‘Myths’ about Islam

Two passionate defenses of Muslim society are nothing but a laundry list of apologies for every Islamic fanatic society, from Saudi Arabia’s gender apartheid to Iran.

Muslim display 521 (photo credit: MCT)
Muslim display 521
(photo credit: MCT)
Most Muslims are moderate, are lurching toward pluralism, support women’s rights and if only we in the West would take the “next step” and “recognize that the Children of Abraham are part of a rich Judeo-Christian-Islamic history,” abandoning “Islamophobia,” we can move beyond the clash of civilizations.
This, in essence, is the message of John Esposito, professor of religion and international affairs at Georgetown University and founding director of the Alwaleed Bin-Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding.
Juan Cole, a professor of history at the University of Michigan, argues in his lukewarm account that we need to engage with the Muslim world and dispel the myths about it which have grown up in the West where “Islam anxiety” has become widespread. Cole provides a laundry list of apologies for every Islamic fanatic society, from Saudi Arabia’s gender apartheid to Iran. He even goes so far as to make outlandish claims: There is “lack of good evidence for an Iranian nuclear weapons program”; “the [Muslim] Brotherhood has never been big enough [in Egypt] to count as a mass movement”; he calls Osama bin Laden “a wealthy and much better organized version of Timothy McVeigh,” the Oklahoma City bomber; “Lebanon and Senegal have much better human rights records [than Saudi Arabia]”; “the [Persian] Gulf is actually among the more cosmopolitan places in the world.”
Is it worth debunking these assertions? Iran is developing nuclear weapons, the Muslim Brotherhood is a mass movement, Bin Laden is not comparable to Timothy McVeigh, Lebanon does not have a wonderful human rights record, even compared with Saudi Arabia, and the Persian Gulf states can only be considered “cosmopolitan” in a 19th-century, slave-owning American South kind of way. After all, what other societies in the world house foreign workers, who make up a majority of the population, in work camps where their passports are confiscated and they are worked like slaves so that a tiny minority of wealthy people may enjoy the good life? Cole, Esposito and Karen Armstrong, who writes the foreword to Esposito’s book, are examples of popular Muslim apologists in the West. According to Armstrong, there is an “entrenched reluctance to see Islam in a more favorable light,” and it is the responsibility of people in the US and Europe to not only view Islam in a positive light but change their foreign policies and cultures to take into account the feelings of Muslims since “Western foreign policy has been one of the causes of the current malaise in the [Muslim] region.”
Like Armstrong (a former nun), Esposito burnishes his “Christian” credentials and talks about how he spent years in a “Capuchin Franciscan monastery.” The author notes in The Future of Islam that his two former books, What Everyone Needs to Know about Islam and Unholy War: Terror in the Name of Islam, were included on a “reading list” for high-ranking soldiers being deployed to Iraq. It is not clear how The Future of Islam differs from the previous two in terms of explaining “what Muslims really think” (the title of another of Esposito’s books), but he claims to introduce us to Islam – again – show how religion plays a role in Muslim politics, examine Muslim reform initiatives and discuss America’s role in the Muslim world.
The main problem with the book is that, despite his claim that he has attempted to organize it into themes, there is almost no logic to the way in which the argument is presented.
The author is careful to make use of Muslim converts who have Western names.
Toward this end he discusses the case of Dr.
Ingrid Mattson, a Canadian convert to Islam and scholar at Hartford Seminary who was involved in a controversy at the Democratic national convention in 2008. There is also Timothy Winter, a Cambridge University professor and “prominent Muslim religious leader” who “rejects extremists” and believes Islam should return to the “classical canons” of Islamic law. But how many Muslims have heard of Winter and Mattson? Esposito, who is mired in the swamp of American politics, tends to believe that his reader is deeply familiar with American evangelical preachers. Thus the name John Hagee appears numerous times alongside other “preachers of hate” and “hard-line Christian Zionists” such as “Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson [and] Rob Parsley.”
Cole uses a similar tactic, comparing radical Islamists to the “gun culture” in the US. Esposito wants us to believe that Muslim fundamentalists are “like that of the radical Christian right.”
The problem here is that this gives these preachers and right-wing gun owners more importance than they have to set up a straw man that can be compared to Islamic extremism. Let’s be honest, Islamic terrorists have killed tens of thousands of people in the last decades from India to Africa and the New World. How many people have American gun-loving terrorists like McVeigh or followers of pastors like Hagee killed? Less than 200. Even compensating for the population differences from whence the radicals are drawn, 350 million Americans versus 1.3 billion Muslims, there is no comparison.
The Future of Islam oddly provides a sort of howto guide on converting to Islam (“there is no God but God and Muhammad is the messenger of God”), for some reason in the chapter entitled “The many faces of Islam.” Yet both authors acknowledge that “Islamic law in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Sudan and the Taliban’s Afghanistan has been used to restrict women’s rights and to mandate stoning of women charged with adultery” (Esposito) and other savage punishments.
In the end, Esposito’s book is like blast from a shotgun. The author believes that if he lays out enough short little arguments that some of them will hit the mark. Cole prefers a more direct refutation of the West’s long-held beliefs about Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Pakistan and Iran. Unfortunately for him, the West is correct – these countries are either run by nefarious regimes or are cauldrons of violent extremism.