In the centuries-old conflict between Christianity and Islam, tolerance has generally outpaced antagonism. But with a proposed Islamic center two blocks from ground zero reigniting an international debate about the compatibility of Islam with Western democracy and Christian teachings, some of the old battle lines are being redrawn.
Terry Jones, the pastor of the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Fla., is clearly at the extreme end of the Christian perspective. His plan to burn hundreds of copies of the Koran on Sept. 11 has been condemned not only by Muslim leaders in Egypt and Indonesia, but also by the National Association of Evangelicals here in the United States, which urged Mr. Jones to "call it off in the name and love of Jesus Christ."
And yet, Mr. Jones' core argument — that Islam is an enemy — has found its way into the mainstream. Politicians, pastors and activists are all now arguing against the ancient faith of Muhammad even as they knowingly or unknowingly combine theology with their own particular view of its politics and current events. Is it just election year posturing?
Maybe, but experts like John Esposito, a professor of religion and international affairs at Georgetown University who has consulted for the State Department, worry that a sense of collective blame is being developed — something similar to what appeared during World War II, when Japanese-Americans were interned because they were believed to be sympathizers with Japan.
The proposed Islamic center in New York, he said, "has revealed a deep-seated Islamophobia across the country, in fact given it permission to go viral."
In the United States and Europe, he added, "the danger, and I am not exaggerating, is that this social cancer spreads and impacts a community, as happened to the Japanese and historically to Jews due to a Christian theology of collective guilt, which then infected politics and society."
Ignorance, of course, is often a foundation of such misunderstandings — and Mr. Jones's church is a clear example. Even though Mr. Jones told me he had "no experience whatsoever with the Koran," he and his congregation have put together a list called "10 Reasons to Burn a Koran" that offers a window into the views of not just Mr. Jones, but also of many others (as seen in hundreds of supportive e-mails sent to the church and thousands of fans on Facebook).
To understand some of this reasoning and what it might be leaving out, I asked Professor Esposito — a scholar who has studied both Christianity and Islam; a former president of the Middle East Studies Association of North America — to read through the list and comment.
Below are some of the arguments and Professor Esposito's responses (edited slightly for clarity and style), which focus on the issue that seems to have gripped the nation: where Islam intersects with politics.
REASON 6: Islamic law is totalitarian in nature. There is no separation of church and state. It is irrational. It is supposedly immutable and cannot be changed. It must be accepted without criticism. It has many similarities to Nazism, Communism and Fascism. It is not compatible with Western civilization.
JOHN ESPOSITO: Not true. Even the best of non-Muslim scholars who would not subscribe to Islamic law or see problems would not deny the level of scholarship and reasoning, which is often comparable in its intellectual sophistication (however much one might not agree or follow it) with canon law and many other systems of law. I am not speaking here of its abuses and its distortions, but the law over all. Historically, Islamic law did change, and certainly today there are many scholars — Muslim and non-Muslim — addressing these issues.
REASON 8: A Muslim does not have the right to change his religion. Apostasy is punishable by death.
JOHN ESPOSITO: There are certainly such abuses. This position developed at a time when apostasy was seen as treason and punished as such. It continues to be operative in some though not all Muslim countries, and we have seen the effects of these abuses in Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere. At the same time, today, reform-minded Muslim scholars and senior Muslim religious authorities, like the Grand Mufti of Egypt and others, have spoken out against such practices.
REASON 9: Deep in the Islamic teaching and culture is the irrational fear and loathing of the West.
JOHN ESPOSITO: Where? Despite their grievances regarding the denigration of Islam and Muslims (something this minister seems to excel at) and some American foreign policies, majorities of Muslims in some 35 countries admire the democratic principles and values of the West, its freedoms, rule of law, etc., as well as our technological, educational and economic accomplishments. They want greater democratization and better relations with the West, although many think we have a double standard regarding the promotion of democracy and human rights — given many of the authoritarian governments we have and continue to support. During George W. Bush's second term, his administration — in moving to a policy to promote democracy and legitimate the invasion of Iraq — acknowledged that historically, U.S. presidents, Democrat and Republican, have practiced what the State Department called "democratic exceptionalism." This is documented fact, not assertion.
REASON 10: Islam is a weapon of Arab imperialism and Islamic colonialism. Wherever Islam has or gains political power, Christians, Jews and all non-Muslims receive persecution, discrimination, are forced to convert. There are massacres, and churches, synagogues, temples and other places of worship are destroyed.
JOHN ESPOSITO: Only 23 percent of the world's Muslims are Arab. No doubt some Muslim rulers used religion to justify their wars of imperial expansion. But where today? Regarding the history of religious colonialism, who has been more successful — from 312 under Constantine, when Christianity became associated with empire, to the conquistadors, European colonialism and the use and misuse of religion by politicians and hard-line Christian ministers of the Christian right — especially in the first term of President Bush?
Problems of religious pluralism and tolerance have plagued both Islam and Christianity, past and present. But what, historically, was the policy and track record of official Christianity regarding other Christians (denounced as schismatics and heretics)? What about Christianity's intolerant policy and treatment of Jews and Muslims (convert, flee or be killed)?
In contrast, though not always followed, the position of Islamic law, based on the Koran, and under many though certainly not all Muslim rulers, was that Jews and Christians were people of the book and protected people (dhimmi). In exchange for a poll tax, they could practice their religions, etc. By today's standards this would be second-class citizenship and unacceptable; relative to its times, Islam was more tolerant than Christianity towards religious minorities.