Me thinks thou do protest too much

Posted: Nov 23, 2001 12:00 AM
WASHINGTON--President Bush visits the main Washington mosque and declares Islam a religion of peace. He urges Americans to publicly accompany and protect ``women of cover''--Islamic faithful wearing the shawl. He encourages American schoolchildren to find a Muslim pen pal. On Monday, he held the first White House Ramadan dinner--``a way for the administration to publicly make the case that it is sensitive to Muslims.'' (CNN) Indeed, the administration has put together an entire ``Ramadan public relations offensive'' to ``highlight its sensitivity to Islamic tradition.'' (Washington Post) Now, it is one thing for the president to affirm American religious tolerance and speak out sternly against anti-Muslim prejudice, as he did early and often after Sept. 11. That is honorable and very American. And in fact, one can only be astonished how few acts of anti-Islamic bigotry--and how many acts of sympathetic understanding--have occurred in a nation driven to grief and fury by a monstrous mass murder. But it is quite another thing to protest so much that, yes, we do respect Islam. Why the doubt? No country on Earth has been more welcoming to Muslim immigrants. Which is precisely why the Sept. 11 terrorists could spend a year and a half in America going about their murderous business unmolested. And why must we constantly repeat that we are not at war with Islam? We never declared war on Islam. It was Islamic fanatics who, killing 4,000 Americans in the name of God, declared war on us. Why then are we the ones required to continually demonstrate our religious tolerance and respect for others? Shouldn't that be the responsibility of the Islamic world, of those in whose name this crime was perpetrated? Imagine if 19 murderous Christian fundamentalists hijacked four airplanes over Saudi Arabia and, in the name of God, crashed them into the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, destroying the holy Kaaba and killing thousands of innocent Muslim pilgrims. Could anyone doubt that the entire Christian world--clergy and theologians, leaders and lay folk--would rise as one to denounce the act and declare it a sacrilege? Yankee Stadium could not hold the trainloads of priests and preachers, reverends and rectors--why, even rabbis would demand entry--that would descend upon a mass service of atonement, shame, ostracism and excommunication. The pope himself would rend his garments at this blasphemous betrayal of Christ. And yet after Sept. 11, where were the Muslim theologians and clergy, the imams and mullahs, rising around the world to declare that Sept. 11 was a crime against Islam? Where were the fatwas against Osama bin Laden? The voices of high religious authority have been scandalously still. And what of Muslim religious leaders in America? At the solemn National Cathedral ceremony just three days after Sept. 11, the spokesman for the American Muslim community made no statement declaring the attacks contrary to Islam. There was no casting out of those who committed the crime. There was no fatwa against suicide murder. Instead, Dr. Muzammil Siddiqi, spiritual leader of the Islamic Society of North America, offered that to ``those that lay the plots of evil, for them is a terrible penalty.'' Who are these plotters of evil receiving retribution? Did he mean the terrorists? Or did he mean that America had it coming? He never said. The imam of the leading mosque in New York, the 96th Street Mosque, left no ambiguity: He published an interview in Egypt, to which he repaired after Sept. 11, claiming that it was the Jews who perpetrated the New York and Pentagon attacks. Hence that great post-Sept. 11 oddity: Deafening silence from the spiritual authorities of Islam, obsessive chatter from Americans, largely Christian, filling that silence with near apologetic professions of good faith and tolerance. This is not just odd, it is demeaning. Who attacked whom? Who should be doing the soul-searching and the breast-beating? Why are we acting as if we bear guilt for our own victimization? The United States is the most diverse and religiously tolerant society on earth. By far. As regards Islamic peoples, we have been singularly sympathetic. We waged three successful military campaigns in the 1990s. In every one we rescued a beleaguered Islamic people: Kuwait, Bosnia, Kosovo. (In Somalia, we tried and failed.) And we have just liberated a fourth: Afghanistan. Four thousand Americans lie dead in Washington and New York. Who should be atoning? Who should be reaching out to show religious tolerance and acceptance? Who should be asking their children to find pen pals of another faith? Sept. 11 was supposed to be a wake-up call to moral seriousness. Let's show it and stop acting like the guilty party.