Walter Rodgers

Terror trials will pose tough questions about Islam

If Islam is a religion of peace, why do so many Westerners find it scary?

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The coming trials of 11 Muslim men in the United States for several separate acts of mass murder will sharply refocus attention on Islamic theology. It will also present the Muslim world with a “moment of truth.”

How the Ummah, the global Muslim community, reacts will be a crucial test of how the American public judges the mantra “Islam is a religion of peace.” 

Political correctness aside, the jury is still out in the court of American public opinion. 

Some time in the coming year, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four other Guantánamo detainees are to be tried in a civilian criminal court in New York for plotting the 9/11 terror attacks and for the mass murder of nearly 3,000 people. Five others will be tried before a military tribunal on separate charges including the attack on the warship USS Cole that killed 17 sailors. 

In a separate court martial, Army Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan will face charges of murdering 13 people at Fort Hood, Texas, reportedly because, as a Muslim, he found it morally repugnant to participate in wars against the Ummah in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Why is Islam so scary to Westerners?

The trials will raise tough questions about Islam itself, a faith with 1.5 billion adherents. 

For example, if Islam is a religion of peace, why do so many Westerners find it scary? Violent Muslim reaction to perceived insults is a major reason. In 2004, Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh was killed for making a documentary critical of Islam. A year later, more than 200 people died in riots and bombings after a Danish newspaper published cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad. Intimidation now runs deep: Yale University Press this year refused to reprint the cartoons in a scholarly book about the incident for fear of inciting violence. 

The second question these trials will raise is about Muslim loyalty. To whom do American Muslims show their primary allegiance: to the teachings of the Holy Koran or to our secular government? Mr. Hasan is not the first Muslim in the military to kill fellow soldiers because of divided loyalties. In 2003, Sgt. Hasan Akbar murdered two US soldiers with a grenade. He was presumably fueled by religious resentment.

Concern over divided loyalty has long dogged minorities in America. Half a century ago, presidential candidate John F. Kennedy, a Roman Catholic, was publicly asked if he owed his primary loyalty to the US Constitution or to the pope in Rome

More recently, another American citizen, Jonathan Pollard, a Jew, was sentenced to life imprisonment for spying for Israel. Mr. Pollard now sits in federal prison because he was more loyal to Israel than to his native America. 

Not a war on religion

Muslims must remind themselves that it is 11 men accused of mass murder who are facing trial – not their religion, though it may be so construed in much of the Muslim world.

When radical Muslims claim the US has declared war on Islam, it smacks of mirror imaging. It is Muslims, not secular Americans, who view wars in a religious context and fight in the name of Allah, wrongly assuming the rest of the world is trapped in a similar mind-set.

It’s not in the character of the US to fight wars over religion. America was founded by those fleeing the aftermath of Europe’s horrific religious wars. 

To his credit, President George W. Bush went out of his way to assure anxious Muslims around the world that they were not the enemy. 

It’s sometimes thought that radical Muslims began their holy war against America in 1996, when Osama bin Laden published his grievances, or in 1979 when Shiite extremists took over Iran and the US Embassy in Tehran

Actually, Muslim belligerence goes back much further. As diplomats in the 1780s, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams went to London to negotiate with the envoy of the sultan of Tripoli. The envoy demanded outrageous sums as “protection” against Barbary pirates. Jefferson and Adams noted: 

“We took the liberty to make some inquiries concerning the Grounds of their pretentions to make war upon... [us]. 

The Ambassador answered us that it was founded on the Laws of their Prophet, that it was written in their Koran, that all nations who should not have acknowledged their authority were sinners, that it was their right and duty to make war upon them wherever they could be found, and to make slaves of all they could take as Prisoners, and that every [Muslim] who should be slain in battle was sure to go to Paradise.”

A question only Muslims can answer

It is regrettable that American Muslims feel the need to hunker down after one of their own like Hasan goes rogue. But millions of other Americans have had to endure countless indignities at airline security checkpoints, hunkering down and wondering if another member of the Ummah wants to blow up flights because of an overzealous interpretation of the Koran. 

As with all faiths, virtue lies in the effect it has on its adherents. So it is not unfair to ask: “Which Islam is the religion of peace, and how do we tell the difference?” Only Muslims can answer that. 

Walter Rodgers, a former senior international correspondent for CNN, writes a biweekly column for the Monitor's weekly print edition.

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