Charles Paul Freund's "2001 Nights" (December) applies a tolerant attitude to a religion and culture that few Americans are well acquainted with. I would point out a few facts that might give Freund additional perspective. He writes of the distinguished and elegant intellect of Edward Said. Just to balance the picture of urbane sophistication, he should know that on a recent visit to the Lebanese side of the Israel-Lebanon border, Said participated in that most traditional of Arab practices, throwing stones at the Jews.
For all that Sufi mystics appear to be appealing, note that they are the intellectual heirs of the Hashishin of Crusader times, who assassinated (which is the source of the word in English) both Crusaders and those Muslim leaders who accommodated them. Freund really ought to check his history. Islam did not proselytize, it conquered. Only "people of the book" (Jews and Christians) were not forced to convert or die, but if they did not convert they were subjected to extensive disabilities and added taxes. See The Dhimmi, by Bat Ye'or (Associated University Press).
Bear in mind that Islam spread by the sword. We in the West are in Dar al Harb, the World of Conflict, which is all of the world not part of Dar al Islam, where Islamic law governs. Promoting theocracy to a degree the medieval Church could only dream of, Islam is in many ways incompatible with Western secularism. Its teachings foster not amity but domination.
However, it is possible that American Muslims (especially native-born ones, who know only American freedoms) can formulate an Islam that is what they say it is, as Muhammad Ali said in his recent interview in Reader's Digest. This is not a call for an inquisition, but rather a call for knowledge. What we know can only help us, while what we do not know can leave us undefended.
Los Angeles, CA
Charles Paul Freund replies: Although you wouldn't know it from this letter, I argued that the early, "official," feel-good dialogue about Islam was empty and problematic. But is David Peters' alternative any better? He links Sufism to the Assassins. Islam's mysticism was a rich, established tradition centuries before Assassins founder Hassan al-Sabbah was born. The Assassins were Isma'ilis; their "heirs" are modern Isma'ilis. Isma'ilis of South Asia and the West are among the most liberal and enlightened Muslims in the world. They are evidence of Islam's modernist potential. So is Sunni Turkey, which despite its problems has maintained a secular democracy for 80 years. So are Algeria's besieged secularists. Islam is neither the incarnation of "peace" that the White House claims nor the bogeyman Peters portrays. His charge of "incompatibility," by the way, used to be hurled at Catholics.
My assertion about the relative tolerance of Islam is not controversial. Even as restricted dhimmis, the Jews of Islam for centuries led less restricted and more dignified lives than did Europe's Jews. Until modern times, Islam's Jews were far less likely to be massacred, forcibly ghettoized, Satanized, or subjected to inquisition. Islam wouldn't tolerate such "pagans" as Zoroastrians, but neither would Christendom. Zoroastrians who survived and prospered did so among Hindus.
Islam spread in many ways, including conquest and trade. But even after conquest, Islamization was often very gradual. Between Egypt's conquest and the rise of a Muslim majority there, for example, seven centuries passed.
Liberty sans Paradox
Cathy Young's "Liberty's Paradoxes" (December) reads like a reluctant statist's apology for a necessary evil. She marginalizes those who quote Benjamin Franklin as knee-jerk libertarians, too dogmatic to see the value of compromise and consensus in this time of "war."
Law enforcement didn't lack for tools to prevent September's attacks. Institutional stasis and interdepartmental rivalry, inevitable in a massive bureaucracy, were our government's Achilles heel. It was a colossal and predictable failure, given the $300 billion spent each year on defense.
President Clinton declared a war on terrorism some time ago, another government effort like the wars on drugs and poverty. Young suggests government can win such wars, ignoring as usual the unblemished record of failure. Time and again we see that expanding law enforcement's power simply corrupts.
Young also derides the notion that giving less offense would reduce our enemies' ire. Like a gambler doubling on a losing bet, she insinuates that a less intrusive foreign policy now would be a sign of weakness. By implication she equates the bombing of civilian targets by U.S. planes with the international terror of McDonald's and Hollywood. As incitements of extremist hatred, these would appear leagues apart.
Young interprets the greatest recent failure of our government to fulfill its first responsibility, national defense, as cause to yield even more liberty and power to our monopolist protectors. A magazine called Reason is hardly the place I'd expect to see such a viewpoint, unless the parody is intended.