Still, until a month ago, learning more about Islam was a low priority for all too many Americans. Since the attack, that has changed. PBS has re-broadcast its series, Islam: Empire of Faith. Newspapers, magazines, and TV news programs have been scrambling to provide some context for the attack and the larger movement it represents. Even Oprah has gotten into the act.
Well and good. The impulse to learn, to understand, is welcome, but the quality of the information has been very uneven, and it often comes with a distorting spin. This is the first in a series of columns intended to contribute (on a very modest scale) to this ongoing project. Other subjects will be taken up in this space, but Islam will be a recurring theme for some time.
Much of the recent talk has referred to historical antagonism between Islam and the West, and specifically between Islam and Christianity. Often the suggestion is made that we can't understand current attitudes in the Middle East and elsewhere in the Muslim world without this historical background. For example, Salim Muwakkil, whose column in the Chicago Tribune I regularly read with interest, observed on September 24 that "there are longstanding tensions between the Islamic and Christian world going back to the original crusades." Similar statements, always with the Crusades as the reference point, have appeared in countless commentaries since September 11.
What's wrong with this little history lesson? Well, nothing really—if you don't mind history as told by an amnesiac. The "tensions" between Islam and Christianity began long before the Crusades. The starting point was the seventh century, when Islam began a period of conquest that remade the face of the Middle East and North Africa, extended into Spain, and threatened all of Europe. It was in 638, in fact, that Muslims first captured Jerusalem.
The regions conquered in this period included the cradle of Christianity and the early church. To speak as if "tensions" between Islam and Christianity began with the Crusades, as if Christians had simply decided out of the blue to attack Muslims, is not a small error. It is a fundamental distortion of the historical record.
This does not of course excuse the evil done by Christians under the banner of the Crusades (a subject we'll take up later). Not in the least. But it does suggest the bias that infects not only popular commentary on Islam and the West today but also many more substantial works, including books written by scholars for general readers.
For example, in the book Islam: A Thousand Years of Faith and Power, by Jonathan Bloom and Sheila Blair (the companion volume to PBS's Islam: Empire of Faith), the Muslim conquest of Christian lands is recounted only briefly and in highly idealized terms, while unsavory aspects of Muslim rule—including slavery—are even more egregiously distorted to present a benign face. (For a corrective, see the interview with Bat Ye'or in the September/October 1998 issue of Books & Culture.) Again, this is a subject we'll be returning to; suffice it to say here that such brazen tampering with history is scandalously common.
Surely some of this revisionism is motivated by a laudable desire to counter deeply rooted stereotypes that denigrate Islam in general and Arabs in particular. (Although today a majority of the world's Muslims are not Arabs, in the minds of many Americans the two are synonymous.) In the aftermath of September 11, that effort has taken on considerable urgency.
But the way to counter untruths and half-truths is not to substitute for them a new set of distortions. Just as certain apologists for Christianity bring discredit to the faith by refusing to acknowledge the stains in Christian history, so many would-be apologists for Islam undermine their own cause. We have to do better than that, even when the truth hurts.
John Wilson is editor of Books & Culture and editor-at-large for Christianity Today.
Copyright © 2001 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Visit Books & Culture online at BooksandCulture.com or subscribe here.
Books & Culture Corner appears Mondays at ChristianityToday.com. Earlier Books & Culture Corners include:
Christian Scholarship … For What? | Academic speakers affirm the value of beholding God's creation. (Oct. 1, 2001)
Myths of the Taliban | Misinformation and disinformation abounds. What do we know? (Sept. 24, 2001)
The Imagination of Disaster | "We thought we were invulnerable." Really? (Sept. 17, 2001)
More Sex, Fewer Children | Mixed messages on condoms, contraception, and fertility. (Sept. 10, 2001)
The Strange Case of Napoleon Beazley | The latest poster boy for death row chic. (Aug. 27, 2001)
Apocalyptic City | The dream and the nightmare of megalopolis (Aug. 20, 2001)
Megalopolis Forty Years On | The ambiguous face of the city. (Aug. 13, 2001)
The Future Is Now | You want the news? Read science fiction. (Aug. 6, 2001)
Memorable Memoirs | Whether telling us about the Spirit in the South or the crumbling atheism of a Chinese immigrant, these books provide windos into others' lives. (July 30, 2001)
The Distorted Story of Memoir Inc. | There are many good autobiographies out there, but do those who write about them have to pretend they're the only books worth reading? (July 23, 2001)
Looking for the Soul of CBA | Nearly anything that can be said about Christian publishing is true to some extent, thanks to the industry's ever-enlarging territory. (July 16, 2001)
Give Me Your Muslims, Your Hindus, Your Eastern Orthodox, Yearning to Breathe Free | Immigration's long-ignored effect on American religion is garnering much attention from scholars (July 9, 2001)
Shrekked | Why are readers responding passionately about a simple film review? (July 2, 2001)
Debutante Fiction | The New Yorker should have paid less attention to the novelty of its writers and more attention to their writing. (June 18, 2001)
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