In a recent Wall Street Journal article, terrorism analyst Evan Kohlmann said that anti-Muslim rhetoric in America is bad news for anti-terrorism efforts: “We are handing al Qaeda a propaganda coup, an absolute propaganda coup.”
By many accounts, the man who could blunt the power of that coup is Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the religious leader behind the planned Islamic Center near Ground Zero. The imam has been surprisingly mum on the issue while he travels in the Middle East. What message of faith could he offer to Muslims and non-Muslims alike that could turn this moment of division into a time of healing?
I was once idealistic enough to believe that in the United States we could all disagree about religious belief without being disagreeable. I’ve lowered my expectations considerably, and not just because of the furor over plans for the Islamic Center near Ground Zero. But if disagreeable we must be, let’s at least be non-violent.
It would be presumptuous for me, an atheist, to advise Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf on messages of faith. However, I would advise him to speak to the Muslim world about the real and enviable religious freedom we have in America. He can say that our Constitution prohibits the government from favoring one religion over another, or religion in general over non-religion. He can point out that while the U.S. majority might be Christian, our government affords the same rights to Muslims as to Christians. Imam Rauf can mention that people in this country are free to say that Jesus, Mary, Appolonius of Tyana, Elijah, or Muhammad ascended bodily into heaven. People like me are also free to say that all such beliefs are ludicrous.
The imam should note that bad speech is allowed, but not violent acts. An American Christian like Newt Gingrich was free to equate Muslims placing a center near Ground Zero with Nazis placing a sign near the Holocaust museum. Gingrich was wrong to imply our government would not allow such an offensive sign even on private property. Free speech allows both Gingrich and Nazis to express their opinions. And it allows me to call Gingrich an ignoramus.
If I were a Christian, I’d be embarrassed by the tactics of Christian pastor Terry Jones at the mega-church Dove World Outreach Center. He’s organizing an “International Burn a Koran day.” His “outreach” seems to be to “bigots.” Shades of “God hates fags” Christian pastor Fred Phelps.
The imam might want to tell Muslims that America is a country with good and bad Christians, Jews, Muslims, and atheists. If Muslims want to show America that Islam is a peaceful religion, they can best show it by being peaceful, themselves. Threats of violence in an attempt to curb free speech is counterproductive. Countering bad speech with good speech is productive. The pen can indeed be mightier than the sword. People are free to martyr themselves in the name of their religion, but not to harm others anywhere.