Editor’s Note: This piece was prompted by two quotations that made it into the news in 2003: General Boykin’s comment on Allah that’s discussed below, and President Bush’s statement about Saddam Hussein, “He tried to kill my dad,” which may have had more to do with our hugely expensive invasion of Iraq than his discredited WMD rationale. Both seem somewhat childish attitudes toward foreign policy; however, for his negative response to General Boykin’s comments, Mr. Bush deserves credit for behaving like an adult. (Every now and then, he takes the fun out of Republican-bashing.) This article was also cited in a sermon by Rev. Gary A. Wilburn of the First Presbyterian Church of New Canaan, Connecticut. We became e-mail buddies after that (yes, I do have friends in the clergy), and I’m sorry to report that, at the end of June 2010, Gary died from a long illness (Lou Gehrig’s disease) ... he was a good guy, and a good Christian.
“My dad can beat up your dad.” That was General William Boykin’s assessment of his battle with a Somali warlord. As the general said in a speech to a group of evangelicals, “My God was bigger than his.”
Despite his own born-again tendencies, President Bush has twice rebuked Boykin for making such inflammatory comments as, “I knew that my God was a real God, and his was an idol.” Bush reiterated his position that the war on terror is not a battle with Islam, but with the extremists who’ve “hijacked a great religion.” This is a sensible attitude, as declaring war on nearly 20% of the world’s population would be a practical impossibility.
In contrast with the president’s pragmatic outlook, many American fundamentalists — Pat Robertson, John Hagee and Franklin Graham spring to mind — have stridently denounced Islam, calling it “evil” and “satanic.” Ironically, they preach exactly what the militant Islamicists promote — the triumphalism that says “we have the truth, and whoever disagrees is an infidel.”
A born-again friend, her reason addled by her extremism, once illumined for me why it’s inaccurate to equate Islamic and Christian fundamentalism. Both factions claim to have the one absolute truth, and both believe everyone else is going to Hell, but there’s one big difference, she explained, “We Christians do have the truth, and everyone else is going to Hell.”
The compelling logic of this argument drives those with missionary zeal, like Graham’s Samaritan’s Purse organization, to go to places like Iraq to convert the unsaved. Despite the Bush administration’s stated opposition to a crusade against Islam, Muslims are likely to view evangelism by zealots of this ilk as threatening. Equally intimidating is the loathsome doctrine espoused by right-wing harridan Ann Coulter, who wrote: “We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity.” Statements like this are the best way to rally the troops, especially when reproduced as an al-Qaida recruiting poster.
Nonetheless, the argument that the world might be a more-peaceful place if Muslims believed something else has an understandable appeal. More than most religions, Islam doesn’t play well with others. From Africa to the Persian Gulf to the India/Pakistan border and eastward to Indonesia and Malaysia, anywhere that Muslims confront non-Muslims, violence is likely to erupt.
Televangelists like Hagee and Robertson love to blame Muslim belligerence on inflammatory passages in the Koran. It’s true there are some vile suras in the Islamic scriptures; however, the hatred and war-mongering encouraged by the Old Testament — try reading the Book of Joshua, for example — is as odious as anything in the Koran (click here). I’d like to suggest that a simpler explanation for our problems with the Islamic world might be its immaturity.
In the early 600s, when Muhammad conceived Islam, Christianity had already existed for six violent centuries (click here). Christian chauvinists who make disparaging comparisons between their own religion and modern Islam should consider what Christendom was like at a comparable stage in its evolution.
If it were transplanted into the third millennium, 15th century Catholicism wouldn’t play well with others either. Like modern Arab theocracies, European monarchies in the 1400s had no tolerance for the concept of church/state separation. In the days of Torquemada and the Inquisition, Catholic kingdoms indiscriminately massacred Jews and Muslims, viciously made war on their neighbors, and tortured heretics for blasphemy, such as suggesting the earth goes around the sun.
By the next century, the Church actively supported a global slave trade that ravaged Africa and defiled both Europe and the New World, while Eastern Orthodox Christians conducted pogroms aimed at wiping out the Jews. And, with the Reformation, Christianity would soon be at war with itself, as centuries of internecine strife displayed the brutality of Christian sectarianism. Meanwhile, the bigoted writings of Martin Luther would introduce a new holocaust — Protestant anti-Semitism — into the continuous horror of European history.
Perhaps, we’ll need to wait for the Islamic world to approach its third millennium before it matures enough to co-exist peacefully with us, like adults, rather than childish fanatics boasting about how Allah is greater than Jehovah. But if we, in our supposed maturity, encourage our own extremists to act on similar attitudes, it will be that much more difficult for all of us to just get along.
And get along we must … because what’s the alternative? Regardless of whose God is bigger, the world’s 1.2 billion Muslims represent the fastest-growing religion on the planet. If we Americans hope to keep them off our throats, it might help to keep crusaders like Coulter, Graham and Boykin off theirs.
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