Bush caught in Islam debate
by Edward Epstein
WASHINGTON -- President Bush, defending his administration's war on terrorism, finds himself caught between prominent conservatives who increasingly decry Islam as a violent menace, and the Muslim world, where there is a rising tide of anti-American feelings.
Bush and administration officials, almost daily now, repeatedly stress that the enemies in the president's war on terrorism are Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network and Iraq's Saddam Hussein, not a religion that has some 1.2 billion adherents worldwide.
Speaking at a Washington mosque Thursday to mark the end of Ramadan, the Islamic holy month, the president said, "The spirit behind this holiday is a reminder that Islam brings hope and comfort to more than 1 billion people worldwide. Islam affirms God's justice and insists on man's moral responsibility."
As Bush mulls an invasion of Iraq to oust Hussein, U.S. policy is caught at the potentially explosive intersection of war and religion. An invasion of Iraq could fuel more anti-Americanism, and more terrorist attacks like those of Sept. 11, 2001, could fuel anti-Islamic sentiments in this country.
And the continuing Israeli-Palestinian deadlock fuels anti-U.S. feelings among Muslims who see Washington as Israel's main backer.
A chorus of academics support Harvard University scholar Samuel Huntington's warning of an approaching clash between the West and Islamic civilization. To such thinkers, the war's front lines are already ablaze -- in Nigeria, Sudan, in the disputed territory of Kashmir and in Indonesia. Israel's struggle with the Palestinians could also fall in this category.
Calling the situation a "New Iron Curtain," Philip Jenkins of Pennsylvania State University said that "American forces have become involved in what is arguably the most significant conflict of our age, the struggle to determine the frontiers between Islam and Christianity worldwide."
Writing in American Outlook, the magazine of the conservative Hudson Institute, Jenkins warned, "American governments may shortly have to face a difficult policy question that until recently would have seemed quite outlandish: Should the United States adopt an explicitly pro-Christian foreign policy?" Such a policy would be designed to protect Christian communities in Third World countries.
A more specific criticism is that Saudi Arabia, home to the royal family's well-financed fundamentalist Wahhabi sect, is spreading Muslim extremism, even as it is threatened by bin Laden. The Saudi government, embarrassed by disclosures that a Saudi princess may have provided funds to two of the Sept. 11 hijackers, said Tuesday it was stepping up its scrutiny of charitable funds.
"I agree with the president that a great religion has been hijacked, but the hijackers are the same ones who included 15 of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers, the Saudis," said Stephen Schwartz, author of "The Two Faces of Islam: The House of Saud From Tradition to Terror."
But Schwartz, a former Chronicle reporter, said broad-stroke critics of Islam were committing a serious blunder. "If we want Muslims to respect Jews and Christians, we have to respect them," he said. "No man of God should be issuing Islamophobic propaganda."
Any anti-Muslim talk has brought repeated denunciations from Bush.
"Some of the comments that have been uttered about Islam do not reflect the sentiments of my government or the sentiments of most Americans," the president said this week. "Islam, as practiced by the vast majority of people, is a peaceful religion."
The president's remarks have clashed with those of religious conservatives who say he is making a mistake by not casting the war in anti-Islamic terms.
Such leading Christian evangelical clergymen as Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell and the Rev. Billy Graham's son Franklin have attacked the very basis of Islam, castigating the Prophet Mohammed as an intolerant man of violence. Other, less-sweeping critics say the West faces a new Cold War against expansionist, intolerant strands of Islam that want to destroy Christianity and Judaism.
"It's violent at its core," Robertson said Sunday on ABC This Week. "It's not a peaceful religion. But many followers of Islam are very peaceful, law-abiding citizens."
Ismail Royer, communications director of the Muslim American Society, castigated Robertson as part of "an obnoxious crowd of extremists (inciting) the West and the Muslim world to a conflict that, weighed against alternative ways of resolving our grievances, is to no one's advantage but the special interests and fringe groups in the peanut gallery."
On Wednesday, Bush was asked about the results of a new Pew Global Attitudes Project that found that 75 percent of those surveyed in Jordan had an unfavorable opinion of America, as did 69 percent in Egypt and Pakistan and 59 percent in Lebanon.
"I hope the message that we fight not a religion but a group of fanatics which have hijacked a religion is getting through," Bush said.
"We must understand that the propaganda machines are cranked up in the international community that paints our country in a bad light," he said. "We'll do everything we can to remind people that we've never been a nation of conquerors; we're a nation of liberators."
On Thursday, Bush's spokesman Ari Fleischer again found himself answering a similar question, this time about Muslim opinion against action in Iraq. Fleischer pointed out that Syria, a neighbor of Iraq, had joined in the tough, unanimous U.N. Security Council resolution sending arms inspectors back into Iraq.
"Syria has called on Iraq to disarm," said Fleischer, who like his boss has often said that bin Laden has tried to hijack Islam and that Hussein hasn't hesitated to invade Iran and Kuwait, other Muslim nations.
"And I remind you," Fleischer added, "about all the efforts the United States has made to help bring freedom to Muslims all around the world, including Bosnia, including Afghanistan."
Analyst James Pike of GlobalSecurity.org, who is convinced the Bush administration plans military action in Iraq, said the president had made a simple calculation when it comes to gauging Muslim public opinion.
"Their calculation is that a swift victory is its own justification," Pike said. "They figure that after that all the critics will be silent."
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