Preachers of Bigotry

Muqtedar Khan
Muqtedar Khan Former Brookings Expert, Professor, Department of Political Science and International Relations - University of Delaware

June 5, 2003

There is now in America more room for bigotry and intolerance to thrive. The search for security at any cost has created an environment that is emboldening Islamophoebia—a nasty cousin of anti-Semitism—to manifest itself in nearly every sphere of American society. Muslims are feeling discrimination and demonisation and experiencing a palpable sense of alienation in schools, universities, in the workplace, and most severely on the information highways—radio, TV, and the Internet.

Last week, I noticed a really offensive bumper sticker on a car in front of me. It said, “Kill them all, Let Allah sort them out.” This was especially shocking to me. I have worked night and day to advance a moderate vision of Islam, provided a scathing criticism of Islamic extremism, and worked to develop common ground for inter-faith and inter-civilisational understanding. Many voices for peace and understanding have spoken up and many individuals and groups, churches, mosques and synagogues have worked tirelessly to create local spaces for mutual appreciation and understanding. Yet in spite of all these efforts, the sticker suggests that the forces of hate, bigotry and intolerance are winning in America too. American values are in danger from outside as well as inside. I wish I had a sticker that would express the thought that raced through my mind at that moment—”Why do they hate us?”

One of the reasons for the growing Islamopheobia in this country is the anti-Muslim rhetoric coming from the evangelical Christian community. Their leaders have repeatedly made extremely venomous public statements about Islam and Muslims and the Bush administration has continued to patronise them, suggesting that while the official position maintains that Islam is a religion of peace, the government does not have any problem coddling those who spread hatred against Islam. The recent decision by the White House to nominate a prominent Islamophoebe to the board of the US Institute of Peace and the invitation by the Pentagon to Franklin Graham, who described Islam as a wicked religion are indications that even the highest levels of government are not insulated from the influence of a group of bigoted religious fundamentalists, who are undermining the secular character of America, subverting the peaceful message of Christianity and polluting the socio-cultural environment of America. Rev Jerry Falwell, Rev Pat Robertson, Rev Jerry Vine and Rev Franklin Graham are four of the most prominent, powerful and vocal representatives of this group.

Readers may recall that in the immediate aftermath of 11 September, Reverend Jerry Falwell blamed abortionists, homosexuals, and the ACLU for angering God and indirectly causing the attacks of 11 September. He later apologised for his statements when there was uproar from all sides of the political spectrum, including the president who described Falwell’s comments as “inappropriate”. His statement was a shameless and insensitive example of political opportunism that sought not only to politicise the tragedy of 11 September, but also to incite hatred towards the groups that Rev Falwell and his associates habitually target. If he was not strongly rebuked by nearly everyone who mattered, his crusade against ACLU, gays and feminists would have fed on the emotions related to 11 September and gained significant momentum.

Falwell has since then abstained from attacking other groups. But in the absence of strong condemnation from the White House and the media, the statements against Islam and Muslims have not abated. One can only imagine what these and similar individuals maybe preaching to their millions of followers in the safety of their churches and congregations away from media scrutiny.

In the past few months they have unleashed a verbal assault on Islam and its religious symbols, unmindful of the hate it is inciting against Muslims in America and the anti-American sentiments it is generating in the Muslim World. Rev Falwell and Rev Pat Robertson have called The Prophet of Islam a terrorist and argued that Islam and its teachings are the sources of violence. Rev Franklin Graham has announced that Islam and its teachings are evil and wicked. Jerry Vine described the Prophet Mohamed as a “demon-possessed- pedophile”. Their comments have caused anger among Muslims worldwide, including religious riots in India that led to five deaths. Many Pakistanis have reacted angrily and expressed their dismay by voting strongly in favour of a pro-Taliban and anti-American alliance in the last elections in Pakistan.

The problem with this group is not just their ideas and their hate mongering but the fact that they have a reasonably large following—sufficient to influence the electoral outcomes in American elections. By virtue of their votes and their fund raising capacity they exercise more power over the American Congress and the president than the Mullahs of Saudi Arabia can over the decisions of their king. Furthermore the close relationship between the president himself and Rev Franklin Graham and other members of his administration, such as Attorney-General Ashcroft, is extremely disturbing. It is not a coincidence that the first group to financially benefit from George Bush’s impulse to finance faith-based programmes was that of Rev Pat Robertson. Is it possible that the very purpose of the Federal initiative to support faith-based programmes is to allow these groups to intertwine their operations with those of the Federal government? Their involvement in the post-war Iraq further strengthens this fear.

We live in very sensitive times. People’s insecurities are extremely heightened and their capacity to suffer pain, bigotry and injustice is being severely tested. We are facing the possibility of a global war between America and the Muslim world. And the primary cause for such a war, God-forbid, would not be oil, geopolitics or regime changes, but the intolerable and vicious hate speech unleashed by religious bigots on both sides who confuse self-righteousness for righteousness and demonisation for devotion.

A recent national convention of Evangelical groups expressed concern that anti- Islam statements were causing harm to their cause. But while this must be recognised and appreciated, I am disappointed that the Evangelical convention found anti-Islam rhetoric problematic for instrumental reasons rather than on moral or Christian grounds. Many missionaries complain that such statements have made their efforts to proselytise Muslims more difficult. Isn’t hate mongering worthy of condemnation as an immoral act regardless of the operational inconveniences they may cause? Isn’t it against the spirit of inclusion and compassion that Jesus preached?

At the same convention, Dianne Knippers, the president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy called for a more realistic Christian-Muslim dialogue. She made an interesting and strong argument to use the inter-faith dialogue to advance human rights and religious freedoms. She however made a rather strange reference to the “physical, social and spiritual deficits within the Islamic world”. I wonder what she means by physical deficits. Statements such as these, which assume the moral superiority of the West, are appalling. I wonder how the US and Europe stack up when their spiritual and moral worth is measured using the Ten Commandments as a yard stick?

I must remind readers that hate mongering is not common in the Christian communities of North America. It is indeed a rare but egregious blemish found only among the Evangelists. Most other Protestant groups and Catholics in general have gone way beyond the call of duty to befriend, support, protect and comfort American Muslims in their hour of need. In a rare gesture, nearly all Christian groups had opposed the war against Iraq as an unjust war and have publicly condemned anti- Muslim bigotry. Christian groups are also helping Muslims fight the declining protection of Muslim civil rights in America.

I will end this discussion with three specific comments for the Evangelists who nurture hate against Islam and Muslims.

1. No other religion can claim to teach tolerance, pluralism and respect for the other as beautifully as Islam. Here is just one example and I challenge Franklin Graham to produce a similar text from Christian sources that specifically recognises other religions.

“Those who believe, and those who are Jewish, and Christians and the Sabians, — any who believe in God and the Day of Judgment, and perform righteous deeds, shall have their reward with their Lord; on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve.” (Quran, 2:62, 5:69).

2. While there are many Christian preachers who rant and rave and abuse Islam, the Prophet Mohamad, and the Quran, no Muslim has ever abused or spoken ill of Jesus. Much is made about how Muslims teach hatred against Christians and Jews (read American foreign policy and Israel) but no one can produce a single instance were Muslims have demonised Jesus. Muslims revere him and recognise his miracles.

3. I wish to leave the Evangelical missionaries with a taste of Islamic wisdom on how to work in the path of God.

“Invite (all) to the way of thy Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching; and argue with them in ways that are best and most gracious: for thy Lord knoweth best who have strayed from His Path and who receive guidance.” (Quran 16:125).