woody zimmermann 120Whole libraries of books have been written on this topic, so we’ll try to hit the highs (and lows), with emphasis on points of major confusion in 21st-century America. Most modern Americans have only a vague idea – or, more likely, no idea at all – of what the whole Muslim thing is about, so it shouldn’t be surprising that there is great confusion about a religion that seemed very far away and historically passé until quite recently. During the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s, when I grew up, few Americans knew (or cared) about what Islam is (or isn’t). The Russian, Chinese and Cuban commies were our real problem. Islam? Who cared?

The word “Islam” is derived from the Arabic root "Salema,” meaning peace, purity, submission and obedience. In the religious sense, Islam means submission to Allah’s will and obedience to his law. But it is Islamic-style “evangelism” that’s the West’s real concern. It doesn’t exactly involve preaching, hymn-singing, praying, camp-meetings, or missionary hospitals. The altar of repentance is not, shall we say, a part of the Muslim “evangelistic” modus operandi.

A big problem in the USA is that some contemporary politicians have promoted confusion about Islam by seizing on the word “peace” to create a Muslim “legend” for public consumption. Terrorist attacks brought down the World Trade Towers, damaged the Pentagon, and killed 3,000 innocent people on September 11, 2001. Each of the terrorists was clearly a practicing Muslim. But in widely publicized remarks immediately following the attacks, President George W. Bush called Islam a “religion of peace” – thereby attempting to assure some 3 million American Muslims and more than a billion Muslims, world-wide, that we are not at war with them or their religion. To this end, he included a Muslim cleric at the prayer-service held at the National Cathedral on September 14, 2001.

President Obama has taken this feel-good story farther by insisting that the terrorists who blow up marketplaces and murder innocent people are not “true” Muslims. They are extremist-imposters who have “hijacked” a great, noble, and peaceful faith. Mr. Obama’s policies demonstrate his firm conviction that installing Islamic-compliant governments in Middle East nations will bring peace, stability and prosperity to this turbulent region – thereby enhancing American safety and security. This is a pillar of the Obama Doctrine. We didn’t realize it when he bedazzled us with his “hope and change” shtick, but we certainly know it now.

Mr. Bush’s (and Mr. Obama’s) propagation of this benign legend about Islam was somewhat understandable, politically, but it doesn’t necessarily line up with Islam’s unexpurgated history. From its very beginnings in the early 7th century, Islam has been a militant religious movement of fire and sword – spreading “submission,” not by prayer and preaching, but by terror, force of arms and conquest. Yes, technically, Islam’s acolytes went about imposing “peace” of a sort. But it was the peace of the grave. Only complete submission to Islam and its law permitted any kind of peaceful living. Dissenters were likely to lose their heads.

By A.D. 700, Islamic armies had conquered most of the Middle East and North Africa, and were well on their way to dominating the Iberian Peninsula. Territory under Muslim control included Jerusalem, which Christians regard as the Holy City of their faith. But medieval Europe was not today’s Europe of powerful nations and rapid communication. It was still a disorganized gaggle of warring kingdoms and satrapies, where news traveled far more slowly than today. Thus, it was some time before European Christians learned that Muslims controlled Palestine, including Jerusalem. This realization spawned a European movement to free the Holy Land. Pope Urban II called for volunteers, and by 1096 a Christian army of knights, soldiers, serfs and peasants set off to wrest the Holy Land from Islamist control.

The attack on Jerusalem, launched in mid-1099, resulted in a great slaughter of Muslims, Jews and Christians living there. Crusader forces finally captured the city in July 1096 and set up the Kingdom of Jerusalem, the Principality of Antioch, and other new governmental entities. Predictably, however, the city reverted to Muslim control soon after the Crusaders pulled out. Over the next 200 years, eight more European-led Crusades invaded the Middle East – nine, if the Children’s Crusade of 1212 is included – but none gained the military success of the First Crusade. [1] Jerusalem remained under Ottoman/Muslim control until 1917.

Partly in response to the Crusades, the Turks formed the Ottoman Empire in 1299. Ottoman armies captured Constantinople (today’s Istanbul) in 1453 to cap their conquest of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire. By 1683, Ottoman armies were at the gates of Vienna (Austria). Following a two-month siege, they were defeated by German and Polish armies of the Holy Roman Empire.

After reaching this high-water mark, the Ottoman Empire gradually declined, although it still controlled large portions of the Middle East, including regions of modern Israel, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Morocco, Libya, and Iraq. In 1914 the Ottoman Turks allied their tattered empire with Germany and the Central Powers. Although the Turks expelled a 1915 British attempt at Gallipoli to force the Dardanelles, they were ultimately driven from Palestine and Saudi Arabia by British and Bedouin forces – the latter advised by T. E. Lawrence, a British officer who wore native garb and understood Arabian culture. The 1918 surrender of the Central powers produced the breakup of the Ottoman Empire – apparently ending Islam’s 1300-year military dominance of the Middle East.

The First World War included unspeakable atrocities done by the Ottomans. The worst of these was the murder of some 1 million innocent Armenian Christians – many of them tortured and beheaded. Decades later, Hitler posited this genocide as the model for his Final Solution, which ultimately killed 6 million European Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, communists, and other “enemies of the state.”

Many Muslims in the USA probably just want to work, raise their families and live like conventional Americans. I’ve known some of them. They seemed OK. But polls consistently show high levels of support among so-called “moderate” Muslims for the violent activities carried out by Islamic terrorists. This is not OK. Facts are notoriously stubborn things. The plain fact is that Islam’s “peace” has meant death to all infidels for 1,400 years, and there’s no sign that they have really changed.

In an entirely religious sense, a key aspect of American and European confusion over Islam involves the idea that Jehovah of the Jewish scriptures (i.e., the Christian Old Testament) and Allah are one and the same. Politicians and Muslim activists like to say, “After all, we all worship the same God…” But the Rev. Tat Stewart – former missionary to Iran and leader of a USA ministry to Iranian Christians – joins many theologians in denying this. They note that Allah was the Moon god – the highest of the 360 pagan idols worshipped in Muhammad's home town of Mecca. When Muhammad founded Islam, he declared Allah to be the one true god over all others. As Islam gained military success across the Middle East, Allah grew in importance – a kind of “local god makes good” story. The success achieved by warriors of the new faith reinforced their conviction that Allah is indeed supreme.

The idea that Allah equals Jehovah God probably emerged around the 10th or 11th centuries. It didn’t go very far for centuries, but as the Islamic revival of the late 20th century has expanded, this equation has gained traction. Islamists who desire legitimacy in the West use it to defuse objections to Islam held by many Americans who still retain a strong disposition toward Christian worship, morality and practice. After all, if Allah and Jehovah are really the same deity, what could be wrong with recognizing Islam as a primary religion in the USA?

A major obstacle to elevating Islam in the USA is Sharia Law – Islam’s legal construct for governing anything ranging from a local community to an entire country. I’m not an expert in this, but what I do know informs me that Sharia doesn’t mesh very well with the U. S. Constitution. Sharia’s treatment of women, definition of “crimes,” prescriptions for punishment, economic principles (e.g., prohibition of interest on loans), and total rejection of American-style religious freedom would not square with most Americans’ ideas of a just, decent, and productive society. Sharia belongs to the 9th century, not the 21st. But we need to understand it because it might be our future if we’re not prepared to repel it.

Americans would also do well to read the Koran [2] – although they will probably find it slow going. They’ll see that it is not a book of love and peace. It commands holy war to achieve enforced submission or death of all “infidels” (i.e., unbelievers). These are Islam’s sworn mortal enemies. “Death to America!” is not some throw-away political line declaimed by a nutcake wearing a robe and turban. It is a firm religious diktat of Koranic pedigree. For us, it should be a “firebell in the night” – a warning shout from deadly serious people. We need to start paying attention and forming our national policies accordingly.

Years ago, William Faulkner wrote: “In the South, the past isn’t dead; the past isn’t even past…” He referred to the American South, but nowhere today is his statement truer than in the Islamic Middle East. American liberals love to wax nostalgic about “going back” to the great days of the New Deal or the Great Society. But countries like Iran aren’t so timid. They’re going way (waaay) back: back to the 16th century, to Suleiman the Magnificent; back to militant Islam’s armies on a victorious march. And they’re doing much more than just talk about it.

Many Americans discount the Islamic threat because we tend not to take religion very seriously, nowadays. Besides, our peacenik president assures us that climate change poses a far bigger threat than terrorism. American elites sipping coffee at Starbucks can chuckle about “those crazy fanatics over there.” We can mock them, or ignore them entirely – for the nonce. But if those lunatics really do get the Bomb, they could be crazy enough to use it. That won’t be so funny.

We need to understand that Islam is not just another religion. Maybe it’s escaped our notice, but it’s not Methodists blowing up buildings. Presbyterians are not beheading unbelievers; Baptist pastors aren’t calling for holy war; Quakers aren’t knocking over towns. Muslim true believers don’t think like we do. It’s a dangerous error to think that they do. If we don’t wise up, we’ll learn that the hard way.

“Those who can’t remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” (George Santayana)


[1] See “Refighting the Crusades” (http://www.ahherald.com/columns-list/at-large/19426-refighting-the-crusades )

[2] Koran text at http://quod.lib.umich.edu/k/koran/browse.html