Conservatives and Their Poisonous Understanding of Islam

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Reuel Gerecht, who recently appeared on this blog to discuss why the bigoted blogger Pamela Geller doesn't understand the complexity of Islam (or doesn't care to understand the complexity of Islam), dilates on the subject some more for The New Republic. His target this time is bigger than Geller -- Newt Gingrich, who has lately been doing remarkable damage to his reputation as an educated person, in part by deliberately misinterpreting for his audience the content, use and meaning of Shari'a, Islamic law:

When Westerners, however well-intentioned, start suggesting that Muslim law supplies the foundation for Islamic terrorism, it immediately conveys to Muslims, even secularized Muslims, that Westerners think all Muslims are disordered, that the only route to salvation runs through a renunciation of their faith (that is, they ought to become the mirror-image of Westerners who go to church every so often. Whatever vestigial pride Muslims may have in their religious law (most Muslims aren't particularly fastidious or knowledgeable about the Sharia, but nevertheless have an understandable historic affection for it), gets crudely pummeled by such commentators.

The blanket demonization of the Holy Law can lead one to view Iraq's Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the most revered Shiite thinker in the world, and one who tried desperately and selflessly to keep his country from descending into internecine savagery, as a bigot and a terrorist engine. The same would be true for the late Grand Ayatollah Ali Montazeri, the spiritual father of Iran's Green Movement and the nemesis of Ali Khamenei, Iran's ruler, himself a very mediocre student of the Sharia.

Pete Wehner has also been doing some heavy lifting on this subject. His target: Bill O'Reilly, who has, in essence, accused the entire religion of Islam of terrorism:

I happen to agree with O'Reilly on the mosque/Ground Zero issue. But his analogy is flawed. With Japan, we were dealing with a nation-state; with al-Qaeda, we are dealing with a small percentage of militants in a faith that includes more than 1.5 billion people in more than 200 countries.

Moreover, O'Reilly's claim is unfair - and O'Reilly should understand why. Here's an illustration that might help clarify things. Assume that Sam Harris went on The O'Reilly Factor and, based on the child-abuse scandals that tarnished the reputation of the Catholic Church, made the sweeping claim that "Catholics are child molesters." My guess is that O'Reilly would (rightly) respond, "No. Some priests molested children, and it was a horrific thing. But you can't indict an entire faith based on the sins of a relatively few number of priests."

We shouldn't kid ourselves; there is a not-insignificant strand of people in the Muslim world who align themselves with the ideology of al-Qaeda - and an even larger number who more or less accept its narrative of history. The condemnations by more moderate Muslims against its militant strand could certainly be more muscular. At the same time, the militant Islamists who attacked us on 9/11 don't represent the vast majority of Muslims in the world - and certainly not the views of most Muslim Americans.

It is obviously difficult for many people to differentiate between Islam and political Islamism, the ideological strand within Islam that breeds terrorism and extremism. But it is exceedingly important to understand that difference; if we don't, we will give al Qaeda what it wants -- a civilizational struggle between the West and all of Islam. The Anti-Defamation League's Abraham Foxman, in a recent speech, did a good job of parsing the differences between extremist Islam and the Islam practiced by the majority of Muslims, and he did a particularly good job of outlining the West's dual responsibilities -- to fight extremism without resorting to demonization:

Islam is one of the world's great religions. But, like Judaism and Christianity, Buddhism and Hinduism and others, if you it isn't your religion you most likely have little knowledge, if any, of it, its beliefs and practices.  Ignorance has always been one of the common denominators of those who are bigoted against "the others."  And ignorance can breed fear which too easily can become hatred.  We must differentiate between extreme theology and ideology in Islam and condemn it and challenge it, while at the same time define and separate it from the non-extremist ideology and theology.  We must condemn the brand of Islam that venerates violence and intolerance.  And welcome into the modern world the rest of Islam that rejects violence and intolerance.  And at the same time keep it in perspective.

The Muslim community in America is being confronted by ugly in-your-face religious bigotry and we must speak out against it, educate against it and label it anti-American.

Allow me a historical reference. During World War II, David Ben Gurion recognizing the inherent conflict between British restrictions on Jewish immigration and settlement and the fact that Britain was fighting Nazi Germany, said in statement that Zionists "would fight the war as if there was no White Paper and fight the White Paper as if there was no war."

Therefore: Despite the fact that there is a serious enmity between the Children of Ishmael and the Children of Isaac, when religious bigotry rears its ugly head against Muslims we must speak out.
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Jeffrey Goldberg is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a recipient of the National Magazine Award for Reporting. He is the author of Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror. More

Before joining The Atlantic in 2007, Goldberg was a Middle East correspondent, and the Washington correspondent, for The New Yorker. He was previouslly a correspondent for The New York Times Magazine and New York magazine. He has also written for the Jewish Daily Forward and was a columnist for The Jerusalem Post.

Goldberg's book Prisoners was hailed as one of the best books of 2006 by the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, The Progressive, Washingtonian magazine, and Playboy. He received the 2003 National Magazine Award for Reporting for his coverage of Islamic terrorism and the 2005 Anti-Defamation League Daniel Pearl Prize. He is also the winner of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists prize for best international investigative journalist; the Overseas Press Club award for best human-rights reporting; and the Abraham Cahan Prize in Journalism.

In 2001, Goldberg was appointed the Syrkin Fellow in Letters of the Jerusalem Foundation, and in 2002 he became a public-policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

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