed and then proceeded to summarize the teachings of the Koran in such a way that you would think it only preaches warfare, frightful intolerance of non-Muslims (especially Jews, whom, he pointed out, it classifies as swine and monkeys) and other rather barbaric practices.
I am terribly uninformed about Islam (which is why I went), but even this seemed to me to be rather skewed. When he was ready to take questions, I raised my hand and told him that I was shocked by what seemed like a selective reading of the Koran. Had there been any Muslims present, I said, I would have been ashamed.
I should say that he was trying to make the point that many of the more extremist, militant Muslims in the world today have been influenced by the passages he cited from the Koran. But even when I pressed him, he wouldn't really come out and make a clean and clear distinction between those Muslims and the vast majority of others. They all buy into the whole package, he implied, adding that it is the essence of their faith was not to question the word of Muhammad. What I heard was that, basically, those Muslims are all alike. With that, I walked out on his lecture. [I'm not mentioning any names here, by the way, because this was not a public event.]
The news yesterday about Congressman Virgil Goode, a Republican from Virginia, reminded me of this. In a letter to his constituents, Goode became the latest conservative to attack Keith Ellison, a newly elected Democrat to Congress and a Muslim who has said he will take his oath of office by placing his hand on a Koran.
Though you'd think that Goode has more important issues to worry about these days, he wrote in his letter that he does "not subscribe to using the Koran in any way."
Well, apparently this is about more than which book is the right one to swear by. Goode also said that "The Muslim Representative from Minnesota was elected by the voters of that district and if American citizens don't wake up and adopt the Virgil Goode position on immigration, there will likely be many more Muslims elected to office and demanding the use of the Koran."
Goode added that "We need to stop illegal immigration totally and reduce legal immigration and end the diversity visas policy . . . allowing many persons from the Middle East to come to this country," Goode said in the letter. "I fear that in the next century we will have many more Muslims in the United States if we do not adopt the strict immigration policies that I believe are necessary to preserve the values and beliefs traditional to the United States of America."
Well, I've got to give Congressman Goode credit for one thing: He doesn't cloak or code what's on his mind. He says exactly what he means, which is keep those subsersive Muslims out of here.
When he talks about preserving the "values and beliefs traditional to the United States of America," he's got it wrong. America's values and beliefs don't reflect one religious group's ethos; indeed, that's the ethos of America.
He also uses the word "fear," which is, I think, where his story and the one I related at the beginning come together. There is a long history of politicians and respected academics who have warned of the damage one group will be doing to our country and even the world. Virtually every new immigrant group to America has been the object of this kind of fear-mongering (ironically, by the way, Keith Ellison is not an immigrant but an American-born convert to Islam).
To be sure, there are many Muslims living around the world today who frighten me, as they are bent on threatening all infidels (Israel, Jews, Christians, Americans, Europeans, and, yes, modern Arabs and Muslims) with violence and even annihilation. I'm the first to recommend vigilance against them, both domestically and abroad. But they are only a sub-section of Islam; in fact, they are an enemy of much of the rest of Islam. So to say that all Muslims follow that same philosophy, or at least espouse a view that they are superior to all others, is misinformed and it crosses a dangerous line.
Muslims themselves bear some responsibility in making that distinction clearer to the rest of us, and some do a better job than others, in my opinion. Some, for example, couple speak out more forcefully against the deplorable acts their co-religionists conduct in the name of Islam. It is difficult, I know, but the rest of us need to see the bright line.
But non-Muslims have a responsibility, too. We need do some work to understand who Muslims are, even if we've never met a Muslim ourselves (and that lack of contact is a major problem). We need to learn that of the millions who practice Islam, the odds are that far more of them must be good people just like most of the rest of us -- people who just want to prosper, do what's best for their families and their communities and live side-by-side with others.
In other words, we must have faith -- if I can use that word -- that what most people in the world, including Muslims, want is to live in peace. That's what most of the rest of us want. Why, Congressman Goode, would Muslims be any different?
Also, if Congressman Goode really doesn't care for Muslims, would he prefer not to be treated by a Muslim doctor should he be rolled into an emergency room at a hospital? Would he give away all the technological innovations that Muslim scientists in America have developed for U.S. companies? Would he tell the only available cab in Washington, D.C., during a torrential downpour to pass him by because it was being driven by a Muslim cab driver? How seriously beholden is he to his "values and traditional beliefs"?
It is curious to me that Keith Ellison's rather innocuous statement that he will take the oath on a Koran has set off a bunch of conservatives like Goode, Dennis Prager (who, has been censured by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum because he sits on its Council, or board) and some evangelical Christian groups offended that he would not use the Chrisitian Bible. It also troubles me that an otherwise respected academic would beat around the bush to suggest that all of Islam is out to get us.
What is it with these guys?