President Obama has been getting a lot of criticism recently regarding his principled stands on religion—specifically, his attitudes toward Islam. Last year, it was all about his administration’s use of the acronym ISIL—Islamic State in the Levant—as shorthand for the military group that most U.S. media refers to as ISIS—Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. I suppose the use of different terminology is confusing to people. Never mind that ISIL is a more accurate description, as the caliphate that ISIL wants to create would embrace everything from present-day Israel to Iran (i.e., “the Levant”).
This year, a related wave of outrage washed over the conservative media when the president refused to refer to ISIL and Al-Qaeda as “Islamic terrorists”. He does call them terrorists, fundamentalist radicals, barbaric, and a variety of other negative labels, but he will not use the term “Islam” in connection with such groups, and that is what has his critics raving, calling for the president to “make it clear who the enemy is”, as if the term “Islamic” actually added vital, meaningful, useful information.
And then, to add to the outrage, on February 5th President Obama gave a speech at the National Prayer Breakfast in which he noted that “We see faith driving us to do right”, but “we also see faith being twisted and distorted, used as a wedge—or, worse, sometimes used as a weapon.” And he spent much of the rest of the speech talking about how we could avoid the destructive tendencies of religious faith; solutions such as exercising “civility and restraint and judgement.” All in all, a reasonable and moderate proposal. But in the process, he made two mistakes. Actually, they were less mistakes than “opposition opportunities”—a few statements that gave his critics yet another excuse to attack him.
The first such opportunity came when the president noted that “we should start with some basic humility”, and illustrated that by noting that Christianity—yes, the religion founded on the teachings of Jesus “Prince of Peace” Christ—has been known to inspire its followers to perform terrible acts of violence. The second opportunity came when he mentioned, as examples of Christian violence, the historic war on Islam known as the Crusades. Of course, he also mentioned the Inquisition, slavery, and the excesses of the Jim Crow period in the United States, all of them cases in which violent acts “all too often were justified in the name of Christ.”
The mention of the Crusades thus allowed Obama’s critics to ignore more recent events and to try to discredit the entire speech by implying chronological incongruity. Andrea Mitchell, a supposedly objective journalist on NBC, noted that “you can’t really go back to 1095.” Jonah Goldberg, after briefly quoting Obama on slavery and Jim Crow, spent almost all of his column claiming that the Crusades and Inquisition were not really that bad and, anyway, were defensive in nature because at that time the Catholic Church was responding to exterior threats. So burning people at the stake isn’t so bad if you claim that they are a threat to you? Never mind, that was all so long ago.
We could note here that in discussions of civil rights in the United States, it is probably also a mistake for people to mention slavery. Opponents of equal rights or affirmative action almost always immediately attempt to discredit any such programs by noting that slavery was ended more than 150 years ago. That, for them, ends the discussion, as if there haven’t been any discriminatory events since the 1860’s. This is a pattern—pick the most historically distant events connected to the topic, focus on that, and dismiss it as a system of old offenses that have been corrected long ago. That allows you to ignore current reality, no matter how inequitable or immoral or well-documented it may be.
In religious tolerance, as with civil rights, progress is far from complete. There are ample examples of the fact that the end of the Inquisition didn’t solve everything. This past Christmas, a firebomb was thrown through the window of an occupied mosque in Sweden, injuring five people. This was one of three mosques bombed in Sweden in the past two months, and one of many violent attacks made by Christians, most often in the name of defending Christianity, in many countries. In the United States, in several different events, Sikhs have been killed by outraged Christians who thought they were shooting Muslims.
There is, indeed, one comment about Obama’s speech that clearly demonstrates how correct President Obama is in his refusal to apply the phrase “Islamic terrorists” to violent groups like ISIL. That came from Bill Mahar, who noted that Islam is “living in the 16th century now.” He didn’t say “Islamic terrorists” or “some Islamic regimes”. He has repeatedly condemned the entire religion as being backward and violent. And he isn’t alone. Pundits and talk show hosts and politicians all around the world are conflating the religion of Islam with the terrorists, implying that ISIL and Al-Qaeda are representative of all Islam and all Muslims. And many of the same pundits who are most upset by the president’s failure to use the full phrase “Islamic terrorist” are guilty of repeatedly implying, or even saying outright, that Islam is an inherently violent religion and that all Muslims should be profiled, stripped of their constitutional rights, and/or deported. All Muslims. Maybe we should simply recreate those internment camps we opened up for all our citizens of Japanese descent during World War II.
The president was right. Christians need to be more humble about the comparative virtues, and failings, of their (and his) religion. They need to recognize that both the Bible and the Koran contain violent passages in which God (or Allah) demands that his followers commit terrible acts. Both require that certain offenders or outsiders (i.e., “infidels”) be subjected to excessive punishment (i.e., stoning). And both contain statements that can be, and have been, twisted by ideologues to justify extreme violence and the suspension of the human rights of groups of “other people”.
They need to realize that there are radical elements who misuse the name of Christianity to justify lynchings, torture, murder, and terrorist events in the United States such as the Centennial Park Olympic bombing and the Oklahoma City bombing and multiple fire-bombings of mosques and abortion clinics. These are not past actions that we have excised from the religious community. These “Christian” crazies are the equivalent of “Islamic” killers in their efforts to misuse religious doctrines and their pretense that they represent the vast majority of those who follow “their” religion.
According to the FBI, almost all of the perpetrators of terrorist acts in the United States and Europe are Christians. But almost all Christians would be incensed if the media used the phrase “Christian terrorist” to describe a person like the Norway summer camp shooter (77 killed in 2011) or the man who shot six at a Wisconsin Sikh Temple in 2012. Likewise, most Muslims appreciate the president’s refusal to refer to ISIL—a group that distorts the teachings of Islam—as “Islamic terrorists”.
President Obama was correct in his on February 5th speech. Religion is being twisted and distorted and used as a weapon. And those who are attacking his speech are proving his point. They don’t care about humility or understanding or civility or restraint. They prosper by promoting conflict and division. We should ignore them and instead praise speakers who, like the president, inspire us to tolerance.