What a country. While the nation is still mourning its dead from Islamic terrorists, "West Wing," the popular television series about a fictional president in the White House, demonstrates how quickly everything becomes current and topical.
Although the characters in the current episode insist that terrorism is bad, their main point is that we've got to be careful not to scapegoat Muslims just because they look like or sound like our image of terrorists from the Middle East. "Bad people can't be recognized on sight," we're told. "There's no point in trying."
It's important to warn against prejudice. But we're told by our leaders to be especially alert to anything or anyone that might be suspicious. The message of "The West Wing" is simply to "drop your eyes and look the other way."
That's silly, and contemptuous of all the Muslims in this country who want and deserve to have us look in their eyes with the respect we show all fellow Americans. We can take pride in the fact that our leaders have been eloquent in speaking out against prejudice against Muslims. President Bush visited a mosque, and more power to him. No religion or ethnic group should be the object of hate because their co-religionists are accused of crimes.
But neither should we be blind to reality. Violence and viciousness directed against the United States is coming from fanatics who revel in their religion, however they have distorted it. If we had been a little more alert to the rhetoric of their leaders, we might have been more aware of their intention to strike at the country they call the "Great Satan."
Those who would analyze the behavior of the terrorists are confronted with motives that are complex and extensive. The Islamic terrorists hate us for our power, our pleasures, our openness, our democracy, our wealth, our support of the tiny democracy in their midst they call the "little Satan," and for all our faithlessness and fun. Though these fanatics live on a wacky fringe of Islam, we shouldn't be oblivious of the origins of that wacky fringe.
Readers, mostly well meaning, send me chapter and verse from the Koran, which they read as documenting hatred for all those who do not believe in the purity of Islam as the terrorists do, but here's the rub: The Koran, like all sacred texts, is laden with ambiguous and paradoxical meanings, which lend themselves to distortion as it is interpreted and reinterpreted (and misinterpreted).
What is clear, however, is that for several decades, Islam, more than any other of the world's great religions, has been the fountain of hatred toward the West in general and the United States in particular. Just as you don't have to be a weatherman to see which way the wind blows, you don't have to be a political scientist to observe that contemporary Islamic culture has not quickened a single democracy anywhere in the world.
"From the 1950s, and especially once the fall of communism in 1989-1991 had freed the Muslim states of the Soviet bloc from their straitjackets, Islam has taken the lead in anti-Western activity politically, religiously and militarily," writes David Selbourne in the London Daily Telegraph. "It has brandished guns in one hand and sacred text in another, demonizing America, Zionism and Christianity."
When we bend over backwards not to stereotype "the good Muslim" we should take care not to fall flat on our backs. The collapse of the Soviet Union rendered us giddy with notions of endless and uninterrupted progress. We envisioned a world marching steadily toward the democratic uplands of modernism. We felt safe from polarizing political ideologies.
Samuel Huntington, a Harvard professor of political science, saw it differently, identifying what he called a "clash of civilizations," with different cultural and religious groups fighting it out for superiority. Since Sept. 11, his interpretation has been greeted with greater seriousness and debate.
As Osama bin Laden was quoting the Koran and the terrorists were striking cold terror in the hearts of New Yorkers (and Americans elsewhere), the Metropolitan Museum of Art in midtown Manhattan was preparing three shows of Islamic art.
In them an observer can see exquisite presentations of calligraphy of the scriptures of the Koran, ceramics of brilliant mosaics that decorate Islamic altars, paintings with gorgeous colors and graceful narratives of Islamic life, exhibiting the beauty of another side of the Islamic culture.
This is exactly the art and beauty that militant Muslims are determined to destroy, as the Taliban demonstrates. And this is the grace and beauty overpowered by the destruction wrought by Islamic terror downtown. We should not flinch from a hard look at the contradiction.