Jihad As Explained by USA Today
by Stephen Schwartz
A FLYER innocuously entitled "Q & A on Islam and Arab Americans" was recently mass-mailed to a list including journalists in Washington. Conspicuous at the top of the first page, the USA Today logo readies the reader to ingest bite-sized morsels of information, simple but reliable--and only then prompts him to scratch his head and wonder just why USA Today should be seeking to educate him about Islam.
The return address is unenlightening: "IIIT, P.O. Box 669, Herndon, VA 20172-0669." Only the eagle-eyed reporter will spot, in minuscule type at the bottom of the last page, the copyright, by the International Institute of Islamic Thought. And at once, the enterprise comes clear.
The IIIT is among the innumerable, ostensibly cultural, educational, and religious institutions founded, controlled, and/or influenced by the Saudi-Wahhabi movement, which promotes Islamic fundamentalism worldwide. The most notorious of these institutions are the hundreds of Islamic schools the Saudis funded in Pakistan to propagate Wahhabism. Those madrassas have their well-camouflaged counterparts in the Western world.
One strategic purpose of these institutions is to seize control of the definition of Islam. If they can persuade the non-Islamic world that no element of Islam threatens them, they will have bought some cover for extremism. (Think of the old Communists defining themselves as "progressives.") By inducing Westerners to avoid really learning about Islam, they hope to deflect attention from the crazies who strap suicide explosives onto teenagers or fly airplanes into office buildings or kill nosy reporters like Daniel Pearl. They certainly mean to deflect any questions about intolerant and corrupt regimes that blow up historic artifacts or stay in power by coercion.
Islam is one, and Muslims are uniformly peaceful--don't get hung up on the excesses of the Taliban or believe what you hear about hate-spewing anti-Jewish literature sold in mosques. To show how the IIIT's "USA Today" flyer serves the nice-and-bland message, consider its treatment of two questions about women.
Q: What is the role of women in Islam?
A: Under Islamic law, women have always had the right to own property, receive an education and otherwise take part in community life. Men and women are to be respected equally. The Islamic rules for modest dress apply to women and men equally.
In the first sentence of that reply, note the words "have always." The record, we are told, is consistent on this point. Yet females were excluded from schooling in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. In some places heavily influenced by fundamentalists, women can't so much as set foot in mosques to pray. "Men and women are to be respected equally," we are told, but under the extreme interpretations of Islamic law introduced by Saudi agents in Africa and Asia, adulteresses are subject to death by stoning, while adulterers go free. In Saudi Arabia, of course, women are not allowed to drive cars or to travel unaccompanied by males.
Q: Why do Muslim women cover their hair?
A: Islam teaches modesty for women and men. Women are required to cover their bodies so that their figure is not revealed and only their faces and hands are shown. The head scarf is called a hijab or chador. The long, robelike garment is called an abayah, jilbab or chador. This requirement is designed to protect women and give them respect. The dress of Muslim women is similar to that of Christian nuns, who also cover their bodies and hair. Muslim women are not required to cover their faces as is done in some Middle Eastern countries.
Consider the premise of the question, that Muslim women actually do cover their hair. It implicitly rules out of order the millions and millions of Muslim women who do not cover their hair. In most Islamic societies, the decision to adopt this practice is a matter of local custom and personal choice. In the Balkans, Turkey, Central Asia, and Southeast Asia, Muslim women who cover their hair are rare. Similarly, although non-revealing clothing is here called a "requirement" of Islam, it is not the universal practice among Muslim women, as Western designers beholden to wealthy Middle Eastern clients can testify.
Speaking of revealing, the flyer's handling of the question "What is jihad?" is a doozy.
A: Jihad does not mean 'holy war.' Literally, jihad in Arabic means to strive, struggle and exert effort. It is a central and broad Islamic concept that includes struggle against evil inclinations within oneself, struggle to improve the quality of life in society, struggle in the battlefield for self-defense or fighting against tyranny or oppression.
Here we have the money quote: "Jihad does not mean 'holy war.'" A few lines later, however, jihad does include "struggle in the battlefield." The truth is, military jihad cannot be written out of Islam. The prophet Mohammed himself led armies. This answer would be more honest if it said, "Jihad cannot be reduced to the idea of 'holy war.'" But IIIT seeks only to escape responsibility for the Wahhabi "jihad," which has been terroristic since the founding of the Wahhabi cult in central Arabia 250 years ago.
The back of the flyer contains a list of recommended websites and books on Islam. While most of the volumes embody the academic apologetics retailed by individuals like John Esposito and Karen Armstrong, the list also includes titles by Hassan Hathout, an inveterate apologist for extremism, and the sinister Bill Baker. The author of a virulent polemic against Israel, "Theft of a Nation," Baker has been a guest on "Radio Free America," a program backed by fascist agitator Willis Carto. There Baker offered this opinion: "The American people better wake up now and take a stand now so they won't allow one American child to be sent to defend Israel." As for the websites, they tend to be hospitable to the view of America as a rogue state bent on terrorizing its Muslim residents.
IIIT may be comfortable with all this. But USA Today, from whose website the Q & A is reprinted with permission, should beware lending respectability to Wahhabi institutions. And patriotic Americans, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, should recognize the IIIT's flyer for what it is--junk mail.
Related Topics: American Muslims, Wahhabism receive the latest by email: subscribe to the free center for islamic pluralism mailing list
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