Roger Cohen: Why Obama Should Visit a Mosque
Fear-mongering about Islam is a global industry. Barack Obama has a unique power to break the cycle, not least by emboldening moderate Muslims to denounce terror.
Barack Obama can break the cycle of fear.
We heard the whole gamut back then: how the European Muslims of Bosnia and Kosovo were really Turks engaged in a demographic genocide (through high birth rates) against Christians, and how they were engaged in a plot to establish a Muslim crescent looping up from Turkey through the Balkans, and how they roasted enemy prisoners alive on spits.
All the while, of course, said Bosnian Muslims were being herded by Christian Serbs into concentration camps that were centers of torture and systematic killing of a cruelty Europe believed it had forever banished.
That was before 9/11, of course, and before the Egyptian-born writer who uses the pseudonym Bat Yeor popularized the term Eurabia to express her vision of a Muslim-infiltrated Europe capitulating Munich-like to Islamism, and before Pat Buchanans apocalyptic The Death of the West, and before Americans were encouraged in numberless ways to equate Islam with terrorists plotting Armageddon.
Give Americans the Rorschach test today and what theyll detect in the ink blots are bearded Muslim suiciders.
Ill admit something else: my own feelings about Islam have veered back and forth in recent years. Most of us were ignorant when the planes-turned-missiles struck. Weve been searching for bearings: even the word jihad is variously described as a holy war against the infidel and an inner struggle for higher spiritual attainment.
When, in 2005, I talked to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somalian-born Dutch author, in a meeting in The Hague that had to be organized like an undercover operation because of threats to her life from Islamic radicals, I was struck by her words:
Islam is not a religion of peace, or only of peace with other Muslims. We should acknowledge that its a very violent religion, instead of pretending, like Bush, that this violence is not true Islam.
Certainly, the threat to her made in its name was violent. Certainly, the Koran is a long way from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Certainly, there are Koranic verses that Al Qaeda and other extremists have been able to use in attempts to sanctify their murderous acts. Certainly Islam, politically expressed, has often proved irreconcilable with modern notions of pluralism, democracy and womens rights.
But a very violent religion? No. From Beirut to Baghdad to Cairo to here in Istanbul, I have often felt the wonders of hospitality and generosity and wisdom that seem to well from Islam.
At Obamas old school in Jakarta earlier this year, an establishment scurrilously described as a madrassa in all the innuendo, a gentle principal showed me the large mosque and small Christian prayer room. He then invoked the words emblazoned on the coat of arms of Indonesia, the worlds largest Muslim country: Unity in diversity.
Thats what I saw among the kids at the school, 85 percent of whom are Muslim, and the rest Christian. Thats also what Americas supposed to be about, not religious slurring and stereotyping.
Yet, because hes named Barack Hussein Obama, and because his Kenyan grandfather was a Muslim, and because his commitment to Israel has been questioned, and because the U.S. Rorschach test is Muslim-menace mired, hes had to tread carefully.
As Andrea Elliott chronicled in an important article in The Times, Obama has visited churches and synagogues, but no mosque. He had to apologize after two Muslim women wearing head scarves were barred from appearing behind him at a recent rally in Detroit.
Obama should visit a mosque. He has repeatedly shown his courage during this campaign; Americans have responded to his intellectual honesty. One of the important things about him is the knowledge his Kenyan and Indonesian experiences have given him of Islam as lived, rather than Islam as turned into monstrous specter.
This enables him to break the monolithic, alienating view of a great world religion that is as multifaceted as Judaism or Christianity.
Ive no doubt that Obama is a strong supporter of Israel. But what I find as important is that he would come to Islam without prejudice. Thats the precondition for dialogue, whether with Iran or between Israel and Palestine.
Here in Turkey, a Muslim country of myth-dispelling permissiveness, I met with Joost Lagendijk, the chairman of the Turkish delegation of the European Parliament. Hes Dutch. What he hears at home is: Fear of Islam and fear of Muslims and fear of immigrants.
Fear-mongering about Islam is a global industry. It thrives on ignorance. Obama has a unique power to break the cycle, not least by emboldening moderate Muslims to denounce terror. Nothing would do more in the long run for the security of the world.
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