President Bush No Longer Seems Able to Restrain Anti-Islamic Rhetoric
By Deborah Caldwell
In the last six weeks, a major Protestant leader has described the Prophet Muhammad as "demon-possessed pedophile;" a well-known conservative columnist suggested that Muslims get "some sort of hobby other than slaughtering infidels;" the head of a conservative activist group suggested American Muslims should leave the country; and evangelist Franklin Graham described Islam as inherently violent.
Meanwhile, the University of North Carolina is being sued by the Family Policy Network, a conservative group, for asking incoming freshmen to read a book called "Approaching the Qur'an: The Early Revelations, " an assignment Fox News Network's Bill O'Reilly compared to teaching Hitler's "Mein Kampf" in 1941. On Wednesday, a North Carolina state legislator told a local radio station his view: "I don't want the students in the university system required to study this evil."
Islam-bashing, it appears, is suddenly not just acceptable, but almost fashionable among conservatives. This isn't a matter of commentators criticizing Muslim extremists. These are remarks that attack Islam, Muslims, the Qur'an, and the Prophet Muhammad as pervasively and inherently bad.
President Bush's repeated attempts since Sept. 11 to describe Islam as a "religion of peace" initially helped quell anti-Muslim rhetoric. But now, conservatives seem to be increasingly ignoring Bush's approach. "The White House has lost control of the issue," says John Green, an expert on religion and politics at University of Akron. "Islam bashing has become more public, and it seems to be more accepted."
And there is a limit, Green notes, to how vehemently Bush is likely to disagree with these conservatives and Christians, since they make up his political base.
The latest round began in June, when the Rev. Jerry Vines, the former president of the Southern Baptist Convention--the nation's largest Protestant denomination, with 15 million members--described Islam's founder as a "demon-possessed pedophile." Vines, pastor of the 25,000-member First Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Fla., added that "Allah is not Jehovah either. Jehovah's not going to turn you into a terrorist that'll try to bomb people and take the lives of thousands and thousands of people." Days later, the SBC's current president, the Rev. Jack Graham, pastor of the 20,000-member Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas, agreed with Vines.
Ari Fleischer, the President's spokesman, was compelled to differ with the SBC leaders, even though in remarks to the convention a day after Vines' comment, Bush praised Baptists for being "among the earliest champions of religious tolerance." Of the Muhammad comment, Fleischer said: "It's something that the president definitely disagrees with. Islam is a religion of peace, that's what the president believes."
A week after Fleischer's remarks, the hugely popular televangelist Benny Hinn said during an appearance at a Dallas arena: "This is not a war between Arabs and Jews. It's a war between God and the devil."
Evangelical Christians have always believed that Islam is a wrong religion, and refuse to accept Allah as the same as the Christian God. Conservative Christians actively proselytize among Muslims in this country and abroad. But lately, many Christian commentators are pushing these views in broader, secular formats.
Shortly after the attacks, Franklin Graham was forced to apologize for describing Islam as a "wicked, violent religion." But in his new book, "The Name," released Monday, he writes: "Islam--unlike Christianity--has among its basic teachings a deep intolerance for those who follow other faiths." On Fox News Network's "Hannity & Colmes" program this week, Graham said: "I think it's [terrorism] more mainstream. And it's not just a handful of extremists. If you buy the Qur'an, read it for yourself, and it's in there. The violence that it preaches is there."
Hannity responded: "But this then raises a question. If this is not, Reverend, the extremist fanatical interpretation of the Quran, then we do have a big problem." Graham replied: "Big problem." This week, in an interview with Beliefnet he reiterated his opinion, saying, "I believe the Qur'an teaches violence, not peace."
At the Christian Booksellers' Association meeting in Anaheim last month, retailers sold an array of books and tapes describing Islam as a violent religion--and many of these books will be marketed not just in Christian bookstores, but also in malls nationwide. For instance, Hal Lindsey, author of the 1970s best-seller, "The Late Great Planet Earth," has come out with a new book called "The Everlasting Hatred: The Roots of Jihad." Titles by other authors include "Religion of Peace, or Refuge of Terror," "War on Terror: Unfolding Bible Prophecy," and "Islam and Terrorism." Among the tapes available was "Terrorism: The New War on Freedom."
But it's not just Christians. Soon after Vines' comments, a new cascade of public anti-Muslim comments poured forth.
In a late June interview with NBC's Katie Couric, columnist Ann Coulter said of Muslims: "I think it might be a good idea to get them on some sort of hobby other than slaughtering infidels." That comment followed Coulter's comments about Muslims last September: "We should invade their countries, kill their leaders, and convert them to Christianity."
Last month, William Lind of the Free Congress Foundation suggested that "Islam is, quite simply, a religion of war," and that American Muslims "should be encouraged to leave. They are a fifth column in this country."
Also in July, a Secret Service agent admitted scrawling "Islam is Evil" and "Christ is King" on a Muslim prayer calendar while searching the Michigan home of a man charged with smuggling bogus checks into the United States. The agent was put on leave pending the investigation, and officials said he could be fired and face criminal charges. Around the same time, Peter Kirsanow of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission suggested that another terrorist attack on U.S. soil could stir public support for ethnicity-based internments as during World War II. "If there's another terrorist attack and if it's from a certain ethnic community . . . that the terrorists are from, you can forget about civil rights."
Says Salam Al-Marayati, executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, a lobbying group: "It is the fad now to bash Islam and Muslims."
As these events unfolded, representatives from the American Muslim Political Coordinating Council wrote a letter to the President, begging for a meeting with the Administration. AMPCC, which includes both Democrats and Republicans, is comprised of representatives of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, the American Muslim Council, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, and the American Muslim Alliance. Last week, the President's scheduler responded--Bush said he was too busy to meet, according to Al-Marayati.
"Either there's negligence or deliberate exclusion," says Al-Marayati, a Democratic insider and moderate Muslim. "There needs to be unequivocal denunciation of these statements. The President needs to make a decision to clear himself of this kind of vitriol, or basically say he agrees, because I don't think there's any room for having it two ways on this issue."
Of course, whenever an Administration loses control of an issue, it's not good news for a President. But usually, "losing control of an issue" means an Administration is losing traction as a President moves ahead with policies, or has lost control of a legislative agenda.
The problem for this Administration is that Islam is a much bigger issue. "It is really a different thing because the President can't control the agenda the same way," Green says. "What the President wanted to do after Sept. 11 was persuade Americans, particularly conservatives, to behave themselves and be civil and restrained about Islam because our domestic and foreign policy is very delicate right now. Here we are making war on Afghanistan and talking about making war on Iraq, so it's important to make a distinction between terrorists who happen to be Muslims, and Islam," Green says. "Having a positive rhetoric on Islam is pretty important."
American Muslims say they're feeling the change in Americans' attitude toward their faith in the last year. After Sept. 11, most Americans swallowed hard and--with President Bush leading the way--decided that anti-Muslim bigotry was wrong. During the fall, he repeatedly called Islam a "peaceful religion," hosted a Ramadan dinner at the White House, and described the Muslim scripture as the "holy" Qur'an.
"That helped to tone down a lot of the animosity," says Hodan Hassan, communications coordinator for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Washington lobbying group. "But now, when you have the ratcheting-up of anti-Islam rhetoric and a continuing state of alert and continual warnings from the FBI about Muslim terrorists--that combination is worrying for us. When you dehumanize a whole sector of society, it's a lot easier to lash out."
Until recently, CAIR members handled the backlash with letter-writing campaigns or by asking media outlets or commentators to retract comments Muslims perceived as unfair. Now, Hassan says, the anti-Islam fervor is too widespread to deal with.
"It seems to have gone beyond the evangelical sector and to some of the political commentators," she says. "We routinely get emails from Muslims around the country complaining about their local talk radio basically demonizing Islam. That's been worrying. What's new is the viciousness of it and the fact that it's spreading to relatively well-established leaders."
Asma Gull Hasan, author of "American Muslims: The New Generation," says she's noticing an uptick in hate mail at her website these days. Some are from evangelical Christians, but many are what she calls "live free or die" Americans--secular conservatives who believe all Muslims are inherently anti-American.
"There's really no convincing any of these people," says Hasan, who appears frequently on cable and radio talk shows. "It's pretty nasty email. There's definitely a movement happening."
Hasan traces the upsurge in anti-Islam rhetoric to the escalation of the war in Israel.
"From the beginning, the evangelicals didn't like the things Bush said about Islam, and talk show conservatives didn't either. But when the Middle East violence happened, they felt they could connect it all together," she says. "It made it very easy for people to make a neat parallel that we were attacked by suicide bombers, and Israel was, too."
Hasan says she has appeared numerous times recently on talk radio shows where the interviewer says the purpose is to teach the audience about Islam. "Then I get on and it's a blood bath," she says. And the rhetoric has ratcheted up in recent weeks, Hasan says.
Last week on a Denver radio show, for instance, the interviewer asked Hasan if she is a Muslim first or an American first, and she said she is both. Soon after, a caller said he is Catholic first and that being American is a distant second. Hasan said she then asked the caller to give an example of ways his religion conflicts with being American. His response was that he wants to be able to protest peacefully at abortion clinics; the host asked if he would blow up a clinic. And the caller said yes, if he thought it would do more good than harm.
"Can you imagine if a Muslim said such a thing?" Hasan wonders.
The problem, say Muslims like Hasan, is that moderate voices like hers aren't heard enough. That seems to be the viewpoint of the Bush Administration, even if the White House isn't meeting with American Muslim leaders. Richard Land, a prominent Southern Baptist with close ties to the Administration, says "one of our basic strategies should be to damage the radical [Muslim] voices and support the moderate voices.... My perspective is that the President did what he probably had to do in the wake of Sept. 11. He grew up coming to understand what happened to Japanese-Americans after Pearl Harbor and not wanting that to happen again."
Land says he doesn't disapprove so far of Bush's stance toward Muslims.
"He's supposed to be President of all the people," Land says. "As far as I'm concerned, what he's done to date has not been a problem. But I'm afraid that his comment that Islam is a religion of peace is more a wish than a fact. I don't think evangelicals are very happy about it, but there are so many other things they are happy about. Now, if he started showing up at worship services at mosques that would be another thing."
Green says Bush remains in a tricky political position with conservatives for the foreseeable future.
"To the extent that this grousing becomes common, this presents a problem for the President with the war on terrorism," Green says. "It's important for him to maintain this distinction between Islam and terrorism. If a very important part of his political base equates them, that makes the President's job very difficult."
And Bush can't exactly repudiate conservatives, because he needs them politically.
"It may have been that these people were held in check by the President's request that they behave themselves [early on]. I suppose you could fault Bush to some extent" for not keeping the lid on the dissent, Green says.
And here, he repeats what most Americans, at heart, believe: Sure, there are legitimate religious differences between various faiths, but the genius of the United States is that we tolerate each other. And so, Green says, if we're going to deal with terrorism and threats to our freedom, people who hate each other's beliefs in this country are simply going to have to make an effort to understand each other.
And in the end, that means they're going to have to put up with Islam, and with American Muslims-whether they like it or not.