When angry mullahs and oil despots want to stir up anger against the West, “Crusade” is an inflammatory term that comes automatically to their lips. The memory of Christian knights invading the Arab world is very long. The height of the Crusades ended seven centuries ago. But it’s not history that is at stake. Embedded in the worldview of many devout Muslims is a defensive and hostile attitude toward Christianity. The burning of the bible by a mullah somewhere in Iran wouldn’t incite mob action in the West, but a single extremist in Florida with a following of less than fifty led to violence and murder in Afghanistan — deliberately fueled by the president of the country himself.
Distasteful as it is, religion remains a major element in all three Arab conflicts that the U.S. has ventured into. The memoirs of former President George Bush are rife with religious motivations. There is little doubt that when he gave speeches about a “conflict of civilizations,” he meant a conflict between two religions. Such a conflict doesn’t exist, not inherently. Jesus is worshiped as the Prince of Peace; one definition of the word “Islam” is peace. But history has created its own dogmas, and when human nature wants to justify aggression, any rationale will do, including God.
This issue is facing us again because the uprisings that are revamping the Arab world include a strong Islamist influence. In some places the specter of new hostility between the Shia and Sunni is boiling p. In other places the Muslim Brotherhood has a strong voice, and almost everywhere the populace looks to their traditional leaders, the clerics, for guidance. Crowds consider Friday, the chief gathering time for the faithful going to mosques, as a significant day for protest. There is a real possibility that fundamentalist Islam will loom in the future of many states.
The direction of history will be decided by another faction, one that has proved stronger than religion in Egypt: young people who want a future in the modern world. Like the student uprisings in the West in the Sixties, a youth movement in Islam isn’t likely to seize power after expressing its discontent. In every Arab country an entrenched military, traditional clerics, and explosive extremists hold the spotlight. Protests aren’t equal to organized, empowered elites.
What’s important is that the West doesn’t repeat Bush’s doctrine of fighting for God. If we honestly asked what Jesus would do about Islam, it’s obvious that his solution wouldn’t be war. He might even apply the Golden Rule. So far, President Obama has been more Christian than his predecessor, not by applying Christian principles but by treating Muslims with common humanity, tolerance, and understanding. These uprisings are part of a global phenomenon, the rise of the dispossessed. People don’t emerge from political repression as model citizens, much less saints. They are angry and resentful, so they lash out. They have been deprived for generations of education, so they follow demagogues. They know little of the world beyond what religion tells them, so they see others through the lens of religion.
We have a reactionary wing in this country that shares the same traits, but they have much less excuse. They haven’t been oppressed, and for the most part every benefit of prosperity and education has been available to them. The jihadis and extremists of the Arab world have served well as bogeymen for the right wing, as they have served the Qadaffis and Mubaraks whose vested interests are just as reactionary. I doubt that Jesus would appreciate their values, and his response to religious intolerance would not be to praise it.
Published by San Francisco Chronicle