A war on Islam risks losing Arab allies

Islam has a long and important history that had, at one time, Jews and Muslim intelligentsia working together. Will the war on ISIS become a war on Islam because history does not matter?

Then-Secretary of State John Kerry poses with Arab leaders (wikipedia)

WASHINGTON, February 3, 2017 — President Trump has committed himself to defeating ISIS. All Americans, liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, share this goal.

However, what should be an effort to defeat a group of Islamist extremists could escalate into what looks like a war against Islam itself. If that were to happen, our Islamic allies—Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other Muslim countries we need in our coalition—would be hesitant to participate in such an enterprise.

If Muslims came to believe that the U.S. had turned against Islam itself, ISIS would have its best possible recruiting tool.

Our friends in the Islamic world have reason to be concerned.

During his presidential campaign, Trump called for a “total and complete shutdown” of Muslim immigration. His executive order on immigration, while not a “Muslim ban,” is viewed by many as a first step along such a path. Suspicion of Islam itself, not just of terrorist groups like ISIS and al Qaeda,  has been spread by people in positions of influence in the new administration, particularly Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, the national security adviser, and Stephen K. Bannon, the president’s top strategist.

It sometimes appears that terrorist groups are being conflated with 1.7 billion Muslims around the world. This view holds that Islam is an inherently hostile faith whose adherents are enemies of Judaism and Christianity.

Last February, Flynn tweeted a link to an anti-Muslim video and wrote, “Fear of Muslims is RATIONAL.” In an interview he said,

“Islam is not necessarily a religion but a political system that has a religious doctrine behind it.”

Bannon, in a 2014 talk to a meeting at the Vatican, said that “the Judeo-Christian world” is at war with Islam:

“There is a major war brewing, a war that’s already global. Every day that we refuse to look at this as what it is, and the scale of it, and really the viciousness of it, will be a day where you will rue that we didn’t act.”

On his radio show on Breitbart News, Bannon said, “Islam is not a religion of peace—Islam is a religion of submission.”

Others who make their hostility to Islam clear—Pamela Geller of Stop Islamization of America, Robert Spencer of Jihad Watch, and Frank Gaffney, Jr. of the Center for Security Policy—have appeared on Bannon’s program. Gaffney is described by the Anti-Defamation League as “a purveyor of anti-Muslim conspiracy theories.” The Conservative Political Action Conference banned him.

It is not ISIS which Gaffney focuses on, but Islam itself.  Even mainstream Muslim groups, he declares, “are engaged in this stealthy, subversive kind of jihad. They are essentially termites, hollow out the structure of the civil society and other institutions for the purpose of creating conditions under which the jihad will succeed.”

Many who demonize Islam know little of its history, particularly those who claim that Jewish-Muslim enmity is a long-standing phenomenon. In fact, when Jews were harshly persecuted in Christian Europe, they often found a golden age in Muslim lands. It would be good for Flynn, Bannon and the president himself to review this history.

In her book, “The Ornament of the World,” Prof. Maria Rosa Menocal of Yale University explores the history of Jews under Muslim rule in Spain:

“Throughout most of the invigorated peninsula, Arabic was adopted as the ultimate in classiness and distinction by the communities of the two other faiths. The new Islamic polity not only allowed Jews and Christians to survive but, following Qur’anic mandate, by and large, protected them, and both the Jewish and Christian communities in Al-Andalus became thoroughly Arabized within relatively few years of Abd al-Rahman’s arrival in Córdoba … In principle, all Islamic policies were (and are) required by Qur’anic injunction … to tolerate Christians and Jews living in their midst. But beyond that fundamental prescribed picture, Al-Andalus was, from these beginnings, the site of memorable and distinctive interfaith relations. Here the Jewish community rose from the ashes of an abysmal existence under the Visigoths to the point that the emir who proclaimed himself caliph in the 10th century had a Jew as his foreign minister.”

Living in the heart of the Arab world, Jews first served their apprenticeship in the sciences of Islamic intellectual masters and, in time, became their collaborators in developing the culture of the region. A striking example of this breadth of interest was Maimonides (Rabbi Moses Ben Maimon, 1135-1204), a native of Córdoba.

What chiefly characterized Jewish thought in this period was its search for unity, the attempt to reconcile faith with reason, theology, and philosophy, the acceptance of authority with freedom of inquiry. In Arab countries in the Near East and North Africa, where there existed this free intermingling of cultures, there blossomed a rich and unique Jewish intellectuality in Arabic.

Beginning with the 10th century, there appeared a galaxy of Jewish scholars, historians, philologists, grammarians, religious philosophers, mathematicians, astronomers, doctors, and poets.

During the 11th century, Ubn Usaibia, a Muslim scholar, listed 50 Jewish authors writing in Arabic on medical subjects alone.

In her book “A History of God,” Karen Armstrong notes that:

“The destruction of Muslim Spain was fatal for the Jews. In March 1492, a few weeks after the conquest of Granada, the Christian monarchs gave Spanish Jews the choice of baptism or expulsion. Many of the Spanish Jews were so attached to their home that they became Christians, though some continued to practice their faith in secret. Some 150,000 Jews refused baptism, however, and were forcibly deported from Spain;  they took refuge in Turkey, the Balkans, and North Africa. The Muslims of Spain had given Jews the best home they ever had…the annihilation of Spanish Jewry was mourned by Jews throughout the world as the greatest disaster to have befallen their people since the destruction of the Temple in CE 70.”

Jane S. Gerber, in her book “The Jews Of Spain,” points out that:

“In the 15th and 16th centuries … it was the Ottoman Empire, then at the zenith of her power, that alone afforded exiles a place where ‘their weary feet could find rest.’ … Her sultans—Bayezid II, Mehmet II, Suleiman the Magnificent—were dynamic, farsighted rulers who were delighted to receive the talented, skilled Jewish outcasts of Europe … Bayezid II, responding to the expulsions from Spain, reportedly exclaimed, ‘You call Ferdinand a wise King, who impoverishes his country and enriches our own.’ He not only welcomed Sephardic exiles but ordered his provincial government to assist the wanderers by opening the borders. Indeed, the refugees would find the Ottoman state to be powerful, generous and tolerant.”

This history serves to illustrate a real lack of understanding of Islam and its long record of tolerance during a period when Europe was racked by religious war and conflict. The real story is a hopeful one and tells a complex story of the entwined biblical roots of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

What motivates those who urge a religious war against Islam is less than clear.

Is it simply a lack of historical knowledge and understanding, or something more sinister? This we cannot know, at least at this time. What we can know is that in a war against Islam all of us will be losers.

The only winners will be ISIS and its allies, exactly the opposite of what President Trump says he wants to achieve.

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Allan C. Brownfeld
Received B.A. from the College of William and Mary, J.D. from the Marshall-Wythe School of Law of the College of William and Mary, and M.A. from the University of Maryland. Served as a member of the faculties of St. Stephen's Episcopal School, Alexandria, Virginia and the University College of the University of Maryland. The recipient of a Wall Street Journal Foundation Award, he has written for such newspapers as The Houston Press, The Washington Evening Star, The Richmond Times Dispatch, and The Cincinnati Enquirer. His column appeared for many years in Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. His articles have appeared in The Yale Review, The Texas Quarterly, Orbis, Modern Age, The Michigan Quarterly, The Commonweal and The Christian Century. His essays have been reprinted in a number of text books for university courses in Government and Politics. For many years, his column appeared several times a week in papers such as The Washington Times, The Phoenix Gazette and the Orange County Register. He served as a member of the staff of the U.S. Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, as Assistant to the research director of the House Republican Conference and as a consultant to members of the U.S. Congress and to the Vice President. He is the author of five books and currently serves as Contributing Editor of The St. Croix Review, Associate Editor of The Lincoln Review and editor of Issues.