Political campaigns are not the best venue for dealing with complicated public-policy issues. Candidates and their consultants tend to formulate their views in capsule form (often referred to as “30-second sound-bites”) and shape them to the specific audiences that they happen to be addressing.
Candidates from each of the major parties tend to repeat familiar phrases over and over again when speaking about issues of poverty, education, health insurance, immigration, national security, taxes, abortion and the like. As a result, many of these complex topics are oversimplified or twisted beyond recognition.
One such issue is the role of Islam in world affairs and its place in the family of religions. Islam and Muslims generally have become scapegoats for the world’s ills, particularly terrorism in its multiple forms. An ugly word has made its entrance into common political discourse: Islamofascism.
So odious has the Islamic connection become, that at one point in the current campaign, one candidate had to make clear that he is a Christian, not a Muslim, despite his name and his early educational background.
James Carroll, a prolific author and a regular columnist for The Boston Globe, addressed this issue head on in a recent piece entitled, “Islamofascism’s ill political wind” (1/21/08).
“Religious intolerance,” he writes, “marks one candidate debate after another — a sweeping denigration of Islam.”
“The code word ‘Islamofascism’ has become a staple of rhetoric. It braces the talk not only of pundits, but of all the major Republican candidates,” one of whom describes it as “the greatest threat this country (has) ever faced.”
Carroll notes that the linkage between Islam and fascism has no parallel in the way other religions are characterized, even though the “defining movements” of fascism were connected with Catholicism — indirectly under Benito Mussolini in Italy and explicitly under Francisco Franco in Spain.
Not even the Protestant and Catholic terrorists in Northern Ireland were tagged with the fascist label, nor were Hindu extremists in India or Buddhist extremists in Sri Lanka.
“The intellectual and moral paralysis of all major candidates from both parties on the subject of the war in Iraq,” Carroll continues, “is mainly a result of their religion-sponsored imprisonment in the Islamofascism paradigm, whether they use the word or not.
“By emphasizing that the goal of Muslim terrorists is to wage what John McCain calls a ‘transcendent’ war against ‘us,’ candidates miss the most important fact about the conflicts in Iraq and throughout the Muslim world — that militant Muslim zealots are primarily at war with their own people, most of whom they regard as decadent apostates.”
Citing the Muslim scholar Reza Aslan, Carroll points out that Osama bin Laden’s attack on the World Trade Center was aimed more directly within the house of Islam than at the West.
“The strategy worked,” Carroll concludes, “sparking exactly the belligerent reaction he wanted, because America’s uninformed, religious prejudice toward Islam was predictable.
“What bin Laden could not have imagined was that he would find like-minded partners-in-conflict coming to power in Washington, advancing his religious war, every bit as sure of God’s sponsorship as he.”
My colleague at Notre Dame, Asma Afsaruddin, a specialist in Arabic and Islamic studies, has made similar arguments on behalf of mutual understanding and respect, but at scholarly as well as popular levels. Her substantial article, “Celebrating Pluralism and Dialogue: Qur’anic Perspectives,” appeared this past summer in the Journal of Ecumenical Studies.
Professor Afsaruddin focuses therein on three quranic concepts: the knowledge of one another, based on respect for diversity and difference; the commonality that human beings share, based on their righteousness and ethical conduct rather than on religious labels; and the reconciliation of hearts, which is “a cornerstone of Islamic peace-building.”
Her opening sentence says it all: “Dialogue, particularly interfaith dialogue, and respect for pluralism have never been as critically important as they are at the present time in the United States, in the post-September 11 milieu.”
“Dispelling strongly entrenched stereotypes about religious communities,” she continues, “is, admittedly, not an easy task, but it remains essential in our current fraught political climate.”
Hers is a call for forgiveness, compassion and reconciliation, and for seeing these as central ingredients in the common-ground mix that unites the three major monotheistic religions, Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, rooted as they are in the Quran and in the Old and New Testaments.
Linking Islam with fascism only poisons the interreligious atmosphere and makes the achievement of such goals more and more difficult.
One prays not only for the realization of these ideals, but for the quick and merciful end of this and other political campaigns.
Father McBrien is a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.