WASHINGTON — With the evidence mounting that Osama Bin Laden and his radical brand of Islam were behind the Sept. 11 terror attacks on New York and Washington, many Americans have expressed outrage at Muslims living in the United States.
But although some Americans reacted towards Muslim Americans and immigrants in reprehensible ways, voices in both the Catholic and Muslim community are calling for a more rational discussion. Referring to the hysteria of Americans in World War II, and the subsequent internment of Japanese-Americans, Professor Warren Carroll, chairman of the history department at Christendom College in Front Royal, Va., said, “We must not have a repeat of what happened [to the Japanese-Americans] after Pearl Harbor.”
Imam Yahya Hendi, the Muslim chaplain at Georgetown University, likewise urged restraint, and sought to distance himself and Islam from the terrorists. Hendi argued that since “no one knows who did it yet, the American people should not rush to judgment.”
Even “if it happens to be Osama Bin Laden,” said Hendi, “it is not Islam itself.” “People have always abused their faith,” he said, adding, “Christians, Jews and Muslims have all done that.” Hendi pointed to groups like the Buddhist cult in Japan that bombed the subway in Tokyo a few years ago and the Crusades as examples of harmful uses of religion by non-Muslims.
The imam also contested the contention that Muslims are a predominant source of terrorism. “According to recent State Department Statistics, only 3% of attacks on American interests were carried out by Muslims or in Muslim countries,” said Hendi. “Why then does the media focus on the 3% and not the other 97%?”
Hendi, who was born in the Holy Land and educated in Jordan and the United States, also disputed the frequent claim that words of Muslim clerics have supported violence. Describing the term “jihad” as “just war” along the lines presented by St. Thomas Aquinas, rather than as a radical holy war, he said, “I studied with the same people the media uses to cite [as preaching] violence. “
If violence really were preached in Muslim schools he would have first-hand knowledge of it, Hendi insisted, but he had never heard such comments. Moreover, he said that in one case he knew personally, a cleric in the Middle East whose words were badly misinterpreted.
Hendi said that the Koran only preaches self-defense and punishment for crimes such as murder. Such “punishments” that can only be ordered by a Caliph, or a supreme religious ruler, and Hendi explained that there are “no countries run by a Caliph.” Asked whether Osama Bin Laden's claim that the United States’ stationing of troops in Saudi Arabia near Muslim holy sites was a theologically sound argument for the attacks on the United States, Hendi replied, “Absolutely not.”
Most centrally, Hendi said, “Muslims interpret the Koran through the life of Mohammed,” who forbade throughout his life attacks on religious sites, monks, women, children and old men.
Christendom College's Carroll agreed that especially in the United States, most Muslims had no respect for the terrorists. “It's very similar to the situation with the IRA” and Catholics, he said.
But Carroll challenged Hendi's view that radical, pro-terrorist beliefs are equally uncommon in the Middle East. “There is a radical Islam in foreign countries especially Afghanistan, Egypt, Iraq [and others],” Carroll noted, adding that “some people have interpreted Islam [in a radical way] for their own political cause.” He cited as motivations for such an interpretation a violently anti-Israel and anti-U.S. sentiment.
Carroll said that Islam has a long history of violence. “[The religion] began with conquest,” he noted. The historian also rejected Hendi's characterization of the Crusades as the moral equivalent of terrorism. “I know it's not popular to say this, but the Crusades were justified because of 500 years of Muslim aggression,” Carroll said.
However, although Christians and Muslims have been at odds for the much of the last 1,400 years — as recently as 1683 the Turks besieged Vienna — in recent memory there has been a great deal of collaboration between the Vatican and Muslim nations. This collaboration has been especially evident on pro-life and pro-family issues at the United Nations since the U.N. conferences on population and women's issues in Cairo and Beijing in the mid-1990s.
Following the attacks, a statement was released by the Islamic-Catholic Liaison Committee, signed by Dr. Hamid Ahmad Al-Rifaie, president of the International Islamic Forum for Dialogue, and by Bishop Michael L. Fitzgerald, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. Said the statement, “As Secretaries of the Committee, speaking in its name, we condemn the horrifying acts of terrorism committed on September 11 in the U.S.A. We express our great sorrow at the number of victims and we offer our condolences to their families.”
Father Abdallah Zaidan is a Maronite Catholic priest who was born in Lebanon, one of the few continuously Christian enclaves in the Middle East. He was based in Brooklyn before becoming rector of Our Lady of Mount Lebanon Church near Los Angeles. With regard to terrorism, Father Zaidan said, he does “not believe that all Muslims are this way,” and those who perpetrated the horrors in New York and Washington “are mad people with no sensitivity.”
Said Father Zaidan bluntly, “They don't know God.”
Father Zaidan, drawing from his personal experience in the Middle East, explained that he believes that the most virulent, terrorist elements of Islam are a fairly new development. “It was not so bad,” he recalled, before “Khomeini and the Iranian movement” gained influence in the late 1970s. Since then, though, Father Zaidan has seen among Middle Eastern Muslims “a tendency to be fundamentalist.” He describes that attitude as a belief that “you must get rid of the non-Muslims.”
Like Carroll, Father Zaidan sees this fundamentalism as largely political. “[The fundamentalist Muslims] have ill feelings against the U.S. for its support of Israel,” he explained, adding that in their poverty such Muslims have also developed “their own ideas against capitalism.”
No one can predict where the fragile relationship between Catholics and Muslims will now go. But the words of the late Catholic historian and writer Hilaire Belloc, who was skeptical of the predicted permanent demise of Islamic power, seem hauntingly prophetic.
“The recrudescence of Islam, the possibility of that terror under which we lived for centuries reappearing and our civilization again fighting for its life against what was its chief enemy for a thousand years seems fantastic,” Belloc wrote in 1937. “I say the suggestion that Islam may re-arise sounds fantastic — but this is only because men are always powerfully affected by the immediate past — one might say they are blinded by it.”
Andrew Walther writes from Los Angeles.