By Bruce B. Lawrence

Robert Benchley, the American humorist, once quipped that “there are two categories of people in the world, those who constantly divide the people of the world into two classes, and those who do not.” Less funny, but persistent is the reflex to divide all approaches to Islam into two categories. The first are those who seek the truth in Islam. They ask: What are the various forms of Islam? How can we determine which is the true form of Islamic belief, and how do we know what are authentic norms for Islamic conduct? In opposition, there are those who have already decided there is no truth in Islam. Instead, they regard Islam itself as the true enemy—the enemy of global peace, the enemy of civil society and, above all, the enemy of Western civilization.

What both approaches ignore are Muslims—as individuals, families, groups and networks spanning the spectrum of possible identities. Those who self-identify as Muslims may be pious or mystical, high-minded or ritual bound, educated or illiterate, cosmopolitan or parochial. There is no single Islam and no essential, unchanging Muslim reflex. There can be, and probably are, more Muslim secularists than fundamentalists.

Muslim secularists may seem like a surprising concept, but suspend judgment and pick up the self-mocking autobiography of the British public intellectual, Ziauddin Sardar. Titled Desperately Seeking Paradise, and carrying the subtitle, “Journeys of a Sceptical Muslim,” the 2004 book chronicles Sardar’s efforts to find true Islam (a) by looking at how young Muslims face real world challenges and (b) by exposing the mirage of a top-down Islamic theocracy where the shari’ah, or Islamic law, becomes, in the words of one of Sardar’s fellow Muslims, “a bar of soap and the only way to apply it is to force people to scrub themselves silly with it!”

Why then do so many non-Muslims ignore the zestful sincerity of “secular” Muslims such as Sardar or not hear the voices of the many observant Muslims who condemned not just 9/11 but all violence committed in the name of Islam? Why does a diverse and permeable community of more than 1.2 billion adherents continue to be viewed by many Americans as alien at best and violent at worst?

Questions Journalists Should Ask

While there are several answers as to why the view of Muslims and Islam appears to veer in a negative direction, a major one must be the reductive tendency of journalism. Not just reductive, but sensationalist (“If it bleeds, it leads.”), many stories about Muslims and/or Islam are prone to a striking absence of context or nuance, often lacking a connection to the reality of the daily lives and apolitical beliefs of most Muslims.

Too often, these screaming headlines are mirrored in scholarly writing about Islam. The Crusades ended in the 12th century, yet the Crusader mentality still thrives in the 21st. Consider Bernard Lewis, a Princeton historian, pundit and advisor to President Bush who became a best-selling author after 9/11. The octogenarian Lewis supports the Crusader mentality, arguing that the main problem with the Crusades was that their duration—too short to be effective—did not achieve a “permanent” solution.

With writing such as his affecting policy decisions, one would expect to have some in the press scanning the scholarship and motives of advisors who advocate for war and occupation. It would be regrettable, but inconsequential, if Lewis acted or thought or wrote alone; yet a host of Islamophobes supports his tendentious, binary and hostile approach to Islam. He is joined by ex-Muslims who have produced best-selling books of their own that lampoon their former faith; among such authors are Ibn Warraq, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and Irshad Manji.

In 2006 Wafa Sultan, an Arab-American psychologist from Los Angeles, was named by Time in a list of 100 influential people “whose power, talent or moral example is transforming the world.” Time stated that “Sultan’s influence flows from her willingness to express openly critical views on Islamic extremism that are widely shared but rarely aired by other Muslims.” That statement is untrue since Sultan, having renounced Islam, is not like “other Muslims;” she is an outsider to both the religion and its members in the current debate.

Lewis is also in the company of other like-minded scholars, such as Martin Kramer and Efraim Karsh. Both Kramer and Karsh write about Islam as though it were a political scourge. In Islamic Imperialism—a History, published by Yale University Press in 2006, Karsh offers a thesis at once stark and simplistic: Islam is nothing but empire, or rather persistent yet failed imperial ambition. He excuses Christian empire building in a sentence: “Apart from the Third Reich, Christendom had lost its imperial ambitions by the mid-twentieth century.” Not so Islam. On the contrary, intones Karsh, “Islam has retained its imperialist ambition to this day.”

Just as journalists do stories in which they “follow the money” to analyze the influence of financial contributions to policy decisions, so investigations ought to try to follow the path of Islamophobic ideas—and how they travel. The Institute on Religion and Democracy, a neoconservative, Washington, D.C. think tank, has mailed out thousands of copies of “Islamic Imperialism” to mainstream Christian clergy, not just endorsing but also spreading its hateful message.

The message is more than hateful, it is also inaccurate. Religions, onto themselves, are not and cannot be imperialist, since they possess neither a disposition nor attitude. It is the people—members of specific groups in actual places in recorded history—who nurture ambitions, some being imperialist, others democratic, but most apolitical. Ascribing motives or reflexes to abstract entities, such as religion, should not be done, yet under the guise of scholarship, authors, such as those mentioned above, present themselves as “detached” from their subject, at the same time that they are being supported by institutions headed by those with political agendas. In turn, these institutions nurture relationships with journalists, often generalists themselves, who too rarely question the motives of their sources or the factual basis in the argument put forward by the “scholar.”

Questioning such claims and motives of conflicting narratives is the journalist’s job. For example, among Muslims, the most extreme fundamentalists are the Wahhabis/Salafis. Relative upstarts in the long view of Islamic history, each of these groups grabbed headlines post-9/11 as representing the most combative version of Islam. Though the 9/11 hijackers primarily came from Saudi Arabia, even their presence there is recent, being less than a century old. Equally open to question is their place in the hierarchy of Islamic norms and values. Wahhabis/Salafis not only hate Jews and Christians, they are also takfiris, that is, they denounce other Muslims as apostates. If the takfiris are the true—and I would argue that they are the only true—Muslim terrorists of our time, they oppose not just Jews, Christians, and Shi’i Muslims but also other Sunni Muslims. They hate and want to kill those most like them in creedal/ritual allegiance. Indeed, they advocate the overthrow of all current political rulers in majority Muslim countries. Their only political “heroes” are the deposed but increasingly active Taliban.

Opposing the Taliban, yet ironically mirroring them in their enemy-annihilating mindset, is what I now call “Christian Crusaders.” Their “crusade” is wide-ranging. Left Behind, coauthored by Tim LaHaye, asserts not as apocalyptic fiction but as fact that the end will come in the near future and be marked by a soul harvest. The few who survive the Tribulation, the Antichrist and Armageddon will be saved.

Author’s Note: The ostensible goal is merely scriptural: to reclaim Jerusalem for the Jewish people. Yet, in this scenario, the Arabs who remain in Jerusalem and Palestine transform it into the territory of the Antichrist. It is Arabs who have to be killed in the Battle of Armageddon. Only with the removal of the Arab/Muslim beast can Jerusalem, together with the entire Land of Israel, be reclaimed for the People of God. However, like the Taliban, their goal is exclusivist and contrary to American interests.

This crusade is abetted by a ministry, neocon speakers’ bureaus, press releases, talk show hosts, video games, op-ed pieces, and appearances by politicians, such as former congressional leader Tom Delay and others.

If Delay and his ilk do not resemble most mainstream Christians, one might wonder what their views have to do with journalism and Islam. Ostensibly nothing. Arguably the Christian right are just Protestant sectarians who protest too loudly, but when a religiously based political agenda commits to establishing a Christian nation in America and supports Israel against “the Antichrist” by encouraging suspicion, intolerance and bigotry of “the Other,” questions must be asked. So far, journalists have failed to do an adequate job in tracking this story and learning more about how these views affect the debate about and the security of America in a post 9/11 world. It is a story that deserves telling—when scholars such as Lewis, politicians such as Delay, and some neocon think tanks assert that the Crusades need to be revived, perhaps with a new name and ideology but with the same intent of displacing Muslims not just from Jerusalem but from the entire Land of Israel (problematically also claimed by Palestinians, both Christian and Muslim). Their further goal is to force the Muslim world to submit to the will of Christian America; they want to vanquish the barbarians and keep them from Western portals.

Transforming Muslims Into ‘the Other’

With each of these visions of extremists, dichotomy is intolerable; one group must win, the other must be eliminated. In a world in which religious freedom is cherished, dichotomous thinking stubbornly persists—within, as well as beyond, religious bodies. To counter impulses such as these, up-front in our dialogue it must be said that Islam is not evil, nor is there a single Muslim enemy. Instead, what we encounter appears to be the steady transformation of Muslims into “the Other,” a defining of Islam as evil, and an ignoring of differences among Muslims. Islam and Muslims are more and more presented in monolithic ways—as timeless opponents at once intrinsically opposite and irreducibly oppositional, with a goal of justifying limitless warfare as divine mandate and political necessity.

There is a way beyond the deadly theater of righteous warfare. While competition and conflict might be necessary, warfare is not the sole or most desirable outcome of religious differences. Christianity differs from Judaism, just as each differs from Islam, and Islam, in turn, is neither reducible to a Hindu inclusiveness nor a Buddhist denial of being. Religious differences will endure, with competition between believers divinely sanctioned. As the Great One said to Abraham (Gen. 12:3), “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed”—not unified or eliminated but “blessed” in their distinctive and differing states.

As much as journalists might resist engagement in this complex arena of difference and distinction, their voices—probing and striving for accuracy—are essential in representing Muslims and furthering a collective way forward beyond religious warfare.

Bruce B. Lawrence, an Islamicist, is the Nancy and Jeffrey Marcus Humanities Professor of Religion and Director of the Islamic Studies Center at Duke University. His most recent book, The Qur’an—A Biography, was published by Grove/Atlantic in 2007. With his Duke colleague and spouse, miriam cooke, Lawrence coedited Muslim Networks from Hajj to Hip Hop, published by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Press in 2005, as part of a series he also coedits on Islamic Civilization and Muslim Networks.

This commentary was first published in the Summer, 2007 issue of Nieman Reports, published by Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University, which granted permission for this posting on the blog.