Andrew Sullivan is a good writer. He sure can turn a pretty phrase, which I admire, and he’s particularly good at couching his analysis in the most reasonable terms. I’m Andrew Sullivan. I went to Harvard. I have an English accent. I’m just trying to get at the truth.
Some times, though, a pretty turn of a phrase and that oh-so-reasonable sheen mask a genuine ugliness that lies at the heart of his arguments. And that ugliness has a name: Prejudice.
To-wit: Lately, Sullivan has been wading in the cesspool of Islamaphobia. He began, of course, upon the arrest of Dzokhar Tsarnaev (and the death of his brother, Tamerlan) following the Boston Marathon bombings. On Monday, Sullivan wrote:
When will some understand how dangerous religious fundamentalism truly is? And when will they grasp that a religion that does not entirely eschew violence (like the Gospels or Buddhism) will likely produce violence when its extremist loners seek meaning in a bewildering multicultural modern world? This was an act of Jihad. That does not mean we elevate it above crime; it means we understand the nature of the crime. It only makes sense in the context of immediate Paradise, combined with worldly fame. And those convinced of the glories of martyrdom – of going out with a bang – are the hardest of all to stop.
Aside from rushing to judgment about the Tsarnaev brothers’ motives, I agree that religious fundamentalism can be dangerous. But what follows is classic Islam-bashing. Islam, as a “religion that does not entirely eschew violence” – in contrast to Christianity, right? – in and of itself creates a greater danger that fundamentalism will turn to violence. It only makes sense, he assures his readers.
On Wednesday, despite criticism from his readers, Sullivan reaffirmed this view, first referring to this video of Bill Maher (which Sullivan characterizes as “Dismembering Liberal Bullshit On Islam”), then citing an email he received from a loyal reader … which begins with a quotation from Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy In America (because, surely, that must contain pithy observations on Islam in the 21st century, given that it was first published in 1835). In any event, the email Sullivan refers to approvingly goes on to say:
It always is difficult, even foolish, to draw a straight line from the origins of a religious tradition to contemporary events. But it also is a mistake to pretend a religion’s point of departure matters not at all. For Christians, however hypocritically or poorly they follow Jesus, the witness of Jesus in the Gospels really is a rebuke to violence and political striving. It always is there as a corrective, and throughout Church history, however corrupt Christian institutions have become, Jesus’s life has inspired movements of renewal and repentance. That is worth noting, as you have. It’s not entirely clear such an unambiguous witness from Islam’s founder exists to perform the same function.
The problem with this type of Muslim-bashing is twofold. First, it’s based on a misunderstanding of Islam today, as opposed to Islam in centuries past. I won’t belabor the point here, because my friend Emily Hauser has already done so more articulately than I could, but you should read this post on her blog, Emil L. Hauser – In My Head, in which she rounds up dozens of sources explaining the way 21st century Muslims view terrorism and acts of extremist violence. Spoiler alert: They’re against it.
The second problem with the core argument of Sullivan, Maher, et al. – i.e., that their fanatics are more dangerous than our fanatics – is that we have an actual historical record to look at, and history debunks it about as thoroughly as an argument can be debunked. We don’t need to go back to the Middle Ages to find examples of Christians committing horrendous atrocities motivated by their understanding of Christianity, because the past few centuries are replete with instances of European and American Christians murdering non-Christian native peoples by the droves, or forcing those people to covert to Christianity at the barrel of a gun.
And then there were the Nazis. Yes, I know, Hitler’s personal views of religion are less than clear. But even if we assume for the sake of argument that Hitler was an atheist by the time he became Chancellor of Germany in 1933 (although it’s impossibly naïve to think his anti-Semitism wasn’t informed by his religious upbringing), millions of Germans openly supported Hitler; and of those millions of Germans, the vast majority were Christian, and the vast majority had no problem with Hitler’s overt anti-Semitism. Hitler didn’t exactly hide his worldview from the German public; Mein Kampf was published in 1925 and 1927.
For an eye-opening look at how Hitler rose to power and how he got a significant portion of the German population to support him, read William Sheridan Allen’s The Nazi Seizure Of Power: The Experience of a Single German Town, 1922-1945. Allen explains, in excruciating detail, the Nazi’s electoral strategy whereby they moved into small, rural towns, won mayorships and seats on town councils, and ingratiated themselves to local pastors and church communities, often delivering speeches directly from the pulpit during weekly church services. Emphasizing patriotism, militarism, and religion, the Nazis eventually built an electoral base that propelled them into the Reichstag. In the July 1932 federal elections, Hitler’s National Socialist Party received in excess of 13 million votes, or roughly 33% of the total popular vote. And although the Nazis weren’t afraid to use violence and intimidation, most of those votes were cast voluntarily, knowing what Hitler stood for.
Moreover, these weren’t religious fanatics; they were ordinary Germans who went to church on Sunday … and willingly voted for the guy who wrote Mein Kampf. Jesus and the Gospels didn’t persuade them otherwise.
Of course, we’d like to believe that wouldn’t happen today. The horrors of World War II and the Holocaust brought most Europeans and Americans, Christians or otherwise, to their senses. But even so, we have religious fanatics on “our” side – “our” side meaning, not Muslim – who find justification for acts of violence in the very Gospels Sullivan refers to. Just yesterday, the Des Moines Register reported ran a story about a local store owner, David Leach, who met with and spoke approvingly of Scott Roeder, the murderer of Wichita, Kansas obstetrician George Tiller. Said Mr. Leach, “If someone would shoot the new abortionists, like Scott shot George Tiller … hardly anyone will appreciate it but the babies. It will be a blessing to the babies.”
Sullivan, Maher, and the rest of the oh-so-reasonable Islamophobes likely would say that Scott Roeders and David Leaches are relatively uncommon today, but that’s beside the point. The point is, just like German Christians were able to reconcile National Socialism and Christianity – and, in fact, find support in their version of Christianity for Hitler’s worldview – any religious fanatic of any stripe can find a religious justification for violent extremism, if he (or she) really wants to find it. It’s not Islam, or, for that matter Christianity, that leads to acts of terror; it’s the mind of the fanatic.
But why blame the individual when you can attack a whole religion, right, Mr. Sullivan?
[Cross-posted at This Week in Blackness]