The Jihad Against Muslims

When does criticism of Islam devolve into bigotry?


Few supporters of the War on Terror voiced grief at the death of Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbian leader who instigated the brutal "ethnic cleansing" campaigns in Croatia and Bosnia. Some, such as the editorialists at The Wall Street Journal, used the occasion to declare that U.S. intervention in Kosovo was unquestionably right and to attempt an analogy with the war in Iraq. But there were exceptions. In some "anti-jihadist" circles, the Butcher of the Balkans was mourned as a misunderstood hero in the war against the Muslims.

On March 12, the group blog Infidel Bloggers Alliance ran an item titled "Memorable moment in the Milosevic trial." It described, without further comment, an episode in which Milosevic tried to portray himself as fighting the same forces of terrorism now threatening the West. Co-bloggers chimed in with such comments as "Wouldn't it be strange if Milosevic ends up being remembered by history as a hero and a kind of prophet?" and "Ever since 9/11, one question after another about whether we were on the wrong side in the Bosnian conflict has come up. The only thing you can trust a Muslim to be is a Muslim." (Including, it seems, the famously secularized and nonradical Bosnian Muslims, some 100,000 of whom died in Milosevic's assaults of the 1990s.) Similar attitudes, somewhat less stridently expressed, could be found on Jihad Watch, FrontPage, and other popular right-wing sites.

Words like Islamophobia and phrases like anti-Muslim bigotry are bandied about too liberally, often applied to those who merely criticize fanatical Islamic radicalism or point out the deep-seated problems in much of Muslim culture today. But the real thing does exist, and it frequently takes the cover of anti-jihadism.

Jihad Watch—a fixture on the blogrolls of MichelleMalkin.com and Little Green Footballs, two of the most popular right-wing blogs—traffics fairly openly in such stuff. After the sister of Mohammed Taheri-Azar, the Iranian-born young man who had plowed his car into a crowd of students in North Carolina this March, expressed shock at her brother's act, contributor Hugh Fitzgerald commented, "Why should Infidels take a chance, if the likelihood of their being able to distinguish the 'moderate' from the 'immoderate' Muslim is even slimmer than that of the closest relatives of those Muslims found to have engaged in…acts of terrorism?"

Fitzgerald's phrasing may be fuzzy, but his sentiment is clear: All Muslims are a threat. Indeed, in another post Fitzgerald asserted that any Muslim who claims Islam's teachings have been distorted by terrorists is "objectively furthering the Jihad"—and that a moderate Muslim who has not renounced Islam is still dangerous because his children may revert to the extremist form of the religion.

Is Islam inherently more intolerant and violent than other faiths? That's a complex question that many scholars, and many Muslim reformers, have grappled with for years. Because of the historical circumstances in which Islam emerged, its scriptures include many passages mandating armed struggle against "unbelievers," ostensibly in response to oppression or persecution of Muslims. Other parts of the Koran, however, explicitly discourage aggression and counsel moderation in the struggle.

The truth is that the canonical texts of every major religion are full of contradictory statements that can be cherry-picked for a variety of messages. The Bible contains expressions of intolerance, from divine commands for conquest and genocide to the mandate of death for anyone who tries to lead a Jew astray from the worship of the one true God. The Gospel of John literally demonizes Jews who do not accept Jesus as children of Satan, and while the gospels promote peaceful evangelizing, Christian doctrine for centuries mandated Christian rule by force.

I'm not an expert on Islamic teachings. Then again, neither are the people convinced that Islam is a violent death cult. What seems evident is that in much anti-Muslim rhetoric, criticism of the religion is enmeshed with cultural and ethnic hostility that extends to largely secularized immigrants from traditionally Muslim countries.

When mostly North African youths rioted in France, columnist Mark Steyn compared the rioters to "the Muslim armies of 13 centuries ago"; others spoke of a "French intifada." Yet by all indications, the riots were driven by resentment about unemployment, discrimination, and the generally marginalized status of ethnic minorities in France. In one news report, an 18-year-old rioter named Ahmed was quoted as saying, "You wear these clothes, with this color skin, and you're automatically a target for police." He and his friends were not wearing traditional Muslim garb but polo shirts, sneakers, and T-shirts.

To the extent that many disaffected young North Africans and Arabs in France have been drawn to a radical Muslim identity, it seems to be the vehicle rather than the cause for their anger.

Likewise, the Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci's 2002 book The Rage and the Pride makes hardly any distinction between radical Islamic terrorists and Somali street vendors who supposedly urinate on the corners of Italy's great cities. Christopher Hitchens, who described the book in The Atlantic as "a sort of primer in how not to write about Islam," correctly notes that Fallaci's diatribes have all the marks of other infamous screeds about filthy, disease-ridden, sexually threatening aliens.

Yet The Rage and the Pride received only slightly qualified praise in conservative publications such as National Review and Commentary. Writing on National Review's staff blog, The Corner, the neoconservative pundit Michael Ledeen hailed it as "a terrific book" and commended Fallaci's "wonderful way with words, as in 'the children of Allah spend their time with their bottoms in the air, praying five times a day.'"

Even in milder form, there are sweeping generalizations that reduce any social or political problem anywhere to a "Muslim problem" as long as there are Muslims involved. Take this description by Mark Steyn: "There are many trouble spots around the world, but as a general rule, it's easy to make an educated guess at one of the participants: Muslims vs. Jews in 'Palestine,' Muslims vs. Hindus in Kashmir, Muslims vs. Christians in Africa, Muslims vs. Buddhists in Thailand, Muslims vs. Russians in the Caucasus, Muslims vs. backpacking tourists in Bali."

This account not only omits many non-Islamic trouble spots, from Korea to Colombia, but also implicitly presumes that Muslims are the guilty parties and Islam is the problem in every conflict listed. Yet the war in Chechnya, for instance, is primarily a Russian war of imperial aggression, and religion has never been a strong factor in that region (though Al Qaeda has gained a foothold there thanks to the war).

This is not to say that there is no trouble with Islam today. By and large, it has not adjusted to modernity as well as the other major faiths. All religions have their fundamentalists and extremists, but as the Muslim reformer and feminist Irshad Manji has pointed out, it is only in Islam today that the fundamentalist, extremist strain is a large part of the mainstream. At its fanatical worst, this extremism can turn to deadly violence. Even in milder forms, its misogyny and rejection of pluralism make it incompatible with a liberal society.

But Islamic culture is not monolithic. There are regions, such as Bosnia, where the Muslim populations are modern and moderate, and there are progressive and reformist forces within Islam. In the United States, where the social and economic structures are far more flexible and more conducive to the integration of immigrants than in most of Europe, Muslim radicalism has not been a serious problem. (All the stateside Muslim protests against the infamous Danish Muhammad cartoons have been nonviolent.)

Radical Islam poses problems for the West, from within and from without. But if our response turns to bigotry directed at all Muslims, it will leave little reason for hope. That way lies the madness of apologias for Milosevic, of advocating genocide as the only way to deal with "their kind."