Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times, reviews two new books on Islam in today’s issue. Kristof, who famously portrayed suspected terror group leader Sami Al-Arian as “a rumpled academic with a salt-and-pepper beard,” actually takes issue with Demi’s biography of Muhammad on the grounds that “it comes across not just as respectful, which would be fine, but as reverential. For example, Demi recounts as fact that Muhammad was visited by the angel Gabriel during Ramadan in 610, and then under divine inspiration began to recite the Koran. Sure, Muslims believe that, but I felt funny reading this aloud — as historic fact — to my 6-year-old daughter.”
I don’t know why Kristof chose to read a hagiographical biography of the Muslim Prophet to his daughter in the first place, but I think this statement is interesting. Statements of Islamic belief presented as fact were just what parents objected to in the recent textbook case in California. It’s good to know that the parents who complained that this sort of thing shouldn’t be done in public schools would have an ally in Kristof.
Kristof continues: “‘Muhammad was called upon to be God’s messenger,’ Demi writes, ‘to make known God’s will to the whole of humanity and to show the way to human dignity, progress and real happiness.’ On the next page, the Koran is described as ‘the eternal and infallible word of God.’ Hmm. Why not just say that Muslims consider the Koran to be the infallible word of God, and leave it at that? Multiculturalist parents may want to expose their children to the world’s major religions, but I doubt they want to indoctrinate them.”
Precisely. This exact distinction must be made in America’s public schools.
Kristof: “It’s a pity, because there’s an intellectual struggle in America now about how to portray Islam. Some conservatives, particularly evangelical Christians, see it as ‘a very evil and wicked religion,’ as the Rev. Franklin Graham put it. Some Arabists insist that Islam is warm, fuzzy and far more tolerant than other religions, because it accepts Judaism and Christianity as legitimate and just believes they are incomplete. I fall somewhere between the camps. Islam clearly has a problem with fundamentalism and violence, and it hasn’t adapted as well to modernity as some other religions. But the common American perception of overseas Muslims as violent hotheads is the complete opposite of the warmth and hospitality one mostly finds traveling in places like Yemen, Indonesia and Saudi Arabia. It would have been nice to have an introduction to Muhammad or Islam that didn’t seem to be written by propagandists for either side.”
This is a false opposition. There is a good deal more nuance among critics of Islam, and particularly of Islamic radicalism, than one may surmise from Kristof’s broad-brush evocation and dismissal of Graham. Moreover, to dismiss such critics as “propagandists” is not, of course, to engage the substantive issues they raise.
And to invoke “the warmth and hospitality one mostly finds traveling in places like Yemen, Indonesia and Saudi Arabia” is particularly unfortunate choice as a counterweight to the alleged prejudices of these critics. (Thanks to Avi Goldwasser and Jerry Gordon.)