Chilling effects?

Posted: Oct 15, 2002 12:00 AM
American editorial pages are quick to protest laws, regulations, court rulings or community pressures that could produce a "chilling effect" on free speech and freedom of the press. Why, then, are many backing efforts to cut off debate about vital religious issues? Some background: Blunt-spoken minister Jerry Falwell on Oct. 6 called Muhammad a "terrorist." Six days later, he apologized for using that word, saying he meant no disrespect to "any sincere, law-abiding Muslim." In the meantime, newspapers across the United States jumped on him. Example: The Washington Post was shocked, shocked that Falwell had criticized Muhammad and Islam. He and other influential ministers, the Post opined, were putting forth "perverse" teaching, a "noxious mix of religious bigotry and anti-Muslim demagoguery." Other newspapers offered similar indignation. And yet, Falwell's comments should not have surprised anyone. Over the centuries, Christians have always strongly opposed Islam. Jonathan Edwards, often called America's leading thinker, attacked Muhammad's "pretences to intercourse with heaven, and his success in rapine, murder and violence." Ah, but Edwards wrote that 250 years ago; haven't we learned since then? Maybe, but scholarly books such as Ibn Warraq's "The Quest for the Historical Muhammad" shows how little we still know. Muhammad said and did some impressive things. He also, by the testimony of Muslim sacred and semi-sacred texts themselves -- the Quran and ahadith -- engaged in some violent activities. New Testament books were written down while eyewitnesses to Christ's time on earth were still alive. Muslim holy books weren't written down until generations after Muhammad's death. We don't know what Muhammad was really like. We know what people two centuries afterward said he was like. In short, the historical record concerning Muhammad is open to a wide variety of thoughtful interpretations. Readers from different worldviews can and should debate whether some violent activity led by Muhammad was proper or not. Just because Islam suppresses such debate, we should not -- especially since we miss many opportunities when we close off debate. This past summer, another blunt Southern Baptist preacher, Jerry Vines, attacked Muhammad for (according to some records) marrying a 6-year-old and having sexual relations with her at age nine. Vines was of course jumped on by The New York Times ("hate speech against Muslims") and other newspapers. I defended Vines' right to bring up that piece of information that comes right out of Muslim sources. My defense of free speech led to a beneficial email exchange with Dr. Aslam Abdallah, editor of Minaret, a major Muslim monthly magazine published in Los Angeles. He asked, "Where did you get the information that Muhammad married a 6 year girl?" I told him that it came from hadith collected by Sahih Bukhari, Sahih Muslim and Sunan Dawud over a thousand years ago, and gave him the page numbers. He replied, "Muslim scholars have refuted these hadith and questioned their authenticity." That was interesting, I responded, because Bukhari is "considered the most authentic of all the hadith authors/editors. If what he writes is not authentic, don't you have to throw out a lot of the Islamic tradition?" Abdallah replied, "Any hadith that contradicts the Quran is not reliable." In essence, since the Quran opposes adults having sexual relations with children, and since the Quran states that Muhammad was sinless, any hadith to the contrary must be tossed aside. The email exchange taught me much about how Muslim scholars interpret their sacred and semi-sacred texts -- and it was prompted by comments by Vines that, according to The New York Times and The Washington Post, never should have been made. Journalists should realize that religious debate, like football, is a collision sport, and we don't learn much when we simply "play nice" with each other. Secular liberal journalists may consider all religious discussion to be a matter of opinion, but others believe that objective theological truth does exist and can be found. For their many readers who care, newspapers should cover theological contests, point out facemask violations and unnecessary roughness, and see who wins debates that should be rugged, because much is at stake.