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Unsophisticated visitors May 3, 2014

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Belief, Religion.
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The soon-to-open National September 11 Memorial Museum will include a short video called “The Rise of Al Qaeda,” which “refers to the terrorists as Islamists who viewed their mission as a jihad.” I’m sure you’ll be shocked to hear that some people are unhappy about that.

“The screening of this film in its present state would greatly offend our local Muslim believers as well as any foreign Muslim visitor to the museum,” Sheikh Mostafa Elazabawy, the imam of Masjid Manhattan, wrote in a letter to the museum’s director. “Unsophisticated visitors who do not understand the difference between Al Qaeda and Muslims may come away with a prejudiced view of Islam, leading to antagonism and even confrontation toward Muslim believers near the site.”

… “The terrorists need to be condemned and remembered for what they did,” [Akbar Ahmed, the chairman of the Islamic studies department at American University in Washington] said. “But when you associate their religion with what they did, then you are automatically including, by association, one and a half billion people who had nothing to do with these actions and who ultimately the U.S. would not want to unnecessarily alienate.”

… The museum did remove the term “Islamic terrorism” from its website earlier this month, after another activist, Todd Fine, collected about 100 signatures of academics and scholars supporting its deletion.

In interviews, several leading scholars of Islam said that the term “Islamic terrorist” was broadly rejected as unfairly conflating Islam and terrorism, but the terms Islamist and jihadist can be used, in the proper context, to refer to Al Qaeda, preferably with additional qualifiers, like “radical,” or “militant.”

But for Mr. Elazabawy, and many other Muslims, the words “Islamic” and “Islamist” are equally inappropriate to apply to Al Qaeda, and the word “jihad” refers to a positive struggle against evil, the opposite of how they view the terrorist attacks.

“Don’t tell me this is an Islamist or an Islamic group; that means they are part of us,” he said in an interview. “We are all of us against that.”

The museum still intends to keep the film; and yet,

“What helps me sleep at night is I believe that the average visitor who comes through this museum will in no way leave this museum with the belief that the religion of Islam is responsible for what happened on 9/11,” said Mr. Daniels, the president of the museum foundation. “We have gone out of the way to tell the truth.”

Truly, it’s impossible to underestimate the power of denial and self-delusion. According to Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower, these are the goals indoctrinated into al-Qaeda trainees:

  1. Establishing the rule of God on Earth.
  2. Attaining martyrdom in the cause of God.
  3. Purification of the ranks of Islam from the elements of depravity.

Al-Qaeda’s motives are explicitly Islamist: that’s all they ever talk about. Even if most Muslims disagree with some parts of al-Qaeda’s theology, it is by no means an implausible interpretation of Islam. (It’s not as if al-Qaeda is our only example of Islam-inspired violence.) And that means that Islam is part of the problem.

Consider, by analogy, the Inquisition — which I’m pretty sure had something to do with Christianity. Why do we no longer see Christians torturing and killing heretics and blasphemers? Is it because the scripture and doctrine of Christianity provide no support for such actions, and those inquisitors were all lunatics? No: it’s because most Christians no longer believe that (those parts of) their scripture should be followed literally. On the other hand, most Muslims still believe that the Koran, which is relentless in its vilification of unbelievers, is the perfect, unquestionable, literal word of God. Anyone who lends legitimacy to that belief system, even if opposed to violence himself, helps provide a basis upon which violent groups can thrive and attract followers.

It matters what people believe. If we want to avoid future atrocities, we need to be honest about what people have done, and continue to do, in the name of faith; and we must be uncompromising in criticizing irrational beliefs. If that offends anyone — sophisticated or not — too bad.

9-11-memorial

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