None of my friends or acquaintances are Muslim. Maybe none of yours are, either. So when a speaker from Bilal Mosque was invited to speak at my church to “introduce us to Islam,” quoting from our church newsletter, I was interested in hearing what he would say and in asking him a few questions, since I’ve never had the opportunity to ask an individual Muslim how he or she views the gulf between the henchmen of radical, violent Islam and the rest of the world. His presentation consisted largely of a few facts about Islam guaranteed to appeal to liberal hearts, such as that “Allah” is used to name God because the word has no indication of gender, and some rambling stories, supposed to be heartwarming, about how the Muslim faith of people he knows is helping them through a horrific life situation and he’s not worthy of their belief. Here’s a brief recap of a few of our exchanges in the discussion period, the ones where I (or somebody else at my church) asked him a question and he responded.
I asked him about Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the former Dutch MP, former Muslim and self-described “Muslim atheist” who left Holland after being evicted from her apartment so that her neighbors would be safer from Islamic threats to her life. He responded that her situation is “contrived,” that she’s not in any danger, “it’s all to sell books,” “you watch,” she’ll live long and make lots of money. And on further reflection, he decided that I am “naive” for believing her tales. Who would bother with her, he asked rhetorically.
Well, obviously, the same people who killed Theo van Gogh, the Dutch filmmaker with whom Ali collaborated on the film for which he was killed by a second-generation Muslim Dutchman. From the above-linked article:
Ms. Hirsi Ali first got police protection in 2002 and then went into hiding in November 2004, following the murder in Amsterdam of Mr. van Gogh by a second-generation Dutchman of Moroccan descent. The killer plunged into Mr. van Gogh’s chest a long knife, which pinned to the corpse a rambling and venomous note addressed to Ms. Hirsi Ali. It vowed that she, too, would die.
Naturally I then asked about the murder of van Gogh. Our speaker’s response: “An aberration.” Surely the stated target for murder of even an “aberration,” as Ms. Ali was targeted by van Gogh’s killer and has been publicly marked for death in the last three months, must be in danger? No, it’s all contrived.
But how can it be contrived or an aberration when so many rioted over the Danish cartoons? His answer: “Touch Mohammed and there will be riots.” He went on to stipulate that it’s fine with him if I then turn around and say that Islam is not a religion of peace, but nevertheless, touch Mohammed and riots will happen.
So let me get this straight: Riots of thousands are the natural consequence of offensive newspaper cartoons, but a brutal murder is an aberration, and danger to the murderer’s stated next target, who has been driven out of her home because all her neighbors believe the danger to her was dangerous to them, is contrived? Hirsi Ali has gained traction in part because of the riots that are threatened because of her presence and the riots that actually took place around the cartoons and the death of Theo Van Gogh. But instead of disassociating himself or Islam itself from those acts, our speaker denied their existence, wrote them off as an anomaly or preached that we must accept them as a matter of routine when Mohammed is insulted. Which is it: anomaly or routine?
A member of our church asked why we don’t hear more from Muslims who condemn violence committed in the name of Allah. His pat answer: “Where are you, during the illegal occupation of Palestine?” Me: “But it doesn’t justify people strapping bombs to their chests and blowing up innocent people.” Him: “If that’s what you think, that Palestinians are always going in and killing Israelis, then I can’t change your mind.” He flatly stated that CNN and our other internal news sources, as opposed to CNN International, are basically a web of lies and propaganda. Yeah: propaganda against the Palestinians. Chew on that one for a minute. At this point I was fairly sickened at the way a few members of my church spoke up eagerly to, basically, agree with him on the point of Jewish lies and propaganda.
On the subject of Islam’s treatment of women, he told the story of Mohammed’s first wife, Hadijah, and how she had built up a vast caravan business, how she proposed marriage to him, how it was she whom he went to when the angel visited him, etc. I asked how this prominence of woman squares with their treatment in, say, Saudi Arabia. His instant answer: “Saudi Arabia is a problem.” He compared it unfavorably to Bangladesh (where he is originally from, I believe) in oppression of women, etc. I asked if this is because of the government structure; his response was “it’s cultural. Mostly cultural.” I had previously asked about supporting governments that suppress freedoms, such as the freedom of women to dress how they choose, and he had countered with Turkey, where, he said, women are not allowed to veil. Actually, though, according to The Economist, it’s only women who work for the state who are barred from veiling.
He told the story of Abraham, Hagar, and Ishmael. In the Bible, Abraham’s twitchy, childless wife, Sarah, told Abraham to take her servant, Hagar, as another wife and get children from her. When Hagar’s son, Ishmael, was about fourteen (according to the Bible), upon Sarah’s insistence, Abraham took Hagar and Ishmael out into the desert and left them. I asked how Muslims interpret God telling Abraham to take Hagar and Ishmael out and abandon them. He replied, basically, so what, or why does that bother you. I started: “Because I’m a mother–” he got animated. “You are a mother through the mercy of God. … He could snuff you out” *snapped his fingers.* I.E. there is no explanation needed–God said to do it, Abraham was therefore justified in doing it, end of story. Whereas I always look on the story of Abraham, Hagar, and Ishmael as a shameful example of the frailty of humanity in both Sarah and Abraham–and Hagar and Ishmael as well, since it was their open contempt of Sarah and Isaac that got under Sarah’s collar to begin with. To my further question of how Muslims interpret God deliberately setting Isaac and Ishmael on paths that were bound to clash, he answered that the Koran says that God could have made us all one people, one brotherhood, all hugging all the time, all loving all the time, and what would be the meaning in that? He says it’s to test us, and may you never be tested. I wonder how he supposes one is to get an “A” in this particular test.
So, I asked, if God created us differently on purpose, then in the same way you resent Christians asking you to convert (something he’d mentioned before), you’re not in favor of Muslims asking Christians or others to convert? His response was, essentially, an appalled God, no. There is no missionary component to Islam, he said–our faith and our souls are our business. He’s to take care of his own. Later, after the discussion of Hirsi Ali, I went back to this regarding Muslims who leave the faith. He said that of course they’re not happy when somebody leaves the faith, that he’s been introduced before to people who have become Christian from Muslim and “…I’m supposed to be happy about this?” (he most clearly was decidedly UNhappy). Me: “So how does that square with ‘take care of yourself and let others do the same?’” His instant, honest response: “It doesn’t.”
He even had his own Muslim version of Truthernut salad. With no prior question or mention, he brought up Chechnya, which, he said, has been trying to “break free” for hundreds of years. Me: “What about Beslan?” He said that was unacceptable, or wrong, or words to that effect, but followed it up with the idea that Beslan may have been orchestrated by Putin. A “school of thought,” he said. I alluded obliquely to “schools of thought” cropping up their ugly heads in the U.S. but didn’t really want to go down the Truther road any farther.
While our speaker is of Bangladeshi origin and I do not know how long he has lived in America, he is a PhD in electrical engineering and works for Intel. When our pastor, on his “feel-good” side of the agenda, asked if “we should be afraid of Muslims,” our speaker’s response was “It’s up to you.” There was more to it, and he went on that he hoped we wouldn’t, that he makes efforts like this (the interfaith sessions) to overcome that fear, but that response in itself is in no way reassuring. If the violence, other than the riots over Mohammed, is aberrant as he says, why is the answer not “Of course not”? It must be because we infidels will eventually again “touch Mohammed” and invite it on ourselves.
Some of this took place in the general group, some afterwards when me, my pastor, and two other people stayed around to discuss some more. During that small discussion after some semi-pointed exchanges, he shook my hand (he was preparing to leave but ended up staying for more discussion), said “We’ll get through this” (meaning the larger strife), paused and added, “She’s tough,” indicating me. I walked with him to his car after it was over–we were parked next to each other. He said he appreciated being at our church and having the discussion and talking about the hard questions; he said he thought feel-good fluff was a waste of time, that nothing can be solved that way. On that point he has my total agreement.
The stated purpose of the visit, from my church’s perspective, was printed in the newsletter: “In an increasingly fragmented world in which followers of other religions are often viewed with fear – how wonderful it would be to build bridges.” But when we’re told flatly, “Touch Mohammed and there will be riots,” it’s obvious that it’s less about bridge building and more about schooling us as to how we are and are not to behave to avoid what Muslims who think like our speaker believe are the reasonable consequences of offending Islam–or even the more “aberrant” consequences. Ironically, this pattern reminds me of radical feminists, whose aim is to curtail the behavior and speech of people, particularly men, whom they deem offensive. In both cases, this reveals an absolutely infantile grasp of human relations that insists you tightly align your behavior with their proscriptions because they simply cannot handle, or respond appropriately to, what you might say or do. Our speaker, in answering my questions about the Mohammed cartoons, asked vehemently and self-pityingly why we could not leave Mohammed alone, why Islam cannot have even one thing that is sacred from the opinions of others (my words). I remember pathetically wondering this myself when my sister wanted to play with my toys–when I was about eight. But this begs for control of the behavior of others rather than planning for measured responses of one’s own.
Confronting this rigid insistence on speech and behavior control, Christians, atheists, and Jews should be making common cause to resist this backwards thought process. But I watched while at least three members of my church eagerly attempted to make common cause with the speaker who had essentially just told us we were not entitled to publicly express our own opinions of Mohammed, who repeatedly gave himself away with anecdotes about being introduced to non-Muslims whom he was sure he would hate until he actually met them, and who tried to make jokes about the wives he knows ruling the roost over their husbands, but told several stories of their actual subservience and dependence on their husbands’ pronouncements.
You cannot build a bridge from only one side of the river–but too many Muslims expect non-Muslims to bridge 100 percent of the gulf between our “offensive” behavior and their delicate sensibilities.
Many thanks to See-Dub of the ol’ JunkYardBlog, who provided encouragement and assistance as I wrote this up.