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Land, panel examine Islam & the West

WASHINGTON (BP)–Christians, Jews and Muslims should be able to live together peacefully while remaining faithful to their different beliefs, Southern Baptist religious liberty specialist Richard Land said recently in a panel discussion on Islam and the western world.

Another panelist, Islamic reformer Irshad Manji, said her religion is plagued by an “unsavory prophet worship” and a “supremacy complex” that inhibits moderate Muslims.

Land and Manji were among four panelists in a town hall meeting on the role of religion in the conflict between the Muslim world and the West. The discussion was taped for broadcast on America Abroad, an internationally distributed public radio program, at American University in Washington.

The causes of conflict between the United States — as well as other western countries — and a Middle East dominated by Islamic states are not just based on religious difference but national interests as well, said Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. They “are very, very, very complicated. It’s like trying to peel multiple layers of an onion,” he said.

There “are profound differences in ultimate truth claims” among Christianity, Judaism and Islam, Land said before an audience made up largely of Muslims.

“Where I find myself so frustrated is that I don’t think that those religious differences by definition need to lead to conflict,” he said. “They haven’t in the United States. … We manage to live together with relatively little conflict and almost no violence. It’s certainly possible for people to believe that there are superior truth claims without being incited to violence against those that they believe have truth claims that are different.”

Antagonisms among the adherents of the different religions can be produced by people who are not well educated about their faith, said Johari Abdul-Malik, an imam and head of the National Association of Muslim Chaplains in Higher Education.

Manji and Abdul-Malik addressed why some Muslims have reacted violently at perceived insults of the prophet Mohammad and why radicals have been able to speak on behalf of Islam.

The view of the Koran by Muslims is behind the ability of “an extremist fringe to take over and define the faith for us,” said Manji, author of “The Trouble With Islam Today.”

“Literalism within Islam today is mainstream, even here in America. … Even moderate Muslims believe as an article of faith that the Koran is not like any other sacred text. It is God’s 3.0 and none shall come after it.”

She labeled that view as a “supremacy complex” that is “not just arrogant; it is dangerous.” (Conservative Christians hold the Bible to be without error and God’s completed, written revelation but are not afflicted by the radicalism that Islam is.)

“(I)t inhibits a reasonable center, the so-called moderates, from asking hard questions about what happens when faith becomes dogma,” said Manji, a senior fellow with the European Foundation for Democracy. “You see, the violent jihadists are so expert at quoting from the Koran to justify their violence, and because the rest of us have been taught that questioning the perfect Koran is off-limits, we’re left with the queasy feeling that questioning the Koran-quoting jihadists is to question the Koran itself. And that silences us.”

Abdul-Malik said Muslims commit violence not because Mohammad taught violence but because illiterate adherents see insults of the prophet as “a desecration of who they are.”

Manji said, however, “I think there is a very unsavory prophet worship going on within Islam today, and it’s a very un-Islamic thing to do, because ultimately as Muslims we are to be worshiping one God and therefore staying humble, recognizing Allah’s ultimate authority and not playing God with one another.”

Land, Abdul-Malik and Jewish rabbi David Berger, a history professor at Brooklyn College in New York, all agreed in the March 7 discussion that people of their respective faiths feel under attack from Western culture.

“I think that people who are serious and traditional about their faith in the United States — whether they are Protestant evangelicals, whether they are Roman Catholics, whether they are Muslims, whether they are Jews — to varying degrees do feel under siege in this country from what they see as an aggressively secular culture — not a secular state but a secular culture,” Land said. “I would think that Muslims and Orthodox and observant Jews and evangelical Christians and traditional Catholics would have a lot of common ground in their critique of this culture and a lot of what they see as the destructive forces loose in this culture.”

Berger said, “Those elements of the Islamic world that the West worries about the most are hostile not so much to Judaism or to Christianity as religions, but they’re hostile … towards really a secular culture of the West, and in fact I think there is a greater hostility ultimately on that level. People who are deeply religious can end up agreeing with each other about a whole variety of issues that people who are not religious would not necessarily agree about. Muslims in my class expect that I would be more understanding of their need to be excused from an exam on a Muslim holiday than someone who isn’t an Orthodox Jew. And they’re right.”

One of the problems between the West and the Muslim world is popular culture’s depiction of Americans and other westerners that is transmitted internationally.

Land said Muslims he has “come into contact with overseas like us better when they discover we are far more religious as a nation than you would have any idea that we are. … When Muslims find out that we are not what we are often portrayed to be by the entertainment media, but in fact that there are far more Americans who are far more religious, they think better of us than they did before.”

Berger and discussion co-host Marvn Kalb both said, however, people in the Middle East are not hopeful.

“I think that there is a sense of deep concern and really pessimism on the part of a majority of Israelis at this point,” Berger said. “I don’t have optimistic things to say about this.”

Kalb, a news reporter and a host of “America Abroad,” recently attended the U.S.-Islam World Forum in Qatar, a conference consisting of 250 people who mostly represented Islam. At the forum, there was a “deep anger and disappointment toward the United States and its policies” and “a hatred of President Bush which I found quite extraordinary,” he said. The participants believed, Kalb said, things “would go badly” between the Israelis and the Palestinians and the general situation in the Middle East was negative.
The audio of the discussion, titled “The Religious Divide Between the Muslim World and the West,” may be accessed online at www.americaabroadmedia.org.

America Abroad sponsored the town hall meeting in conjunction with The American Interest magazine and WAMU, a local FM radio station. Kojo Nnamdi of WAMU co-hosted the discussion with Kalb.