I’m an American and I believe the preservation of human life is of utmost importance. This may seem contradictory to many because they’ve been taught to view all Americans as compulsive liars incapable of honesty or love. Hopefully, this isn’t the case but, if it is; what can I say to change that? Possibly nothing but I’ll try. In regards to Islam, we need to look at this season as a great opportunity to get right the ongoing introduction between Islam and the west. There is a rich history between our cultures that deserves to be celebrated. We have to do better at understanding the real sources of human pain that make fertile ground for so much anti-American sentiment in the Islamic world. We have to suffocate Jihadism by removing the fuel for its growth, by showing all young Muslims that the American way, the way of the west, and the paths of Islam are compatible and complementary in a maturing world.
Let’s celebrate the life and legacy of Al-Kindi, known as the “Father of Islamic philosophy.” Al-Kindi was a once in a generation mathematician, scientist, and philosopher who was responsible for translating tremendous amounts of Greek philosophy into Arabic. He succeeded in deeply understanding the works of the ancient Greeks and re-examining them within the Muslim context. He found the commonality between the “truth” concept in the west and “The Creator” in Islam. One can gain a richer understanding of the importance of his work with only a few minutes research. He is one example among many of the long history that the Islamic world shares with the west. We have much to discuss and learn from each other but those conversations will only happen if we want them to.
In the middle of the twentieth century, Iranians democratically elected a new government headed by the Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh. Mosaddegh was elected on a nationalist platform with the express goal of nationalizing Iranian oil production, oil that had up to that point been extracted from Iranian soil and sold by the British for British profit. Mosaddegh was overthrown after only two years in office by a military coup covertly orchestrated by the American and British governments. More can be learned from the book All the Shah’s Men by Stephen Kinzer. Before the removal of Mosaddegh, Iranians had an overwhelmingly positive view of Americans. After the removal of Mosaddegh, when the profits of the stolen oil began being split between the Americans and the English, Iranians implicitly understood that we had played a major part in the undermining of their democracy. Most Iranians knew this truth within a couple years of the event itself. Most Americans are still in the dark about it. To add insult to injury, many Americans are under the impression that anti-American sentiment in Iran is based in jealousy. There is a narrative amongst us that Arab Muslims are envious of the American economy and they hate us because we are free. It is irresponsible and dangerous for any of us to continue to harbor these inclinations now or in the future. Our government has behaved badly and many people in the Middle-East hate us for it. Terrorists are aware of this and they use it to their advantage.
Isis and their ilk will not be long for this world if they continue to try and enlarge their geographic footprint through force. They are similar to the Nazi regime in that way. It is quite possible that much the Jihadist leadership only understand the language of violence and death and those men will not stop making efforts to kill thousands of innocent people until they are killed themselves. However, there is a critical difference between the Nazi ideology and the Jihadist ideology which forces us, civilians, to take a different approach to remedying this ill in the long run and preventing its resurgence. The Nazi’s partly rationalized their death camps on the relatively new science of eugenics. The concepts within eugenics were held as viable and true only by a small minority of intellectuals around the world. The death camps were a camouflaged elephant in the room for German citizens and an ugly but accurate rumor for the rest of the world before their existence was made public. Once the horror of the camps was undeniably exposed, the underlying ideology of the Nazi’s was easily condemned by German and non-German alike. Jihadist ideology does not share this flaw.
Isis’s ideology is seen as courageous Quranic literalism for those that practice it with the most fervor. It is seen as harsh but true to Islam for those that practice it a little more reluctantly. More popularly, it is seen as brutal Quranic literalism by hundreds of millions of Islamist Muslims. This means that even as bombs continue to detonate, there are millions of young Muslims who are not clear as to who has a worse way of thinking, Jihadists or Americans. This is not true for the majority of the world Muslims. About 70% of them, over 700 million, are as disgusted by the violence as non-Muslims. Yet, that leaves over 300 million Muslims who disagree with the specific practices of the Jihadists, e.g. public beheadings or active warfare, but who do not disagree with their underlying rationale. A contrast between Isis and the west is blurry for these people because, in their understanding of the history, Americans have perpetrated evil while continuing to deny every charge while the Jihadists have openly killed thousands of people but were those really acts of evil? For you and me, this comparison is probably apples and oranges but the fact has to be faced that this is not a no-brainer question for millions of young Muslims. Jihadist ideology is tightly based on the Quran whereas Nazi ideology was loosely based on eugenics. Jihadists have a tacit understanding from and the implicit support of millions of Islamist Muslims in the Middle East. They have a powerful ideological foundation that will not be destroyed with bombs. It has to be destroyed with better ideas.
We have to take every opportunity to talk with our Muslim neighbors about the interplay of our cultures. We have to ask them what differences they have detected between our culture and theirs. We have to be ready to see where their culture excels, where our culture fails, and vice versa. I had a conversation with a Saudi college student studying in America about one week before writing this post. He told me that the Saudi monarchy had taken in over 2 million Syrian refugees since the start of their civil war, which I researched to be true, and that Syrian refugees were effectively treated as full citizens inside Saudi Arabia’s borders, for which I had to take his word. He told me that the Saudi monarchy and the Saudi people were more generous than their American counterparts. They were more welcoming to their neighbors, assuming their neighbors were Sunni Muslims, and they gave more money to strangers, same assumption. He also told me that Saudi people do not have a concept of freedom of religion because that is not a law of their land. They can’t see the value of having the right to worship differently than your neighbor because that event has never been a part of their reality. I asked him if he thought it was better for a society to have freedom of religion than not and he answered emphatically, “Yes.” I learned a lot from this young man and, had time allotted, we would have eventually got around to discussing Islamism and Jihadism. This man is exactly the type that’s targeted by Jihadists. He’s an intelligent Muslim with strength of character. That’s their only requirement. After that, they convince young men that America, and the entire west, is not a place that is welcoming to them. They convince them that westerners don’t want them as neighbors and friends. I took a small opportunity to be part of an America that is, at its core, understanding and gracious to all people of all colors of all religions. We have to show young Muslims that we are not our leader toppling, oil stealing government. We have to show all young Muslims our kindness before Jihadists show them our ugly past. And, sooner rather than later, the terrorists will have no more minds to infect. We can be better, we can be wiser, and we can be kinder. It’s in our best interest and theirs. Banning all Muslims and blocking access to the internet are shallow solutions to a much deeper issue. This issue isn’t as much a war of worlds as it is a meeting of worlds and we should make great efforts to continue to treat it as such.