Marvin Olasky received his B.A. from Yale University. He then earned M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in American Culture from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. Before joining The University of Texas at Austin faculty in 1983, Olasky worked as a reporter for the Bend, Oregon Bulletin and for the Boston Globe. Olasky is editor-in-chief of World magazine, the fourth most-read newsweekly in the U.S., for which he writes a weekly column. He has authored 13 books, including Compassionate Conservatism, The American Leadership Tradition, and Central Ideas in the Development of American Journalism, along with 14 other monographs or co-authored books. He has published more than 800 articles on journalism, history, poverty-fighting, religion, sports, etc.
Many newspapers and magazines offered crash courses in the basics of Islam following the destruction of the World Trade Center towers, and WORLD went deeper in a special issue the month after 9/11. Sadly, newspaper presentation of the basics was generally done in the context of stories that advocated the positive, toleration, without coming to grips with the negative, the existence for centuries of a sizeable war party within Islam. Instead of describing both faces of Islam, reporters displayed superficiality and tried to foster syncretism.
Reporters have frequently labeled Osama bin Laden's pronouncements as deviations from moralistic but peace-loving Islam. For example, the Riverside (Calif.) Press-Enterprise contrasted "self-declared 'Islamic militants'" with the "authentic Islam" absorbed by convert Nancy Hadiza Collins: "'I used to love drinking strawberry margaritas,' she said. 'Now I read Muslim books and avoid sleazy films or music.'"
On the other side of the United States, the Orlando Sentinel told readers that "Muslims Strive to Educate," which means that "[w]hen Errol Peterkin says Islam is peace, it's more than just an expression. 'It's how we live, by nature of our religion.'" The Sentinel reported that at an open house for the Muslim Academy of Central Florida "kindergartners did finger paintings, some students created collages, and older children wrote essays. 'The terrorists called themselves Muslim, but Muslims do not behave with such violence and evil,' wrote fifth-grader Sufeya Yasin."
Reporters suggested that such pre-pubescent wisdom should just about end the discussion. The Atlanta Journal was typical in its statement that discussions in Muslim countries are open-ended: "Most Americans probably would be stunned to see that the Quran advises Muslims to 'be courteous when you argue with People of the Book [Christians and Jews], except with those who do evil.'" The Journal did not mention that many Muslims view Christian evangelism as evil. Instead, readers were told, "Although Islam is often depicted in Western thought and popular culture as 'a religion of the sword,' the Quran condemns war and violence."
Sadly, the U.S. press had not delved into the debate about what kind of war and violence the Quran condemns. Let's look at several Arabic words. Saddam Hussein and Saudi members of the Wahhabi sect argue that terrorists are martyrs: They pay $25,000 or more to the surviving families of mujahideen (holy warriors) who participate in jihad and become shahidin (martyrs). But other Muslims call terrorists mufsidoon (evil-doers) engaged in hirabah (unholy war against society) and heading not to paradise but to jahannam (eternal hellfire).
Muslims originally used the term hirabah to condemn vicious attacks by members of barbarian tribes who murdered or enslaved those they fought and defeated. Such barbarians engaged in "war against society," attacking indiscriminately as today's hirabah mufsidoon (vicious war evildoers) attack indiscriminately. The TrueSpeak Institute in Washington argues that traditional Islamic law bans "the fomenting of hatred between communities, religions, nations and civilizations; committing and enticing others to commit suicide for the purpose of intimidation; and wanton killing of innocents and noncombatants, even including fellow Muslims."
Even if that is true, Saddam, bin Laden, and other purveyors of violent hatred have been redefining the classic concepts. Israeli adults are not innocent because many at some point had military training, and Israeli children are future aggressors, Saddam charges. Clerks in the World Trade Center were not noncombatants because they fueled capitalism that makes possible American aggression, bin Laden argues. U.S. forces' attack on Iraq is not to force change in a regime that has violated the peace agreements signed after Gulf War I, but to destroy a center of Islam, many mullahs mutter.
How many other Muslims follow that train of thought? The question of definition—jihad or hirabah—is crucial for Muslims, but most Americans are unaware of the debate. A Lexis-Nexis search early in 2003 showed seven references to hirabah in the previous 90 days and thousands to jihad. That debate is on among Islamic scholars, though. For example, Ezzeddin Ibrahim of the United Arab Emirates stated that "what occurred on Sept. 11, 2001, is one of the most loathsome of crimes, which in Islam goes under the name of al-hirabah."
Similarly, Akbar Ahmed, chairman of Islamic Studies at American University, said that "al-Qaeda's brand of suicide mass murder and its fomenting of hatred among races, religions, and cultures do not constitute godly or holy jihad—but, in fact, constitute the heinous crime and sin of unholy hirabah." Tamman Adi, director of the Islamic Cultural Center in Eugene, Ore., also argued that "the masterminds of international terrorism are not fighting a jihad, they are hirabah thugs."
These and other assertions can be found on Internet sites but not in U.S. newspapers, according to my Lexis-Nexis search. Some Americans think Islam is a religion of war and others a religion of peace, but few see that it is and has been both at various times, and that a furious debate concerning Islam's future direction is now under way.
Conversion from any religion to another is a major step, yet reporters—apparently coming from the view that Islam and Christianity are essentially similar religions—have generally made it seem easy. The Houston Chronicle, under a "Drawn to Islam" headline, concentrated on food, not faith: "Huevos rancheros for breakfast; fasouliye for dinner.... For El-Kassir, a Mexican-American convert to Islam, starting the day with the Mexican egg breakfast and ending it with a Lebanese meat-and-bean dinner meant nothing more than the merging of cultures easily found in Islam." Nothing more than the merging of cultures?
Syncretism—trying to merge religions—was also evident in a Dallas Morning News report (also under the headline, "Drawn to Islam") on an army officer sent in 1992 to Pakistan, where "the piety of the people made a strong impression. 'They were good, humble people trying to practice their religion,' he said, [so he was] attracted by Islam's strict moral code, a belief system with similarities to Judaism and Christianity." Islam's minutely detailed moral code is very different from Christianity's emphasis on broad principles that require discerning application.
Some stories on Muslim holidays did report customs that would seem strange to many Americans, but almost always without any explanation of what the differences signify. For example, The Ledger (Lakeland, Fla.) reported the celebration of Eid al-Adha, Islam's three-day festival of sacrifice, and noted, "The sacrifice and cooking of a goat or other animal is part of the ritual of the Eid al-Adha.... In the Islamic holy book, the Quran, Abraham is said to have been commanded by God to sacrifice his son, Ishmael, but was stopped at the last moment and given a goat to sacrifice instead." The Ledger did not explain that sacrifices came because of the understanding that sin had to be paid for in some manner.
Major theological differences tended to be reported in an "oh, by the way" manner: The Florida Times-Union (Jacksonville) stated that "Muslims believe in all of God's prophets, including Jesus Christ. However, they believe Muhammad was the last and final prophet." Oh, that's it? But Christianity is based on the belief not that Christ is one among many prophets, but that He is the Son of God. Many newspapers have reported variations on this theme: "Same God: Muslims accept the teachings of the Jewish Torah and the Christian Gospels." That's not true; Muslims accept those teachings only when they conform to the teachings of the Quran, and often they do not.
Sure we can, and United Press International's Uwe Siemon-Netto showed how in an article that took aim on syncretism. In "Faith Cocktails for Good Times," he noted that "Syncretism, or the mixing of religious doctrines, is ... en vogue in this giddy postmodern era.... Truth is syncretism's first casualty because honesty falls by the wayside."
The story succinctly noted the error of simply saying that both Islam and Christianity "revere Jesus, affirm His virgin birth, and await His ultimate return to judge the living and the dead. Of course there is a huge difference. To Muslims, Jesus is the second-ranking prophet who never died on the cross. To Christians, He is the incarnation of the very aspect of God that created the universe. In Christ, God made Himself small for humanity's salvation. These differences are insuperable, if you wish to engage in an honest theological discourse."
Mr. Siemon-Netto's piece was a column, but Teresa Watanabe of the Los Angeles Times showed what could be done in a detailed piece of reporting (appropriately headlined, "Inside a Complex Community"). The article began, "No place in Southern California symbolizes the tension over Saudi Arabia's influence in the world like the King Fahd Mosque in Culver City.... The mosque's leaders admire Muhammad ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab, an 18th-century evangelist. Al-Wahhab inspired the so-called Wahhabi movement, which is prominent in Saudi Arabia but criticized by detractors for oppressing women, shunning non-Muslims, and inspiring Osama bin Laden's jihad."
The article showed how militant and peaceful factions in America's second-largest city are fighting for dominance within a mosque financed by Saudi money: "Inside the mosque community, there are those who are sympathetic to jihad and suicide bombings and those who are not. Some object to non-Muslims visiting their sacred space; others warmly embrace them. Some women veil their entire bodies; others throw off such practices as outdated.... On the Friday after the terrorist attacks, the imam [Tajuddin Shuaib] says, he gave a sermon condemning suicide bombings and was shouted down by some men who leaped to their feet and accused him of 'changing the Quran.'"
Ms. Watanabe continued, "Patriotic banners supporting President Bush and the families of terrorist victims were torn down from the mosque and stolen, he says. The same hotheads, Shuaib says, have also tried to foment hatred against Israel for its actions against Palestinians and the United States for its bombing campaign against Afghanistan.... Shuaib says he kicked out four members of the mosque in October in part because they were fomenting dissent and extremism."
The article described a kicked-out member, "Abdo Ghanem, 39 ... a designer-clothes salesman [who] praises America's political freedoms even as he castigates its moral decadence." Mr. Ghanem chauffeured Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman (given life imprisonment for conspiring to blow up New York landmarks) and favors assassination of bad Muslims and jihad against Saudi Arabia and Israel. But Ms. Watanabe also described "Sonia Arcangeli, 31. The Marina del Rey resident paints her nails red, views gender segregation as unequal and, to the horror of other women, dissents from the majority view that menstruating women must not touch the Quran."
Ms. Watanabe showed her sympathy with Imam Shuaib, who suffered criticism for performing a wedding that non-Muslim women attended without wearing "proper" covering, and took more heat for accepting flowers from a Jewish neighbor after news broke that the Jewish Defense League allegedly planned to bomb the mosque. "Brother, are you out of your mind?" Shuaib says he told the critic. "Do you want a bomb or flowers? People with extremist views want you to come down very, very hard on non-Muslims."
Sadly, Ms. Watanabe's article was unusual, as most reporters implied that Muslim extremists were a small minority. The UPI's Uwe Siemon-Netto was one of the very few to ask hard questions and still offer hope, in a UPI article provocatively headlined, "Can Islam Be Reformed?" He reported both questions involving the meaning of jihad and problems in Islamic law that can lead to death by stoning for a woman who reports a rape charge. Then he noted Islam's "teaching that about once every 100 years God sends a messenger to correct not the Quran, but the perspective from which it is to be seen at any given time in history." He reported that "a small but intellectually powerful group of Muslim scholars is endeavoring to correct this perspective for our time. Quietly, they are also engaged in dialogues with Jews and Christians, especially in Europe and the United States."
Those dialogues are needed, but they need to stress telling the truth and not showing "compassion" toward Muslims by refusing to ask hard questions. On Oct. 1, 2002, the London Arabic-language daily Al-Hayat printed a letter from M.G. Abu Saber, father of a young Palestinian suicide bomber who wrote, "Four months ago, I lost my eldest son when his friends tempted him, praising the path of death. They persuaded him to blow himself up in one of Israel's cities."
The bereaved father went on to describe how "friends of my eldest son the martyr were starting to wrap themselves like snakes around my other son, not yet 17." They wanted "to direct him to the same path towards which they had guided his brother, so that he would blow himself up too to avenge his brother, claiming 'he had nothing to lose.'"
Mr. Saber continued, "From the blood of the wounded heart of a father who has lost what is most precious to him in the world, I turn to the leaders of the Palestinian factions, and at their head the leaders of Hamas and Islamic Jihad and their sheiks, who use religious rulings and statements to urge more and more of the sons of Palestine to their deaths." He asked, "By what right do these leaders send the young people, even young boys in the flower of their youth, to their deaths? Who gave them religious or any other legitimacy to tempt our children and urge them to their deaths? ... Has death become the only way to restore the rights and liberate the land? And if this be the case, why doesn't a single one of all the sheiks who compete amongst themselves in issuing fiery religious rulings, send his son? ..."
It is neither wise nor compassionate to remain uninformed about those fiery religious rulings, and whether they have a basis in the Quran. Nor is it wise, when one culture may be threatening another, to settle for the most superficial coverage of that culture's belief, or to assume that both cultures have essentially the same understanding of who God is.
Copyright ©2003 World. Used by permission.