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A Yankee Notebook

January 21, 2013


MONTPELIER, VT – Some of us remember where we were on December 7, 1941, when the news arrived (I was at my grandmother’s house for Sunday dinner.); many of us remember November 22, 1963 (I was monitoring a study hall of high school students, one of whom stood up and happily pumped his fist.); and almost all of us remember Tuesday, September 11, 2001 (Our daughter Martha called and almost shouted, “Turn on your TV!”). All three were dates on which something dark and hateful crawled out of the shadows and changed our personal and national lives forever.

Pearl Harbor inspired, the next day, a nearly unanimous, angry declaration of war against Japan; John Kennedy’s assassination unleashed a nearly unanimous spasm of grief (I can feel it welling up in my eyes again as I type these words); and the destruction of the World Trade Center triggered a nearly universal outpouring of pathos, shock, and outrage.

After more than four years of bloody island-hopping and naval battles, we settled our beef with Japan on the deck of the battleship Missouri. After almost 50 years, that awful Friday afternoon in Dallas has – in spite of the fervid evidences of conspiracy presented by loonies with too little to do – has receded to a throb, like the pain in a long-ago-broken leg, and a regret for what might have been.

But 9/11 remains an open wound; our national consciousness still hasn’t been able to wrap itself around the motives of the men who took flying lessons in the United States and then hurtled to their doom with their planeloads of innocent passengers. In the aftermath of the calamity, as President Bush stood upon a pile of rubble with a dazed-looking elderly firefighter and declared a war on terrorists, the nation was once again almost unanimously behind him. Yet there were probably very few Americans – probably still are – who can distinguish between a Wahhabi Muslim and a Sufi. Most of us, including the news media, don’t know that “Taliban” is the plural of the noun “Talib,” or student. Remember “the American Taliban,” John Lindh? It was one guy. All most Americans know, or care, is that Islamic militants wear black hats, and we, white.

Shortly after the Trade Center attack, my friend Ken Shewmaker and I were talking about it. He’s professor emeritus of History (American Foreign Policy) at Dartmouth, and has the habit of liking to know what he’s talking about. We wondered about the motivations of the attackers: Were they political or religious, or both? He expressed discomfort that, while as a faithful Lutheran he knew his Bible pretty well, he’d never ventured into the Quran. And shortly afterward – I knew he would – he did. Not to be outdone, so did I. I was quite put off by the introductory remarks of the editor that, unless you know Arabic and can appreciate the poetry, you’re missing an essential part of the meaning. Still, I soldiered on.

Ken and I are pretty thoroughly steeped in the principles of our own traditions. He found the Quran a bit bloody-minded (“You can do business with an infidel or nonbeliever, but you can never be his friend.”); I found it as dull as our Book of Proverbs, full of truisms elevated by time and reverence to the level of divine revelation, and much regretted the difference in the status of women as dictated in the Quran and their subjugated standing in most Islamic cultures today.

As the outrage over 9/11 devolved into patriotic attacks on Islamic centers in the United States and a “crusade” against evildoers (a word incredibly poorly chosen by President Bush), many of us were struck by the fatwas and death threats issued by Muslim leaders offended by Western depictions of the Prophet. Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses seems to me to be a fairly mild and not inaccurate volume; yet he has been under threat of assassination ever since its publication in 1988. Hitoshi Igarashi, the scholar who translated it into Japanese, was stabbed to death in his office in 1991. The Danish newspaper that carried cartoons of Muhammad in 2005 incited violent reactions and threats that continue to this day. We Christians who find this lack of a sense of humor a bit heavy should remember that we were burning each other to death for heresy only a few hundred years ago – and that Christianity has a 700-year head start on Islam.

At the end of our last discussion, Ken lent me a copy of Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World through Islamic Eyes. The author, Tamim Ansary, an Afghan, traces the history of Islam from the life of Muhammad to the present day. It was a bit of Schadenfreude for me to learn that Islam, just like Christianity, began to splinter immediately after its founder’s death, and that in the 1400 years since, just as in our 2100, dueling interpretations of his teachings – from fundamentalist to progressive and adaptive – have ebbed and flowed, more or less bloodily.

Much conflict between East and West stems from Muslims’ perception of Westerners meddling in affairs not their own. It sounds a lot like the way we felt about the British rule of colonial America. Under the impression that the United States has the answers to everybody’s problems, we’ve become the busybodies of the world. Case in point: the overthrow of the democratically elected prime minister of Iran by the CIA and British intelligence in 1953 and the installation of the shah – undone by the revolution of 1979, led by the Ayatollah Khomeini.

Ansary poses an intriguing possibility in his Afterword: that progress toward modernity and away from repressive interpretations of Islam has occurred most often when Islamic regimes were not pressured by outside forces. Unthreatened, Muslims tend to debate among themselves (as do we) rather than rally against the infidel. What an intriguing thought for Western foreign policy!

Photo by Willem lange