by M. Cherif Bassiouni
Cordoba House/Park 51
Referring to the proposed Muslim Community Center in lower Manhattan as the “Ground Zero Mosque” has inflammatory and misleading implications. Calling it the “Terror Mosque” and the “Jihad Mosque” adds a hate-inspiring dimension. Every time avowed or concealed Islamophobes describe the New York Community Center in these, and other terms, they distort the facts.
The project that its promoters call Cordoba House/Park 51 is named for an ancient Spanish city that epitomized the understanding between the three Abrahamic faiths in the twelfth century. It is intended to be a center of enlightenment and inter-faith understanding with praying space for Christians and Jews, as well as Muslims, and a memorial for the victims of 9/11. What could be more harmonious with the memory of that tragic event, or more symbolic of religious tolerance?
Cordoba House is not a mosque, but a community center, which is planned as a $100 million modern nineteen-story building that will replace the presently run-down structure, which is similar to others in that lower Manhattan economically depressed area. The new building will house a swimming pool, basketball court, culinary school, and a multitude of other non-religious uses, with only the two top floors dedicated to a Muslim prayer hall. Nothing would distinguish it from other buildings in the area, aside from whatever inscription will adorn its front entrance. It will also include a memorial commemorating the 9/11 tragedy, irrespective of the religion or belief of any victim, and two praying areas for Jews and Christians.
The present run-down building has been used as a Muslim prayer center, or mosque, for the last two years without raising any questions. But that is seldom mentioned. And, contrary to what the project’s opponents say or imply, there is no view of the proposed Community Center from Ground Zero and vice versa. Besides, in Manhattan, two-and-a-half blocks full of buildings are quite a separation for anyone familiar with that part of New York City. Lastly, the opponents fail to mention that there is also a mosque ten blocks away from Ground Zero, which has been in existence for a decade.
A review of the allegations made by the opponents of the project that received wide dissemination and credence is indicative of the misleading nature of this campaign.
The primary objection that has gained public credence concerns the location. Its proponents contend or imply that the Community Center is a mosque overlooking Ground Zero, which is not the case. Another objection is that, presumably, such a mosque, with all of the distinct Islamic architectural characteristics of a cupola and minaret, would be offensive to the victims’ families and friends because those who orchestrated 9/11 were Muslims. Others add that it would be insulting to all Americans. This too is not the case. These claims, however, ignore the fact that more than 60 Muslims were also killed at Ground Zero and that Muslims are also grieving for Americans.
As far as symbolism goes for the “hallowed grounds” of the heart wrenching hole left by the destruction of the twin towers, the area where the Cordoba House/Park 51 is to be located is run-down, and has several sleazy strip clubs. Yet nothing is said about these establishments near the “hallowed grounds” by the opponents of the project. So it’s not really about location or symbolism.
The wide dissemination of misrepresentations about Islam and Muslims has given the impression of public credence to many falsities about the project. Religious and racial prejudices, political opportunism, and a deliberate campaign of Islamophobia have all contributed to a publicly accepted negative perception of Islam and Muslims. It has reached a level that makes it acceptable to publicly express anti-Islam and anti-Muslim sentiments that would be unacceptable if they were directed against other religious groups in America. Consequently, a double standard has come to exist. A curious face about the sources of this campaign is that no irrefutable academic sources is involved. Why would the media and public accept representations by individual sources that are either obviously or significantly prejudiced? Why does the media not seek verification from authoritative sources, or do its own research? These are among the puzzling, unanswered questions that need to be investigated. Similarly, the funding of sources of this campaign needs to be uncovered.
The Islamophobic campaign, like all other forms of group discrimination, starts with an “us” versus “them” mentality. The “them” are identified as a category whose objectification ranges from dehumanization to different levels of violence. Hitler dehumanized Jews as a prelude to his program of extermination. Slave owners and traders dehumanized black-skinned Africans as a way of justifying their enslavement. However, there is no more Jewish, Christian, Hindu, male, black, Republican “they” than there is a Muslim “they.” People adhering to great faiths cover the globe and are from all national origins, skin color, gender and cultures. The 1.4 billion Muslims fall into all of these categories and there is as much commonality among them as there are differences. The Chinese Uyghurs, Afghans, Persians, Iranians, Nigerians and the Bosnians and Saudi Arabians are different even though they are Muslims.
In August, Time Magazine and the New York Times each commissioned polls on public sentiments about Islam, Muslims, and the New York Community Center/Mosque. These two polls lumped together the Community Center/Mosque project with public attitudes about Islam and Muslims. The results are not surprising, considering the intensity and purposefulness of the post 9/11 Islamophobic campaign. According to Time Magazine’s poll, 61% of Americans opposed the project. According to the New York Times, over 50% of New Yorkers oppose the project, while 35% favor it, and 20% of all New Yorkers disclose animosity and suspicion toward Islam. More particularly, 33% disclose that they believe that, compared to other Americans, Muslim Americans were more sympathetic to terrorists and, in general, 60% of those polled have negative feelings about Muslims. Surely, these reactions come out of somewhere other than an objective factual basis.
General polling and reporting on a nationwide level reveal a similar negative attitude towards Muslims. There are some indications as to differences in perceptions among Catholics, Jews, Protestants, and others. It seems that, with the exception of the Evangelical Christian right, Protestants are equally divided and more tolerant of Islam and Muslims than Catholics and Jews, the latter confusing the religion of Islam with their feelings about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. But that is all tentative, and for reasons discussed below, not likely to persist.
Public attitudes, particularly at certain times in this country’s history, have frequently been superficial, knee-jerk reactions occasioned by misguided public perceptions, sometimes driven by the worst motivations concealed under a cloak of high purpose. But when governmental leadership asserts itself on a given social issue and acts in an unequivocal manner, things change. The prejudicial public reaction deflates. One example was a survey conducted in the military in 1947 about whether U.S. armed forces should be integrated. Over 80% of the military personnel polled were against integrating African-Americans, then referred to as Negroes or blacks, with whites in the military. Seventy percent were also against integrating Jews within the ranks even though they already were integrated. That year, President Truman ordered the integration of U.S. armed forces; the question has not been raised since and race relations have significantly improved.
This example demonstrates that decisive, principled leadership rectifies the public record and shows the correct path that Americans are most likely to follow. President George W. Bush did this after 9/11 by publicly declaring that the attack upon the U.S. was not a reflection of Islam or a reflection on Muslims, though subsequently his administration abetted Islamophobia. President Obama’s initial reaction to the Community Center/mosque controversy was to support the constitutional right embodied by the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of religion. The next day, he qualified his reaction by raising questions about the wisdom of the location of the center. Then, on Friday, September 10th, in a statement in Washington DC on the anniversary of 9/11, he reiterated his original, principled position and unequivocally condemned Islamophobia. Interestingly, however, he added for the record that he spoke out from his deeply held Christian beliefs as if to respond to those who have accused him of being a “secret Muslim”, as if one should be ashamed of being a Muslim.
Opportunistic Escalation of the Islamophobic Campaign
The nationwide controversy escalated in August when a self-proclaimed minister, who is a committed white-collar criminal, with a congregation of some 50 members in Gainesville, Florida announced that 9/11 should be “Qur’an Burning Day” in the U.S.. The media’s coverage made the announcement into a shot heard around the world. And yet, the Attorney General has taken no action against this form of hate speech. Would any U.S. administration have remained that passive if a group of Muslims announced that they would burn the Torah on May 15th, the day Israel was established in 1948?
Rhetoric and demagoguery has taken these and other false contentions to such levels that no credibility can attach to them, but they have a powerful impact on the American publics’ psyche. This is why some in the Republican Party and the Tea Party have used it, as well as others in the Evangelical Christian right, white supremacists, and Neo-Cons. Many of these lessons have been part of the post-9/11 Islamophobic campaign.
One of these opportunistic politicians is, Newt Gingrich, who recently compared the location of the community center to planting a swastika near the Holocaust museum in DC, or putting a Japanese shrine near the area of Pearl Harbor bombarded by the Japanese in 1941. Leaving aside the differences in the location and the type of structure, the swastika was a symbol of Nazi Germany, which exterminated an estimated 6 million Jews for no other reason than the fact that they were Jews. This was the greatest crime in history. Its symbol was the swastika. Thus, to plant such a symbol near the Holocaust museum, or for that matter to use the swastika anywhere, would be an outrage not only to Jews, but all humankind. As for the example of the Japanese shrine, it was the government of Imperial Japan that decided to attack the U.S. by stealth, causing enormous human harm and damage to the United States and initiating World War II in the Far East. The imperial state of Japan certainly does not represent Japanese Americans. It would indeed be offensive to have anything representing the Japanese imperial state overlooking the harbor, but Japanese-American installations such as a Shinto temple are American installations and are no more and no less offensive than installations by Americans hailing from any other ethnic background.
Guilt by Association
The Islamophobes artfully play on the notion of guilt by association or collective guilt. Their assumption is that if 19 Muslims committed the 9/11 crimes, then all Muslims are tainted by it because they share the same faith as the criminals. This faith is portrayed as violent, aimed at world domination and can only have peace when Muslims have subjected all others in the world. That is why they seek to impose the Shari’a (Islamic law) in the U.S. and elsewhere. Preposterous as it is, many believe this nonsense because it is shouted by well-known persons, and is frequently repeated by the media. Repetition tends to make the message stick, no matter how strange or misleading it may be.
Most responsible media, such as Time Magazine, Newsweek, New York Times, the Christian-Science Monitor, MSNBC, CNN and others have reported on these general distortions as being part of an Islamophobic campaign or trend. But the pervasiveness and extensiveness of the media coverage created a perception that a legitimate controversy exists, even when there is no legitimacy to it.
What distinguishes the many outrageously inappropriate connections of 9/11 to Islam and to all Muslims is that the attacks were individual acts committed by 19 Muslims. They were not supported by any Muslim government, but by an outlaw Osama bin Laden and his loosely connected network called al Qaeda. 9/11 did not have the support of the main religious institutions of Islam anywhere in the world, and it did not have the support of 1.5 billion Muslims living in over 140 countries of the world. Above all, it did not have the support of American Muslims. There is no basis in law or morality to expand the guilt of a few to an entire religion and its adherents, unless, of course, there is a political agenda linking this campaign with the Islamophobic campaign unleashed by some after 9/11.
9/11 was a criminal act committed by a few whose guilt cannot be collectivitized to include all Muslims, and it certainly cannot be ascribed to Islam as a religion. It cannot be ascribed to the estimated 6 million American Muslims, one third of whom are African-Americans whose slave ancestors brought Islam to this country some 300 years ago, nor can it be attributed to the other four million American Muslims who are not African-Americans, an estimated 500,000 of whom are born in the U.S., to immigrant parents or converts. The remaining 3.5 million are of Asian, African, and Arab origin. American-Muslims operate 1,900 mosques, community centers, and schools throughout the U.S.. None have been found to harbor terrorists or support terrorism.
It is surprising that the most vocal proponents of guilt by association, Evangelical white Christians, who take the Bible literally do not abide by such Biblical statements as “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your countrymen” or “Love your neighbor as yourself” (English Standard Version, Leviticus 19:18 and 19:9). Instead, they selectively use collective guilt and guilt by association against Muslims when neither are part of the American system, or part of the Abrahamic faiths’ religious values and traditions. Responsibility for wrongdoing is always individual. There was a period when the Catholic Church blamed the Jews for the crucifixion of Jesus, even though crucifixion was a Roman penalty and not a Jewish one. But that was changed by the Second Vatican Council (28 October 1965, paragraph 4, Decree Nostra Aetate, “on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions” Rome), and rightly so. The Jews of the world had for years rejected this concept of guilt by association, which was a contributing factor in their persecution by Christians for the last 2,000 years. This historic lesson should not be lost on Americans when it comes to the Islamophobic campaign that has been launched against Islam and Muslims since 9/11, particularly in light of a new level of dangerousness it has reached since the so-called Mosque controversy.
In the last nine years there have been two actual terrorist incidents committed by American Muslims. One was by Major Nidal Hasan, a mentally deranged man who killed twelve persons at Fort Hood on November 5, 2009, and the other was by Faisal Shahzad, who parked an explosive-laden car in Times Square on May 1, 2009. Statistically, two incidents in a six million-person community over a period of nine years is probably the lowest crime rate in America of any community. Conversely, white supremacists, who call themselves Christians, mostly in the South, kill and injure a substantial number of African-Americans and homosexuals annually, with relatively little said about these crimes in the national media. They have however been reported by other sources including the Southern Poverty Law Center, which keeps an up-to-date newsfeed on hate crimes. The worst of these white supremacist hate crimes is the Oklahoma City bombing, which killed 168 people and injured 680 on April 19, 1995. The perpetrators were white Christians who opposed the present system of government. All of these acts have been treated as individual crimes and no one has sought to collectivize the responsibility of white Evangelical Christians and white supremacists.
During the month of August, two Muslims were physically attacked and injured in New York and Florida, mosques in Florida have been firebombed and vandalized, and an open campaign against Mosques is raging in such varied states as Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia, California, and Wisconsin. President Obama is accused of being a Muslim as if that were something to be ashamed of. So it is not surprising that the August 2010 Time Magazine poll also found 46% of Americans to think that Islam is more likely than other faiths to encourage violence.
Racial, religious, ideological motivation and political opportunism coming mainly from the political right and Christian and Jewish extremists are behind the Islamophobic campaign in America. In the aftermath of 9/11, the Bush administration, spurred by some in the evangelical right and Neo-Cons, unleashed a campaign against Muslims in the U.S.. This was accompanied by a nationwide PR campaign raising fear about Muslim terrorism in the U.S.. Attorneys General Ashcroft and Gonzalez, issued numerous reports of investigations, arrests, and prosecutions of Muslim terrorists in America. These cases were given catchy names like the “Lackawanna Seven” and “Operation Backfire.” In all, some 500 federal cases were put together. That they were fabricated is evidenced by the fact that various federal courts across the country outright dismissed 250 cases. This is the highest percentage of dismissed cases of any category of violent federal crimes, which averages 15% across the board. For 50% of the cases brought against Muslims in the U.S. to be dismissed means that these charges were either without a legal basis or unsupported by probable cause, meaning that there was insufficient evidence to convince an ordinary, reasonable person that there is a basis to remand the accused to trial. This is far from the “beyond reasonable doubt” standard needed to convict. Thus, for over half of the cases not to have risen to this low threshold, particularly in light of the national percentage in federal cases, is quite telling.
The other cases, with the exception of a dozen or so, were ended by guilty pleas for offenses, which had nothing to do with the original charge. This means that less than 10% of the charges brought had any potential linkage to terrorism. Considering that the nationwide rate of federal convictions for violent crimes exceeds 47%, this too is an indicator of the degree of invalidity of the some 500 criminal charges brought against Muslims in America.
These cases were brought more for political than valid legal purposes. This explains why in none of the 250 cases dismissed for lack of probable cause did the Attorneys General in function issue a statement or press release as they did when indictments were returned. The record was never corrected, but the political objectives were achieved when the public was falsely induced to believe that American Muslims were a public danger and Islam was a violent religion.
The Department of Justice’s campaign under the Bush administration extended also to attacking Muslim charities. The IRS, FBI, and U.S. attorneys across the country conducted investigations into local charities and mosques on the proposition that these organizations were funding terrorism. The real goal was to deter Muslims from contributing to local charities and thus to weaken the Muslim community as a whole in the United States. Obviously, a weak and threatened community is less likely to have any political weight and therefore less likely to express views that may be inamicable to certain political interests in this country.
The following case stands out for how the law was abused in order to achieve the political results mentioned above. The federal case was brought in Texas again the Muslim charitable fund the United Holy Fund, which contributed money to qualified religious and charitable institutions in Palestine, including hospitals. The case was not based on the proposition that the money did not go to legitimate charitable organizations; instead, the government argued, probably for the first time in the history of the U.S., that when these funds went to these religious and charitable organizations, it freed Hamas from having to reallocate its resources to engage in terrorism against Israel. Preposterous as the proposition may be, it also ignores that only a small portion of the Hamas organization engages in armed resistance against Israel, and that Hamas has never engaged in acts of violence against the United States. The first trial ended in a mistrial on October 22, 2007, after the jury found the defendants not guilty of most of the 108 charges brought against them, but was hung on a dozen technical charges that were complex and thus not easy to understand. On a Thursday, word leaked of this situation and surprisingly on that day, the judge announced that rather than having the jury return the verdict on Friday, that he was going to take that day off for a long weekend. This left the jury in a vacuum for over three days while the Department of Justice prepared itself for the outcome of the mistrial. This too showed that the trial was politicized. The prosecutor’s goal was to develop a strategy of how to bring a new trial on all 108 charges and thus to have a second bite at the apple. So much for the constitutional right against double jeopardy. On November 24, 2008, the second trial returned convictions on all 108 charges, which included conspiracy to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization, providing material support to a foreign terrorist, and conspiracy to commit money laundering. It must be noted that no facts directly support the charges or conviction. The proposition on which the government prevailed was that by providing resources to legitimate religious and charitable organizations, the donor organizations indirectly supported Hamas, which was listed by the Department of State as a terrorist organization, and that was enough for all of these legal consequences to flow.
What was more outrageous in that case was that the Department of Justice listed 189 Muslims and Muslim organizations as “unindicted co-conspirators”. This guilt by association without any proof of guilt is an anomaly of the U.S. criminal justice system. It has been used in organized and white-collar crimes, but never before in a purported charitable conspiracy. The unindicted co-conspirators, without proof of any wrongdoing on their part, included some of the most mainstream and respected American-Muslim organizations, such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the Islamic Society of North America, and the North American Islamic Trust, as well as many individually listed respected Muslim clerics. The reason for that historically unprecedented action was to raise the implication that these organizations and individuals supported terrorism. More importantly, it opened the way for pro-Israel individuals and groups in the U.S. who have standing to bring civil cases against these individuals and organizations to claim damages for terrorism by means of this very indirect alleged connection to terrorism. In other words, this is a technique to destroy the American-Muslim religious organizational structure, and thus to deprive American-Muslims of a voice in their country.
The post-9/11 Islamophobic campaign abetted by the Bush administration is the most blatant abuse of the law and manipulation of public opinion that took place in the history of the United States since the end of World War II. It ranks with the campaign against Japanese American citizens, which led to the internment of close to 100,000 Japanese Americans starting in February 1942, the anti-Chinese sentiment and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the slavery and racial discrimination laws that lasted until the 1950s, and prior to that, the laws and practices that permitted the destruction of Native Americans and the seizure of their lands. Just as there is no monolithic Muslim group because they come from so many diverse cultures, ethnicities and traditions, there is no monolithic American-Muslim. They come from this same wide-ranging diversity. In addition, an estimated half of American-Muslims are African-Americans, whose affiliation to Islam goes back to the time when they came to this land as slaves, and Americans born in this land to immigrant parents. This number does not include American converts who have been born in the U.S. and whose ancestry goes back several generations. The insidious notion that there is a monolithic worldwide group called Muslims and that they are represented in the U.S. by a corresponding monolithic group persists and it is fundamental to the campaign of “they” who are a threat to “us.”
The Moral Courage Honor Roll
Against this backdrop of what some benignly call “craziness,” certain positive outcomes developed. The shining example of moral courage is New York Mayor Bloomberg who supported the Community Center/mosque project. He was joined by many victims’ families of 9/11 who supported the right of the project’s proponents to complete it in its planned location, as did a number of civic and religious organizations in New York and elsewhere. Of particular note is that many supporters are Jewish, including Mayor Bloomberg and Keith Olberman and Rachel Maddow of MSNBC. They should be commended for the example that they and others have given America and the world. Another such person who belongs to the roster of profiles in courage and human integrity is Fareed Zakaria of Newsweek, who not only wrote against Islamophobia and the opponents of the Community Center/Mosque, but who returned to the Jewish Anti-Defamation League a journalistic award that he received. The reason was that Abe Foxman, the League’s Executive Director, joined the Islamophobes in their opposition to the project. Why the League’s board did not censure Foxman for this and other anti-Islam stances, which have nothing to do with the League’s laudable purposes, is puzzling. Recently, Senator Orrin Hatch, a conservative Republican senator, had the courage and integrity to break away from his party’s Islamophobes by upholding the constitutional right of Muslims to build a mosque on private property in lower Manhattan. More power to him. The ranks of the righteous increases daily; it now includes Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington D.C., Rev. Richard Cizik and many Christian and Jewish organizations including the American Jewish Committee, the New York Union of Reform Judaism and the Rabbinical Assembly. On September 10th, The New York Times carried a whole page (A17) ad stating, “Burning the Qur’an does not illuminate the Bible.” It listed thirty leaders of the Catholic and Protestant churches. Similar statements were made by interfaith groups throughout the country, such as the Cardinal Bernardin Center at the Catholic Theological Union of Chicago, representing a large number of Christian and Muslim organizations engaged in inter-faith dialogue.
Those described above and many others who are among the righteous represent America at its best. God bless them for their courage and integrity. They show the world what kind of society America really is. The others are a blot on the dignity of this great nation, and they should be called to the carpet. The rhetoric and demagoguery of the Mosque controversy is obviously Islamophobic, but it is also politically motivated. It started after 9/11 with leaders of the religious right like Jerry Falwell, Franklin Graham, and Pat Robertson, and goes on today with the work of Steven Emerson, Daniel Pipes, and Robert Spencer, and the Jihadwatch.com and Campus Watch websites and related activities. It also includes other anti-Islam conspiracy theories and blatant, racist Islamophobia that receives funding from extremist, pro-Zionist organizations and individuals, as described by Kenneth P. Vogel and Giovanni Russonello of Politico in Latest mosque issue: The money trail, posted on LoonWatch.com on September 8th. The article particularly points to Aubrey and Joyce Chernick, who are reported as “ardent supporters of Zionist causes and major funders of pro-Israel groups across the country.” Other individuals and funders of hundreds of thousands of dollars are mentioned. This reminds us of the story about the funding of the Tea Party by billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch in Jane Mayer’s August 30th expose, ‘Covert Operations’ in the New Yorker.
Adding Fuel to the Fire
Nothing could give more comfort or support to Osama bin Laden’s followers, other violent Muslim fundamentalists, and the Taliban than the Islmaphobic campaign that has been going on since 9/11. The Community Center/mosque controversy adds more credence to the belief in Muslim countries and in many other countries that America is at war with Islam.
Our troops are in Muslim countries fighting alongside Muslims against violent radical Muslims. The Islamophobic campaign increases dangers for our troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, and for Americans abroad and undermines U.S. efforts in confronting terrorism worldwide. What is taking place in the U.S. undermines these efforts and places our troops in greater harm’s way. Moreover, Islamophobes support the message of Bin-Laden and other extremists who claim that there is a war waged by the U.S. against Islam and Muslims. Helping the enemies of the U.S. is surely not the way to be patriotic. And no U.S. political gains can justify such a campaign.
Coming at this problem from what I would call a normal, sane, or reasonable approach makes it very difficult to understand why people would preach hate and fabricate false stories, create misleading innuendos and engage in all sorts of pernicious techniques to pit human beings against one another for the ultimate goal of seeing the destruction or subjugation of one group by another. But there it is. Memories of similar situations are all too often forgotten. But for those of a certain generation, the propaganda of Joseph Goebbels during the Nazi regime cannot be forgotten. The anti-Jewish hate-mongering of that time, which had been nursed for a good decade before tangible action commenced, led to the Holocaust. It is something the world should never forget.
The Kernel of Truth Used by the Islamophobes
The misuse of jihad as a way of giving credence to the underlying proposition that Islam is a violent religion and that Muslims are violent and dangerous people, except for the ones that Islamophobes deem as “moderates.” A recently published book entitled Jihad and Its Challenges to International and Domestic Law, co-edited by myself and Amna Guellali, published by Hague Academic Press) also contains my article, “Evolving Approaches to Jihad: From Self-Defense to Revolutionary and Regime-Change Political Violence” address the history and evolution of jihad. In it, I describe how radical Muslim fundamentalists who justify the use of force, including harming innocent civilians as an acceptable practice, have hijacked jihad. I categorically denounce their positions and reveal the falsity of such theological claims.
Jihad has become a revolutionary political doctrine that Muslim radical groups have used either against certain domestic regimes or against the West, the United States in particular. The ideology and its rhetoric is no different from that which we heard from Maximilien Robespierre in 1794 during the French Revolution, in the 1920’s by Trotsky and his followers in the camps of Marxist revolutionists; it is echoed in the revolutionary teachings of Mao Zedong as of 1948, spread in Latin America by Che Guevara in the 1960’s and tragically practiced by the Khmer Rouge revolutionists between 1975-1985. All of these revolutionaries have caused enormous harm to their societies and others. The fact that they have relied on higher principles and causes does not in any way mitigate the horrible crimes that have been perpetrated in the name of these ideologies against so many, for so long. Violent jihad is no different. That is what Osama bin Laden and Ayman el-Zawarhy preach.
In all of these situations however, there is a common thread. It is the existence of a basic injustice committed by some, against others that the victim group is unable to redress, and having reached despair, they resort to violence. That does not justify what has been done throughout history in the name of revolutionary ideology, nor is it to say, in any way, that people should not resist certain injustices, sometimes by force. Indeed, this country was born out of such a resistance, as have many colonized countries. But there are, of course, ideological and physical distinctions, both as to the legitimacy of the cause, and the validity of the means. No legitimate cause permits harm to innocent civilians.
Islam is the first religious/political system to have clearly enunciated the dual conditions for the use of force, namely the legitimacy of self-defense (with exceptions which are too complex to discuss herein, but which are addressed in my article mentioned above) and the limitations on the use of force. The Prophet Muhammad made the first of these pronouncements before Muslim troops entered Mecca in 630 B.C.E. The second was an edict from the Prophet’s first successor, Islam’s first khalifa, Abu-Bakr, who ordered, in 637 B.C.E., the Muslim forces going to fight the Romans in what is now Syria and Lebanon, not to kill innocent civilians, particularly the elderly, woman, children, clergymen, to respect the Jewish and Christian places of worship, not to destroy crops and trees and not to pillage or engage in wanton destruction. The edict of Abu-Bakr was echoed in the contemporary international law of armed conflict (the Geneva Convention). His successor, Umar ibn al-Khattab, issued his edict in 638 B.C.E. before entering Jerusalem, guaranteeing freedom of religion for all Christians and Jews. That edict has been carried out to date. Because of it, Jews were able to return to Jerusalem since their exclusion by the Romans in 70 A.D. Salah el-Din, who defeated the crusaders in 1187, allowed the Christians to surrender and leave without harm, something the early crusaders did not do with Jews and Muslims who were slaughtered or taken as slaves. Islam in its fourteenth century history never had a forced conversion of Jews or Christians as the Christians did with the Jews during the Spanish Inquisition of 1478-1884. None of that is ever mentioned. But more importantly, does all this ancient history matter today? Is not our globalized world much different than these ancient times? No people should be judged by the past, and no person carries the sins of his or her father or mother.
The Dual Standard
A common characteristic of the conflicts involving the west and Muslims are the dual standard practices by those who are more powerful in respect of those who are less. Thus, the killing by American forces of Afghan Taliban is considered legitimate while the latter, who are fighting against a foreign occupier of their country, are deemed terrorists. Another classic example is that whenever Israel uses force against Palestine, it is deemed justifiable self-defense and when Palestine reacts with much lesser violence, it is always considered terrorism. This duality of standard enhances the use of violence by the weaker side, particularly in these situations, which reflect an asymmetry of forces.
An example of the above is when Israel engaged in Operation Cast Lead against Gaza in December 2008-January 2009, killing over 1,300 civilians, of whom 300 were children under 12, and 100 were women and over 6,000 persons were injured. Beyond human harm, over 20,000 structures were destroyed, including water filtration plants and other infrastructure, in what Israel billed as legitimate self-defense. These infrastructures were crucial to the survival of the 1.5 million inhabitants of Gaza, whom Israel had already kept under siege for five years. Many of these acts are unquestionably war crimes as the United Nations Goldstone Commission report established. Recently, Israel even admitted to some of these crimes. The trigger for the Operation was that the military wing of Hamas, with an estimated 5,000 fighters, had fired over a span of four years between 4,000-6,000 rockets and mortars into areas inhabited by Israeli settlers, resulting in the killing of 4 Israeli military persons and 9 civilians. These attacks were roundly denounced by Israel, the U.S., and the world as being acts of terrorism, while the five-year siege of Gaza and the following Operation by Israel were deemed legitimate. Anyone with any degree of objectivity would come to the conclusion that this is representing a dual standard. Moreover, it is inevitable that the asymmetry of military power that exists between Israel and the few Hamas fighters is such that one can hardly expect Hamas to fight back in ways that would be acceptable under the international law of armed conflict. But in the end, while Hamas unlawfully killed nine Israeli civilians and that is a crime, the Israelis unlawfully killed 1,300 or more and injured 6,000 or more innocent civilians, and that is an even greater crime.
President John Kennedy, meeting with North and South American heads of state in 1961, said, “Those who make peaceful evolution impossible, make violence revolution inevitable.” There are no more eloquent words to describe the unfortunate, tragic period of history that we live in, where so much injustice prevails and so little is done to redress it. Suffice it to consider that since World War II, 313 conflicts have taken place in the world, resulting in 92 million casualties, with most of the perpetrators benefiting from impunity, as highlighted in my two volumes, The Pursuit of International Criminal Justice: A World Study on Conflicts, Victimization, and Post-Conflict Justice (Intersentia, Brussels Belgium, 2010). Of these causalities, only an estimate of three million occurred in Muslim states. That represents less than 3% of the world’s causalities. 97% of these victims were killed in Europe, Africa and Asia by non-Muslims. So much for the Muslims propensity towards violence.
Are we witnessing the making of a new Crusade? Is the clash of civilization that was predicted by Samuel P. Huntington in the making? Is the Christian Right ready to push forward the Biblical scenario of Armageddon in order to hasten the return of Jesus to Earth? If so, the plan becomes obvious. The Jews in Israel and elsewhere must first fight the Palestinians, remove them from the “Promised Land,” remove any Muslim traces on the Mount in Jerusalem, rebuild the Second Temple and then Jesus can come back, urge humankind to follow him and those who refused will be killed. If anyone disbelieves this Biblical scenario, please rest assured that millions of Christians and Jews believe it, though with a different outcome for Jews. It is estimated that at least one hundred million Christians in the U.S. believe in this outcome while almost all orthodox Jews have a belief in their repossession of the “Promised Land” and the rebuilding of the Second Temple before the arrival of the Messiah (who is, of course, not Jesus). But until then, the extremists in these groups have a common enemy, mainly Muslims.
Ultimately the American people will redress this wrongful situation. Sometimes it takes longer than expected, as evidenced by the time it took to abolish slavery and to confront racism, and how we have yet to come to grips with the extermination of the Native Americans. But the history of this nation reveals that frequently after certain abuses, excesses, and digressions from the correct constitutional, social, and human path, America finds its way back to the right path. This controversy’s silver lining may well be that it will bring us back to the right path in matters of religious freedom, equality, and respect for all as our constitution ordains it. This is the America that we call God’s blessing upon. But let there be no mistake about it, the Islamophobic campaign must be opposed, and its supporters and funders exposed. America, all its people, must shout loud and clear “shame, shame, shame” on those who engage in such pernicious, hateful, and divisive propagandistic endeavors.
There is no more room in America for Islamophobes than there is for anti-Semites, racists, or those who harbor prejudices on the basis of gender, national origin, color of skin, sexual preference, or whatever else their nefarious minds may invent. Such hatred and divisiveness is always dangerous, and always wrong. This country’s foundation was based on the elimination of some of these prejudices, namely those based on religion and national origin.
What greater words can one recall than those in the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”