Islam and Intolerance

by Conor Friedersdorf

Andy McCarthy's latest asserts that "intolerance is not just part of al-Qaeda, it is part of Islam." It's a piece that gets right to the point:

Non-Muslims are barred from entering the cities of Mecca and Medina not merely barred from building synagogues or churches, but barred, period, because their infidel feet are deemed unfit to touch the ground. This is not an al-Qaeda principle. Nor is it an “Islamist” principle. It is Islam, pure and simple.

Of course, non-Mormons are banned from LDS temples, and non-Catholics aren't allowed to partake in the Eucharist. And I'm sure there are many more exclusionary religious practices engaged in by non-Muslims, but 9/11 9/11 9/11, so Mr. McCarthy holds Muslims to a higher standard, and waxes darkly about the intolerance of Islam.

The rest of his piece largely consists of the dubious conflation of true Islam with modern day Saudi Arabia, as if the globe and history aren't replete with very different incarnations of Islamic society, and cherry-picking passages from the Koran in order to assert that its least defensible words define the true nature of Islam.

One reason it's good that I don't work at National Review is that I'd be tempted to get a fake Koran made with Leviticus inserted into it, and provoke Mr. McCarthy into citing all sorts of Bible passages as evidence that the religion they're part of is inherently intolerant. (In case it isn't clear, I do not think Christianity is intolerant.) In the end, my mischievous antics probably wouldn't do much good, so I'm glad that among the magazine's many talented staffers is Reihan Salam, whose admirable capacity for respectful engagement often exceeds my own.

The passage I'm about to excerpt isn't directed at Mr. McCarthy, but it's nevertheless apt:

I think it’s important for people to understand that there really are conflicts within what we call Islam. It is not a single thing. Rather, it is a lot of different things. Some of these things militaristic, xenophobic, misogynistic Islamism, to name but one example are by any objective standard noxious forces, and the driver of lethal attacks on Americans and also Israelis, Bengalis, Malays, and many other people. We can all agree on that. 

Islamism, however, is not identical to Islam. Within Islam, there are many other traditions and tendencies, some of which are more compatible with modernity than others.

I’m not sure exactly what’s going on with this new set of controversies over Islam and the role of American Muslims in our public life. I wouldn’t say I’m a very religiously observant person, but the observant Muslims I know best are my parents. Both of my parents have lived in New York city for over thirty years. Both of them worked in the World Trade Center in the 1980s, when I was a kid. Some of my fondest memories of growing up involve visiting them at work, and watching the 4th of July fireworks display from my dad’s office window. They were born in a country (Bangladesh) where Islamist terrorists have killed a large number of people in bomb attacks and acid attacks, and they lived through a savage and mostly forgotten war in which over 1 million Bengali Muslims were tortured and killed in part because they were accused of being “polytheists,” etc. That is, armed cadres of proto-Islamists were killing Muslims who had a different way of seeing the world and practicing their religion.

So that’s part of where I’m coming from: the idea that Islam is one thing or that all Muslims are the same strikes me as highly unlikely.

All Mr. McCarthy can muster is the admission that there are Muslims who are interested in reforming Islam, a true statement, but one he makes as if there weren't peaceful, devout, moderate communities of Muslims already living in many countries throughout the world.