Some Thoughts about Islam and the Current Controversy in U.S. Politics

Some Thoughts about Islam and the Current Controversy in U.S. Politics December 12, 2015

Some Thoughts about Islam and the Current Controversy in U.S. Politics

What does it even mean to suggest that “Muslims” not be allowed to immigrate to the United States (or anywhere)? First, one has to have some relatively clear idea of what a “Muslim” is. And that requires some understanding of “Islam.”

When I was a doctoral student in Religious Studies at Rice University in the 1970s Islam was controversial. The news was filled with reports of “radical Islam” rising in the Middle East and Iran. The Ayatollah Khomeini was the hero of the budding Iranian revolution.

As a second year doctoral student I was assigned to teach a mini-course within the large,  “Religion 101” course filled with undergraduates. So, I decided to do my own research and “bone up” on Islam. I quickly discovered that most Muslims in the world were nothing like Khomeini or the revolutionary Muslims in the Middle East. One of the first surprising facts I discovered was that the largest Muslim country in the world—the country with the most Muslims—is Indonesia! And Islam in Indonesia is nothing like the radical Islam the media was portraying as typical of Muslims.

But I had my own “close encounter” with some fairly radical Muslims while conducting my research. I decided to go personally to the nearest mosque or Islamic Center and “check it out.” When I arrived there—in Houston’s Montrose District—I discovered it to be a converted roller skating rink. The man at the front desk invited me to go into the worship space and look around. The large, open mosque was carpeted with Persian rugs but otherwise mostly empty. One corner—that toward the East—contained a kind of plaque with quotations from the Qur’an in Arabic. And, as I recall, a copy of the Qur’an on a pedestal. Otherwise, the former rink was empty—no furniture of any kind. A small group of about six or seven men dressed in traditional Pakastani attire sat in a tight circle on the floor in the middle of the space. They were talking quietly in what I assumed to be Urdu. As I walked by them to leave two of the men grabbed my jacket sleeve and pulled me down among them. They said, in English, “Say ‘There is no God but Allah and Mohammed is his prophet. Say it.” They were quite urgent and insistent and when I said no and tried to leave they would not allow me to go. I finally just tore myself away and walked out as quickly as possible. The man at the front desk was smiling at me; he had been watching. I said to him “Did you know what they were going to do to me?” He responded “But of course.” I left with my heart beating fast and hard.

Do I blame all Muslims (even Pakastani Muslims) for that little incident? Absolutely not. I invited a well-informed Muslim doctor from the Texas Medical Center to visit my class and speak and answer questions. He did a very good job even though he insisted, wrongly, that Islam is a completely united religion—unlike Christianity. When I asked him about Ahmadiyya and its spread in Africa he said “That’s not Islam.” Okay, then.

During my Ph.D. studies in world religions I encountered several Muslims. One was a poet who taught at Harvard University. She was a Sufi named Annemarie Schimmel and was the farthest thing imaginable from a terrorist. A troupe of Turkish Sufi “whirling dervishes” came to Rice and danced in the Student Life Center. Nothing about them “fit” the stereotype the media was portraying of Islamic fanatics bent on destroying Israel and America.

Over the years I have had many encounters with kind, generous, gentle Muslims. I have learned and experienced that there is no Muslim “type” such as exists in the imaginations of many Americans.

Do I believe Muslims worship the same God I worship as a Christian? To say so would be an insult to many, perhaps most, Muslims. So I won’t say so. Do I think the God I worship loves Muslims and reaches out to them with grace and mercy? Absolutely.

What I think is that some American politicians are attempting to get elected to public office by playing on the fear of Muslims that feeds off the stereotypes presented in popular culture—including the “evening news.” They are using all Muslims as scapegoats—just as Hitler did in the late 1920s and early 1930s with Jews—to worm his way into power.

The question that I wrestle with is whom to blame for this growing hatred of all Muslims—the politicians or the ignorant people who mindlessly support their hair brained schemes?

I favor and support very careful and cautious immigration policies. We, the U.S., ought to vet all who would enter here—blind to their religious affiliations but wide eyed to their views on violence and hatred and terrorism.

How many people remember July, 2011 in Norway when a “Christian” killed eighty mostly young people enjoying a retreat—an act of horrible terrorism? How many blame all Christians for that or any other act of terror committed by a so-called Christian? When we hear such a person identified as a Christian we usually think and even say “Oh, he wasn’t a real Christian.” But how often do we hear about a Muslim terrorist “Oh, he wasn’t a real Muslim?” Instead, what we more often hear now is that he (or she) was a typical Muslim—which is blatantly false. There is no such person.


Note to those who consider commenting: Don’t waste my time (or yours) with quibbling over terminology or details that do not touch on the main point of the post. Be civil and respectful or don’t comment. If you think I am being uncivil or disrespectful of certain politicians, well, this is my blog so that’s my prerogative. Sorry if that offends you.

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