In an historic meeting with Muslim and Arab Americans at the White House Wednesday, President Bush said he wanted the word "Islamic" dropped as an adjective to the word "terrorism."
This move is of course welcomed by the Islamic community but should as well be welcomed by people of all faiths, because terrorism has no faith, and terrorists should not gain any satisfaction or false validation from an association with any religion.
The terrorist attacks on Sept. 11 were horrific, barbaric, and heinous. They don't deserve to be described with any religious terminology, simply because the culprits — regardless of their purported religious affiliation — were psychotic enough to litter the streets of New York and Washington with carnage. The war on terrorism should not be a war on Islam because the one billion Muslims around the world are not our enemies. It would be more effective to isolate the fringe who try to gain sympathy for their actions from Muslims by using Islam as a cover.
President Bush's resolve to drop the term "Islamic" from the word "terrorism," was very reassuring, but there is a double standard in our view of religion and its contribution to violence, especially when dealing with Islam. Timothy McVeigh was never known as the Catholic terrorist who bombed the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. Jonathan Pollard is never reported as the Jewish traitor who was responsible for compromising our national security through espionage. But when someone who happens to be Muslim commits a crime or act of violence, that crime is reported virtually every time as an Islamic act.
Why? The limited knowledge we as Americans have about the rest of the world — and definitely about the Muslim world — contributes to this perception. Also, we as an American society are still in the habit of thinking in terms of "us" vs. "them." When our team commits a personal foul on the gridiron, it's part of the game. When the other team does it, it's bloody murder.
Our culture measures Islam by a different yardstick from Christianity and Judaism, and we tend to oversimplify events because that is easier than looking into the complexities of the world and of our own society. For example, the Crusades were a bloody part of world history, yet we continue to use that term to refer to noble causes, such as the "crusade against poverty."
On the other hand, the term "jihad" is commonly associated with "holy war" — a crusader term — even though the word means something else entirely: striving for personal improvement. Could the phrase "jihad against poverty" ever be used without conjuring images of violent armed robbers? Probably not. Yet when extremists utter the word "jihad" to describe or justify their actions, we react to this as if these extremists represent Islam with the same authority the Pope represents Roman Catholocism.
Well, they don't speak for Islam. They are just extremists who know how to provoke a reaction. When our reaction, as a country, is to respond militarily to these extremists’ unfounded declarations, we end up hurting civilians and then wonder why we have a problem.
There are extremists in every religion, and depending on which side you are on, they are always dangerous and deadly. The media does not refer to the actions of Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, who was responsible for the slaughtering of Muslims, as "Christian ethnic cleansing," nor does the media refer to the "Jewish military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza" when reporting on Israel Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. These men are either regarded as misunderstood or simply misguided aberrations in our Western culture, but they are perceived as "Hitlers" by Muslims. Either way, their actions and political positions are not described in religious terms.
We should never allow extremists to exploit religion to define the terms of discourse in our national and international policies. There is no room for terrorism in Islam, just as there is no room for terrorism in Christianity and Judaism or any other religion for that matter.
The message of Islam has unfortunately been lost in the historic rivalries of Europe and the Muslim world. Now that we live in a global village, it is time to reorient ourselves, to understand Islam for what it is — not for what it is not.
"Islamic fundamentalism" is a misnomer, even though some politicians and pundits view it as the root cause of terrorism. "Fundamentalism" is in fact a Protestant term originating in the late 19th century.
The Quran, the holy book of Islam, says that Islam is the religion of moderation. It also says that Christians and Jews who follow the Gospel and Torah, respectively, will be rewarded by God in the hereafter and that they have nothing to fear. The classical Islamic tradition, in fact, states that non-Muslims in a Muslim community must be offered protection because their human dignity was offered to them by God and must be defended by Muslim.
It is time to understand Muslim through the medium of moderation and to stop viewing it through the distorting lens of extremism.
Salam Al-Marayati is director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, based in Los Angeles.