A Dangerous Cocktail
Growing up in the 1960’s in small-town Appalachia, I did not encounter significant cultural variety. As a member of the Baptist majority, I found Episcopalians extremely exotic. I was in high school when the first pizzeria opened in town. Of course, the only things Italian about it were the spices in the sauce.
In the meanwhile, globalism – a term that would become common only decades later – has brought the world to my backdoor. My wife administrates an International Baccalaureate program in a central Virginia high school. No racial or ethnic origin exists in sufficient numbers in the student population to constitute a majority. Many are second-generation residents in the US. Several come from families in which parents and grandparents do not speak English or do not speak it well. Students of southeast-Asian origin study alongside eastern Europeans. Arab, Chinese, (sub-continental) Indian, “white,” and “black” teenagers sit side-by-side in the concert band.
The phenomenon evident in the microcosm of a Virginia high school only mirrors the macrocosmic shifts brought about by the globalization of the economy, the ease and rapidity of international travel, the internet, and a score of other factors. In general, cultural diversity enriches, of course, but the dangers of globalization confront us all every day in the news from Syria or statements made on the presidential campaign trail. Diverse sub-cultures cannot live in harmony if they harbor misperceptions and misconceptions about one another. This observation may be especially true of religion.
Just this week I have heard two statements about Islam, the religion perhaps most misunderstood in the West, that point to the dangers. In an interview this week, Donald Trump boldly declared that “Islam hates us…”; in a casual discussion, an acquaintance observed that the situation in the Middle East will be difficult to resolve, in part, because it has such ancient roots, that the Arab-Israeli conflict began in biblical times. Both statements betray profound ignorance of the kind that can do significant harm.
Mr. Trump’s statement reflects downright sloppy thinking. It involves so many logical, theological, and historical defects that I will have space only to list bullet points:
- “Islam” is strictly monotheistic, but it is by no means monolithic. Like Christianity, Islam divides into a confusing array of schools and sects. The delightfully-named website “Informationisbeautiful” offers a wonderful chart that is too complicated to reproduce here. http://www.informationisbeautiful.net/visualizations/islamic-sects-schools-branches-movements/ (accessed 3/15/16). Some of the Muslims who practice these varieties of Islam hold pro-Western views; some do not.
- The claim that “Islam hates” as a characterization of the religion rather than of some of its adherents misrepresents the core tenets of the faith. The name derives from the Arabic word salam, cognate to the Hebrew shalom, and means “peace,” although it also has connotations of “submission.” Thus, Islam seeks peace through submission to God’s will.
- Indeed, radical Muslim terrorists, themselves, betray the peaceful nature of Islam. For example, Abu-Bakr’s instructions concerning the conduct of war clearly prohibit the reckless conduct of terrorists: “Do not betray or be treacherous or vindictive. Do not mutilate. Do not kill the children, the aged or the women. Do not cut or burn palm trees or fruitful trees. Don’t slay a sheep, a cow or camel except for your food. And you will come across people who confined themselves to worship in hermitages, leave them alone to what they devoted themselves for.”
- The claim that Islam hates “us” implicitly identifies “us” as the “Christian” West. Few of those who have heard Mr. Trump’s assertion know the Quran’s teachings on relations between Muslims, Jews, and Christians (the three “Peoples of the Book”). Because Jews and Christians also practice monotheism (although the Trinity is a problem for Islam), each faith constitutes an ummah, a people, and contrast with the polytheists. Islam recognizes the prophets Abraham, Moses, Jesus (whom they believe to have been born of a virgin, whom they recognize as Messiah, and whom they call “Word of God”), and Muhammed, the last prophet, the “Seal.” Muslims respect the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament as revealed scripture, although they believe that the Quran is superior, in part because it contains no scribal corruptions. Regarding the three “peoples,” the older “scriptures,” and the possibility that believers in all three faiths may come to God, the Quran says: “And We have sent down to thee the Book with the truth, confirming the Book that was before it, and assuring it. So judge between them according to what God has sent down, and do not follow their caprices, to forsake the truth that has come to thee. To every one of you We have appointed a right way and an open road. If God had willed, He would have made you one nation; but that He may try you in what has come to you. So be you forward in good works; unto God shall you return, all together; and He will tell you of that whereon you were at variance” (5:48, Arberry).
The casual statement about the antiquity of Arab-Israeli strife relates to the last series of observations concerning Mr. Trump’s illogic. While I obviously cannot narrate even the most important events in the last three thousand years of the history of the Levant and its peoples in a single blog entry, I can describe its basic contours. First, in biblical times, the Arabs were obscure tribes in what is modern Saudi Arabia. Ancient Israel had very little awareness of them, let alone conflict with them. By the fourth century BCE, one tribe, the Nabateans, had settled in the southern Trans-Jordan, leaving for posterity the magnificent structures at Petra (modern Jordan). The major concerns of the Jews of the time, of course, were the Persians, the Greeks, and later the Romans; neither Testament mentions the Nabateans or Petra. Emperor Hadrian banned Jews from Jerusalem in 131 CE; Emperor Julian (361-363 CE) permitted their return under significant restrictions. By the fifth century, only 10-15% of the population of Jerusalem was Jewish; Galilee had become the population center for Jews in the Levant. Muhammed was born circa 571 CE; by 638 CE, Palestine had come under Islamic rule. Except for roughly the one hundred years of the twelfth century when Jerusalem was a Crusader kingdom, Palestine would remain in the hands of first the Egyptian Mamluks and then the Ottoman Turks until the establishment of the British Mandate following WW I.
Two observations about relations between Jews and Arabs during this history tell the tale. First, in keeping with Muhammed’s teachings about the three ummah, both Jews and Christians in Palestine (and in Egypt, Islamic Spain, and Turkey) enjoyed toleration and even protection under the system known, in fact, as dhimmi (Arab. “protected”). Second, the strife between Arabs, especially Palestinians, and Jews arose only during and after the British Mandate (cf. the Balfour Declaration), with the influx of Zionists that culminated in the May 1948 declaration of a Jewish state of Israel.
I am not now seeking to function as an evangelist for Islam or an ambassador for Arabs. I am calling for informed opinion to guide our society as we seek to learn to live in a globalized community. No one benefits from prejudice, sloppy logic, and unnecessary mistrust.
Some who call themselves Christian behave horribly toward minorities, to cite an example, but that circumstance does not justify condemning Christianity for their crimes.