What's in a name when the name is Muhammad?

Posted: Nov 04, 2002 12:00 AM
At first, I thought the radio-show caller was a put-on. Following the arrests last week of DC-sniper suspects John Allen Mohammed and John Lee Malvo, the caller politely made his request: Would the media please refrain from identifying John Muhammad as John Muhammad? Identifying Mr. Muhammad as "Mr. Muhammad" -- the surname the suspected serial killer took as a Muslim convert -- might reflect badly on Islam, which, as the caller explained, is a religion of peace, not violence, and whose prophet, of course, was also named Muhammad. While the radio hosts gurgled over the ramifications of a media-made mix-up between Muhammad the prophet and Muhammad the sniper, I realized the caller -- by now revealed as the real Muhammad, I mean, McCoy -- had a point. He just hadn't taken it far enough. Not only should we not identify John Muhammad as "Muhammad," we shouldn't call him "John," either. That's the name of a Christian apostle (John, natch). Come to think of it, with such namesakes as these, maybe this prime murder suspect shouldn't be identified, period. In fact, maybe we should just let him go. So much for logic. What's disturbing about this instinct -- the urge to repress a truth that undercuts a belief -- is its prevalence. Not that it derives from religious fervor alone. I found myself strangely fascinated by the pains The New York Times, for example, took to guard the Chechens who terrorized Moscow last week against their apparent associations with Islamic terrorism. So far, we know, or think we know, that this Muslim suicide gang sent a videotape to Al-Jazeera proclaiming its intention "to take the lives of hundreds of infidels" was led by a Chechen who London's Daily Telegraph describes as having been "imbued with an unshakable faith in militant Islam" and included "a number of Arab fighters believed to be of Saudi Arabian and Yemeni origin." To the Times, such telling detail registered only as "gestures and symbols borrowed from extremist Islam." The Chechens, the report wrote with re-capping confidence, were "intent on projecting the image of international Islamic warriors in search of 'martyrdom,'" the idea being to draw Islamic gold into their coffers. In other words, the rebels were faking it. Even considering whether Chechen separatism has been, say, hijacked by Islamist elements, it seems, would take the newspaper too far from a script written for a nationalist movement, not Islamic jihad. The Times' tunnel vision reminds me of the urge to lose the "Muhammad" in John Muhammad's name. It's the same reluctance to face facts, however gruesome -- or politically incorrect. With all the events of the past week, however, nowhere was this mindset more rigidly in force than at Georgetown University. The occasion was a lecture by Bat Ye'or, the foremost expert on "dhimmitude." This is the term the trailblazing historian applies to the institutional humiliations and discrimination suffered historically by the dhimmis, Jews and Christians under Muslim rule. According to Bat Ye'or, when it comes to non-Muslims, jihad leads to a parlous state of dhimmitude, not a brotherhood of man -- and, in a wide-ranging lecture about jihad ideology and dhimmitude practices, she told a Georgetown audience exactly that. Oh, the furor the historian and her facts kicked up. Bat Ye'or and, later, her husband, historian David Littman, were jeered by a sizable Muslim contingent, and, even worse, later denounced -- literally -- by two lecture-sponsoring Jewish organizations. (See Rod Dreher's first-rate account of the debacle at www.nationalreview.com). The historians' worst crime? "They made offensive implications regarding Islam," organization leaders Julia Segall and Daniel Spector wrote in the Georgetown Hoya in their cringe-making "apology" for staging the event. The students then accused the historians of making "no effort to make a clear distinction between pure, harmonious Islam, and the acts of a few who falsely claim to act in the name of Islam." "Pure nonsense," replied Bat Ye'or in a letter to the Hoya. "When one studies the Inquisition or the Crusades, one does not feel obliged to make a clear distinction between 'pure' Christianity and those historical events." She went on to note the crucial difference between traditional methods of Western analysis, which weigh evidence and testimonies, and Islam's religion-based interpretation of history, which frames events according to religious dogma. Shockingly, the latter would seem to be the single interpretation valid at Georgetown, where, in Bat Ye'or's experience, "the historical testimony of millions of human victims of jihad is rejected on its face by this doctrinal attitude." Only decades of political correctness and cultural relativism could have brought us to the point where there's even a contest between these alien schools of thought. It should be clear by now that the outcome, still undecided, will be far from academic.