Now that three years and three months have passed since nearly 3,000 died on a day that will live in infamy, the hills are alive with the sound of positive musings about Islam. Publisher's Weekly has reported that many new books on the religion are hitting the stores, with most assuring readers that Islam is a religion of peace.
Many Dutch citizens, shocked by last month's murder of filmmaker Theo van Gogh, are now questioning that assumption. Wishful thinking about Islam also runs up against the Koran itself, which shows that Islam offers peace at times but (under defined conditions) gives its adherents a license to kill.
Specifying those conditions is the hard part. One Internet site portrays a Christian debating a Muslim and asking: "All followers of Allah have been commanded to kill everyone who is not of your faith so they can go to Heaven. Is that correct?" The website states that the expression on the Muslim's face "changed from one of authority and command to that of a little boy who had just gotten caught with his hand in the cookie jar. He sheepishly replied, 'Yes.'"
If only it were that easy. In reality, many Muslims contest such a definition of jihad and say that a Muslim can fight and be rewarded by Allah only when defending Islamic lands. But that should be the beginning rather than the end of discussion: It's vital to find out which lands a Muslim sees as Islam's. Is Israel a Muslim land? What about Spain and the Balkans, which Islam ruled for centuries?
Similarly, when a Muslim says he opposes the murder of civilians, it's vital to ask: What do you mean by civilian? Is a non-soldier Israeli who has military training and could be called into active service a civilian? A worker at the Pentagon? How about those at the World Trade Center who advanced the capitalism that undergirds U.S. military efforts?
Many American Muslims are peaceful and define jihad primarily as an internal struggle to improve. Some talk more of military jihad and say it's allowable to regain lands that once were Islamic. Muslim terrorists peel away all the layers and go down deep enough to blast away small children who could eventually become soldiers occupying land that properly belongs to Islam.
Should all Muslims be blamed for such brutality? Clearly not. But Islam should take responsibility for what is all too frequent in Islamic history and in the culture that grows out of the Koran. Nor should Christians dodge past outrages by Christians and those who called themselves Christians. And yet, the bloody entry of the Crusaders into Jerusalem or the pro-slavery rhetoric of some antebellum fire-eaters is only part of the story: We need to compare the normal practice of Christianity and Islam.
For example, Christianity generally grew by the blood of its martyrs, but Islam often grew by the killing of its opponents. Christ's teaching eventually led to the development of complementary roles for men and women, but Muhammad's teaching led to female subservience. Christians looked at slavery critically over the centuries and often fought for its abolition, but Muslims began the practice of enslaving Africans, and some Islamic countries today still allow slavery.
A useful book in this regard is Alvin Schmidt's "The Great Divide" (Regina, 2004). Do you want to know whether beheading is part of traditional Muslim practice? Schmidt notes that Muhammad himself ordered such killings, and that when Ottoman caliphs finally took over Constantinople in 1453, the embalmed head of Emperor Constantine XI became part of a traveling exhibit.
We are far from the end of our war against terrorism -- most of which these days is Muslim in origin -- but we may be at the end of the beginning. It's certainly time to enter into discussions with Muslims without offering either appeasement or shotgun-blast aggression.