As a new year dawns it’s time for Saudis to learn discipline, says the editor-in-chief of the Jeddah-based Arab News. He doesn’t just mean cutting back on beer runs to Bahrain: “a part of the kind of discipline that is so necessary must be the conscious decision never to resort to violence as a way of solving our problems.”
An admirable New Year’s Resolution, to be sure. Yet the editor, Khaled Al-Maeena, isn’t entirely clear about the intended recipient of his admonition to nonviolence. Is he speaking to Saudis who may be tempted to continue to indulge a taste for terrorism in 2003, or to the United States? As war with Iraq looms ever nearer, Al-Maeena has strong words only for the Saudis’ great ally: “At present the superpower is behaving like the proverbial bull in a china shop. It is not yet breaking but it is certainly threatening, accusing and blackmailing. It is committing acts that would cause America’s legendary Founding Fathers to turn in their graves if they knew.”
America’s greatest fault? “The demonization of Muslims.”
It seems that “the evil done by a few Muslims has been expanded in the American media to include all Muslims.” Islam has become a scapegoat: “America, it seems, has to have an enemy and in the absence of ‘godless communism,’ their war on terror is viewed by many as a ‘war on Islam.’” Says Al-Maeena, “America — and every other country — should realize that we Muslims too oppose terror.”
Have Americans realized anything but this? Al-Maeena, after all, is admonishing the nation whose president has gone to such lengths to affirm that Islam is a religion of peace that Ibrahim Hooper of the Council on American-Islamic Relations remarked, “Even I get a little tired of that.” Al-Maeena is taking to task a media establishment that has followed George W. Bush’s line on this as they have on little else. Indicative of the general tenor of American media coverage of Islam and terrorism is the day that Pat Robertson declared that Islam was not actually peaceful; the Washington Post wondered editorially if he were trying to start a “pogrom.”
Evidently that sort of thing is not enough. Al-Maeena sees a political cartoon about Islam and terrorism (“What would Muhammad drive?” A truck carrying a bomb.) to claim that the entire American media is dead-set against Islam: “The cartoons ridiculing our Holy Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, are justified by officials and the media who say — predictably — the press is free. Well, the press should be free but if it is, where are the cartoons, articles and TV shows presenting Arab or Palestinian opinions and views?”
Where are they? On PBS. “Arab” and “Palestinian” are certainly not synonymous with “Muslim,” but since in the rest of his article Al-Maeena complains about the media’s unfair characterization not of those groups but of Islam, he might be pleased to know that the Corporation for Public Broadcasting produced during the Christmas season a full-length valentine to Islam, Muhammad: Legacy of a Prophet. Nor was this PBS’s only initiative in this field, and network officials have been quite forthright about undertaking these projects in order to “counter the negative image of Muslims.”
What agency funded by the Saudi government is busy countering the negative image of Americans in Saudi Arabia? But leave that aside — Al-Maeena’s quarry is even bigger than the U.S. government and media. “The ineffective and virtually impotent Arab PR programs,” he informs us, “have themselves become objects of ridicule and serve to do no more than increase the existing sense of helplessness.” Why has this happened? “The anti-Islamic hysteria and the defamation of Muslims and their leaders has been a well-planned, well-orchestrated effort. It has been carried out with consummate skill and finesse. . . . As we look back at the year, we see that the attacks upon us have taken on a new and sinister dimension.”
Who is doing all this planning and orchestrating? You guessed it: “Libelous and poisonous, the attacks have been both created and circulated by a powerful Zionist-backed lobby and its close allies.” Of course! The eternal bogeyman!
If Al-Maeena believes his own calls for “no self-indulgent pity, no claims that we are misunderstood and victimized, no turning away from the truth,” he should stop pointing his finger at shadowy Zionist conspiracies and look at evidence that lies closer at hand. He calls Americans to “realize that we Muslims too oppose terror,” and suggests that to think otherwise is to “demonize” Muslims. But is it “demonization” simply to ask why so many terrorists are Muslims and justify their terror on Islamic grounds? Was it a Zionist who murdered three American missionaries in Yemen and then explained that he did it in order to “cleanse his religion and get closer to Allah”? Was it a Zionist who found inspiration in the Koran to explode a bomb in the Sari club in Bali? Or who torched churches and murdered bystanders in Nigeria in reaction to a perceived insult to the prophet Muhammad during the Miss World pageant?
Of course all Muslims don’t condone or endorse these acts. But the unpleasant fact is that these and many other terrorist acts were, according to those who perpetrated them, motivated by Islamic teachings and thought. In light of all this, was the cartoonist against whom Al-Maeena fulminates really trying to defame the prophet of Islam, or was he simply making a statement about the stated motivations of all too many terrorists?
If Al-Maeena really wants to stop the self-pity and face the truth, he needs to recognize that Muslims haven’t needed any outside help lately: they’re doing a terrific job of demonizing Islam all by themselves. It isn’t enough anymore, if it ever was, to say that terrorist Muslims take Koranic exhortations to violence “out of context” and that they aren’t true Muslims. If that’s really the case, then Al-Maeena and other antiterrorist Muslims, instead of looking under rocks for Zionists, should direct their energies to refuting and discrediting the exegeses of the Koran and Hadith that terrorists use to justify their actions. If it’s really time for self-discipline, it’s time for moderate Muslims to start trying to win back the ground they have lost to radical Muslims within the Islamic world.
Al-Maeena says it himself: “The time has come for us to look more closely at ourselves, to look honestly and analytically and to admit whatever we see — which will in many cases be painful to us.” Just so. He even hints that he may be aware of the true dimensions of the problem: “A vital part of the success of this process depends upon our boldness in speaking out and challenging those who present and advocate ideas dressed in traditional language but which in fact too often run contrary to the best Islamic ideals of justice, fair play and tolerance.”
He said it even more clearly in an earlier column about September 11:
The fact that those responsible for the attacks were allegedly our fellow Muslims and perhaps even our fellow Saudis should make us stop and ponder. We must ask ourselves for reasons. Who were these people? Why did they do what they did? What led them down that path? The first two questions are probably the easiest; it is the third which may take us into regions we do not want to visit and force us to ask unpopular questions which may give rise to even more unpopular answers. But this must be done — coolly, calmly and as unemotionally as possible. We must investigate and if, in the course of our investigation, we stumble upon things that are unpleasant or unpalatable, we must confront them as honestly and sincerely as we can and then act according to the principles and directions of our great religion, Islam.
It is precisely this capacity for self-criticism that has been glaringly absent from Islam’s internal debate, both among American Muslims and those in the Islamic world. To take just one recent example: When asked about the fact that Muslim radicals make liberal use of the Koranic verse that calls Jews and Christians “apes and swine” and says that they are under the curse of Allah (Sura 5:60), Hussein Ibish of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee relied on American ignorance of Islam and simply denied that such a verse was actually in the Koran. Then he took a page from Al-Maeena’s Zionist demonization clique and suggested that those who asked such questions were simply bigots.
At that moment Ibish had an opportunity to explain that verse in a way that would remove its noxious implications and discredit the radicals who take it at face value. The fact that he chose instead to deny the existence of this verse raises questions about his ultimate goal. Does he want to instill in Americans a positive image of Islam at any cost — even at the expense of the truth?
In dealing with uncomfortable matters in this way he insults both Muslims and non-Muslims. By ignoring Koranic passages like Sura 5:60 and the book’s many calls to violence, moderate Muslims only give non-Muslims reason to suspect their intentions and honesty.
The time for this kind of dishonesty is long past. Too much is at stake. Instead of spending time imagining Zionist conspiracies and demonizing those who dare to ask Al-Maeena’s “unpopular questions,” let us hope that in this new year Al-Maeena and other like-minded Muslims will take their own exhortations to honesty and searching self-examination to heart.
— Robert Spencer is an adjunct fellow with the Free Congress Foundation and author of Islam Unveiled: Disturbing Questions About the World’s Fastest Growing Faith.