I teach Arabic and Islamic studies at Brigham Young University (BYU), and, incredibly, have done so now for nearly thirty years. (Somehow, I never imagined myself becoming so old!) This current semester, I’m teaching an “Introduction to Islam” course, a class on the Qur’an in English (I do it in Arabic during the second semester), and two independent readings courses. I’m also team-teaching a class on the “Islamic humanities,” in which a colleague and I try to cover at least the basics of the art, architecture, literature, music, and film of the central Islamic lands. Additionally, I’m the founder of BYU’s Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, a project that publishes dual-language editions of texts from the classical Islamic period. (I served as that project’s editor-in-chief until mid-August of this year.)
I’ve seen my role as, in part, being something of a missionary on behalf of Islam, though I myself am a committed member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (aka, the “Mormon” Church). What do I mean by that? I mean that I have sought to persuade my fellow Mormons and, beyond them, my fellow Americans and my fellow “Westerners” that Islam is neither intrinsically dangerous nor as “foreign” as many imagine it to be. I’ve devoted a great deal of my time to this bridge-building effort, giving lectures and even media interviews aimed at general, non-academic, audiences in Asia, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and across North America; writing a book for Mormons about the Arab world; publishing a narrative biography of Muhammad; recording several lecture CDs for general audiences, and so forth.
There are many others who are trying to build (or, in some cases, to repair) such bridges. But several thousand of us couldn’t begin to undo the damage done to the image of Islam by such events as this weekend’s massacres at the Westgate Mall in Nairobi and All Saints Church in Peshawar, Pakistan.
I know. I know. Not all mass murders are committed by Muslims. Some (such as those at Newtown, Columbine, Virginia Tech, Tucson, and Aurora) are committed by misfits or the insane. Some are committed for warped political reasons (e.g., Anders Breivik’s attacks in and near Oslo, Norway). The recent shooting at the Washington Navy Yard was carried out by Aaron Alexis, who was, to the surprise of most people, some sort of Buddhist (in addition to being mentally ill).
But the simple fact is that, in the minds of many in the United States and beyond, the single factor that has come to be most closely associated with massive and deliberate violence against innocent people is . . . Islam.
It’s hard to blame observers for this. Given the horrific violence against civilians by the Islamist insurgency in Algeria, the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, the 1993 Mumbai bombings, the 1994 Buenos Aires suicide bombing, the 1997 massacre of Swiss tourists near Luxor, the 1998 embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, the 2000 suicide bombing of the U.S.S. Cole, the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the 2002 massacre at a Passover celebration in Netanya, the 2002 Bali nightclub attack, the 2004 Madrid training bombing, the 2004 Beslan school hostage killings, the 2005 London bombings, the 2oo5 bomb attacks at Sharm al-Shaykh, the 2006 Mumbai train bombings, the 2007 Qahtaniyya bombings, the 2008 Mumbai assault, the 2009 Fort Hood attack, the 2011 bombing of a Coptic Christian New Year service in Alexandria, the 2013 assault on the Boston Marathon, these latest massacres in Nairobi and Peshawar, and a host of other such crimes, they can hardly be expected to think otherwise.
And the list of horrors that I’ve just given above has been punctuated by such scenes as the 2002 beheading of Danny Pearl, the vicious 2004 public murder of Theo Van Gogh, the brutal 2013 killing of British soldier Lee Rigby on a street in London, and the damage or destruction of many Christian churches and monasteries in Egypt.
Moreover, we have no idea how many additional plots to cause sorrow and suffering in the name of Islam have been prevented, broken up. We know, for example, that, in December 2001, Richard Reid, a convert to Islam, tried to destroy American Airlines Flight 63 in midair between Paris and Miami but failed in his effort. Umar Farouk Abdulmuttalab attempted to blow up Northwest Airlines Flight 253 on Christmas Day while en route from Amsterdam to Detroit. In 2010, Faisal Shahzad tried to detonate a car bomb in New York’s Times Square. And so on and so forth.
The simple fact is that Americans, and Westerners more generally, don’t think of the Taj Mahal, the poetry of Rumi and Mutanabbi, the mysticism of Rabi‘a al-Adawiyya or Ibn al-‘Arabi, the splendors of the Alhambra or the Masjid-i Shah or the Sultanahmet Mosque, the brilliance of Avicenna and Averroës and al-Ghazali, the science of al-Biruni, the mathematics of al-Khwarizmi, when they think of Islam today. They think of nihilistic violence directed against innocent people at shopping malls, coming out of churches, earning a living at a desk in an office, flying in an airplane to meet family, sleeping in a hotel. They know that there are people out there who would love to murder them and their children in the name of Islam.
Even for me, the very first thought that came to my mind when I heard of the shooting at the Washington Navy Yard was “Oh no. Not another Islamist terrorist attack!”
I write to you not only because my personal efforts to improve understanding between the West and the Islamic world don’t amount to much, but because my efforts and those of the many others who are attempting the same thing in their various ways can’t amount to much as long as such bloody and destructive acts as those I’ve partially listed above set the image of Islam for many non-Muslims. This is a problem that you, the umma of Islam, the Muslim community, must solve. Outsiders cannot do it.
I’m perfectly well aware that the majority of Muslims — certainly in the United States and Canada — are peaceful people who simply want to live and let live, who hope the best for their children, and who neither engage in nor support terrorist violence. I’m aware, too, that many Muslims and many Muslim groups have spoken up against violent extremism.
But you have to speak up more loudly. Others — I promise you this, from innumerable conversations and questions after lectures, over years — are not hearing your denunciations of the extremists. They aren’t aware of your efforts to distance yourselves from these terrible acts of bloodshed and oppression. Your message isn’t getting out. You need to speak louder and more clearly, until it’s heard.
Otherwise, in the meantime, the very name of Islam is being brought into disrepute. Even God and faith themselves are being dragged through the mud when vocal atheists cite Islam — and not without superficial reason, not without plausibility — as their parade example of the evil of theism. Religion, they say, should die out, as illustrated by . . . And, then, all they have to do is to fill in the blank with the latest bombing, the latest massacre of innocents.
I implore you, as a community, to rise up and denounce these acts. If you’ve already done it, do it again. Louder. Make your disgust at these abuses of your faith unmistakably clear, unavoidably heard. Not only by non-Muslims but by that minority of extremists within the Muslim community who have made Islam a term of horror and revulsion to far too many people worldwide.
It is, to my mind, absolutely tragic that your great civilization, the largely unacknowledged birthplace of much of the science, mathematics, medicine, and philosophy that helped to create the modern West, is now associated by outsiders more with nihilistic violence than with great culture, marvelous art, high ideas, and humble devotion. It is simply wrong that the very term for a student – talib (“seeker”) — which, in its appropriate form, figures in the remarkable admonition, generally attributed to the Prophet Muhammad, to “seek [utlub] knowledge, even unto China,” has now come to be associated with the Taliban of Afghanistan, a group whose closed-minded intolerance for different ideas was revealed clearly in its gratuitous 2001 destruction of the fifteen-century-old Buddhas of Bamiyan.
Again, I beg you to speak out, and to speak out now. Loudly. Clearly. Decisively.
I sincerely wish you well. Although I’m not a Muslim, I respect and revere your tradition, and I, too, seek to submit my will to that of God. I wish you well for your sake as also for mine, and for the sake of my family and all other non-Muslims worldwide. A seriously damaged Islamic umma will do none of us any good. It will put us all at risk, and it surely won’t glorify the God whom you and I both seek to serve.