Iremember well the first time Islam entered my conscience. What I remember far more vividly, however, was my first face-to-face meeting with a Muslim.
For a time, The Autobiography of Malcolm X was required reading for anyone striving to understand American race relations and Third-World rage against the imperialist, racist tendencies of the European world. Even white boys like me read it, if only for its bracing story of one man’s journey toward self-discovery. For America’s most radical civil rights leader, Islam was a force of spiritual self-empowerment. The religion’s message of racial equality didn’t hurt, either.
Then there was Muhammad Ali. Muslim though he was, you never quite thought of him as such. Instead, he was the wittiest, most charismatic athlete ever to walk the earth.
Then along came Salman Rushdie’s novel Satanic Verses and Iran’s official price on his head. Until then, we in the West had never heard of a fatwa. And in the West, death threats against writers and artists simply aren’t cricket. The Muslim world had its Koran. The West had its cherished traditions of free discourse. Never would the twain meet.
Why mention Rushdie over and above Sept. 11? Perhaps we should start with the realization that Sept. 11 was not something that occurred in isolation, but as a much larger disconnect between the West and the Muslim world. It’s this tragic disconnection that must be addressed. The peace of the world depends on it.
In 1989, the year of Iran’s fatwa and my junior year at the University of Utah, I somewhat clumsily engaged an Iranian housewife on the topic. “I can’t say that I agree with the fatwa,” she told me. “But as a Muslim, it’s hard not to respond to someone who dares spit you in the face by insulting Islam.”
That was that. The woman was uncompromising and passionate. But she still demonstrated a lot more tact than many of today’s Christians. Attending school at the U of U, she obviously knew more about the West and Christianity than Franklin Graham and Jerry Falwell could possibly know about Islam. Last year, two months after Sept. 11, people barely noticed when Graham, son of big-daddy Billy, labeled all of Islam “wicked, violent and not of the same God” as Christianity or Judaism. Falwell’s more recent proclamation that the Prophet Muhammad was a “terrorist” had more serious repercussions. To wit, it set off Hindu-Muslim confrontations in India that claimed nine lives.
That fact alone is enough to shock us, people usually too indifferent to raise our voices for or against much of anything. But then consider the fact that we are always the first to know of any harm that comes to LDS missionaries abroad. Many Muslims see a world where their own are under attack in Chechnya, Bosnia and Israel’s Occupied Territories. Is it so much to ask, then, that we at least attempt an empathic look, a dialogue, with members of a faith that has captured the hearts of 1.2 billion people?