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Tiptoeing Through Islam
by Margaret Wente - October 2, 2001
Among the most exemplary responses to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks has been the effort not to demonize Muslims and Islam. Jean Chrйtien and George W. Bush, as well as religious leaders of all denominations, have warned repeatedly against a backlash. And there has been very little. Indeed, many ordinary people have been moved to warm gestures of support for their Muslim neighbours and colleagues.

The media have carried interviews with numerous scholars and Muslim clerics explaining that Islam is a religion of peace. Many of these clerics argue that the terrorists believe in a twisted version of Islam that really is not Islam at all. Some say that, because Islam forbids violence against the innocent, it is impossible that the attackers were Muslims.

The media are constantly being cautioned to avoid language that may inflame. An American organization of religious news reporters advised its members to avoid the term "Islamic terrorist" or similar phrases "that associate an entire religion with the action of a few." The global head of Reuters news service has banned the word "terrorist," unless it"s in a quote. "We all know that one man"s terrorist is another man"s freedom fighter," he wrote in an internal memo.

Islamic organizations are on word watch, too. The Canadian Islamic Congress regards any language that links Islam and violence, such as "Islamic terrorist" or "Muslim extremist group," as hate-mongering.

This insistence on correct speech is reassuring, in a way. It reflects the fair-minded, pluralistic society in which we live. Its goal is to uphold the very values that the terrorists want to destroy. Yet it also leads us to the awkward spot where it"s permissible (in Canada, at any rate) to say any terrible thing you want about the United States, but not permissible to be critical of any aspects of Muslim societies or cultures.

But it would be dangerous to let our respect for differences blind us to some uncomfortable realities. Otherwise, we can"t really understand why so many people are cheering for Osama bin Laden. Here are two realities of Muslim culture that are particularly uncomfortable.

Sexism: Nowhere in the Muslim world are women treated equally. The oppression of Afghanistan"s Taliban is the extreme. But most Muslim nations are deeply patriarchal societies. Even in nations where they are occasionally allowed to rule (usually for dynastic reasons), women are second-class citizens. In Saudi Arabia, they"re still fighting for the right to drive.

Muslim clerics support the treatment of women, who, traditionally, have been thought to be more morally corrupt than men. The freedom and sexual display of women in the West are regarded throughout the Islamic world as leading evidence of the West"s decadence. Mr. bin Laden was inflamed to fury not by the conflict over Israel or the sanctions against Iraq, but by widely circulated photos of female U.S. soldiers in Saudi Arabia.

Anti-Semitism: Nowhere in the Islamic media will you find another side to the story of Israel"s endless atrocities. Anti-Semitism is so entrenched throughout the Muslim world that no peace settlement will ever quench it. America is hated in large part because it"s Israel"s best friend, and is said to be controlled by Jews.

Demonization of the Jews is not confined to mullahs and people in the street. Many children learn it in school. One Syrian textbook instructs Grade 10 students that their duty as Muslims is to unite in order to exterminate the Jews.

Moderate regimes, such as Jordan and Egypt, tolerate ugly hate speech even in government-owned newspapers. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has explained that Arab dictatorships, feeling defensive about their own crackdowns on fundamentalists, have allowed their press and intellectuals total freedom to attack America and Israel as a way of deflecting criticism from themselves.

One columnist, writing about Jews in al-Akhbar, Egypt"s government-sponsored newspaper, recently expressed his "thanks to Hitler, of blessed memory, who on behalf of Palestinians took revenge in advance on the most vile criminals on the face of the earth. Still, we do have a complaint against [Hitler], for his revenge on them was not enough."

Egypt"s government officially deplores the attack on America, and its newspaper has not applauded the killing of American civilians. The opposition press is not so constrained. One typical commentator related what he felt as he watched the airliners crash into the World Trade Center: "Those moments of exquisite, incandescent hell were the most beautiful and precious moments of my life."

Most Muslims are not bloodthirsty fanatics. But hate speech is hateful, no matter who utters it, or where.

Toronto Globe and Mail
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