Last Monday I led a day-long seminar and stayed over for part of the next day to hear the next speaker, an expert on Islamic law. I can’t give you more details about that, but the speaker on Islamic law was extremely well-informed and insightful, and I got this from him, so I wanted to give credit where credit is due: those who are there, and the speaker himself, will know to whom I am referring.
Frames of reference. What is said is not always heard the way it is meant. Consider these remarks by President Bush and Karen Hughes, Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, on the Muslim Feast of Eid al-Adha, which commemorates the end of the Hajj and Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son.
Last December, Bush issued a statement that read in part:
For Muslims in America and around the world, Eid al-Adha is an important occasion to give thanks for their blessings and to remember Abraham’s trust in a loving God. During the four days of this special observance, Muslims honor Abraham’s example of sacrifice and devotion to God by celebrating with friends and family, exchanging gifts and greetings, and engaging in worship through sacrifice and charity.
And the previous January, Hughes said:
Eid is a celebration of commitment and obedience to God and also of God’s mercy and provision for all of us. It is a time of family and community, a time of charity….I want to read to you a message from President Bush: “I send greetings to Muslims around the world as you celebrate Eid al-Adha. When God asked Abraham to sacrifice his son, Abraham placed his faith in God above all else. During Eid al-Adha, Muslims celebrate Abraham’s devotion and give thanks for God’s mercy and many blessings.”
In speaking of Abraham, even when doing so in the context of Eid al-Adha, Bush and Hughes are probably thinking of Genesis 22:15-18, in which Abraham is rewarded for his faith and told he will become a blessing to the nations:
And the angel of the LORD called to Abraham a second time from heaven, and said, “By myself I have sworn, says the LORD, because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will indeed bless you, and I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven and as the sand which is on the seashore. And your descendants shall possess the gate of their enemies, and by your descendants shall all the nations of the earth bless themselves, because you have obeyed my voice.”
But what do the Muslim audiences that Bush and Hughes are addressing hear? Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son (who is not named) is recounted in Qur’an 37:102-109. However, they understand this passage in light of the rest of the Qur’an and Islamic tradition, and so when Bush says that “Abraham placed his faith in God above all else,” perhaps this passage comes to mind (60:4):
There is for you an excellent example (to follow) in Abraham and those with him, when they said to their people: “We are clear of you and of whatever ye worship besides Allah: we have rejected you, and there has arisen, between us and you, enmity and hatred for ever, unless ye believe in Allah and Him alone.” But not when Abraham said to his father: “I will pray for forgiveness for thee, though I have no power (to get) aught on thy behalf from Allah.” (They prayed): “Our Lord! in Thee do we trust, and to Thee do we turn in repentance: to Thee is (our) Final Goal.
Did you catch that? This verse is saying that Abraham is an “excellent example” (uswa hasana, أُسْوَةٌ حَسَنَةٌ, a term applied also to Muhammad in 33:21) to follow when he says to the polytheists that there is “enmity and hatred forever” between him and them, unless they “believe in Allah and Him alone.” However, the passage also tells us that he is not an excellent example to follow when he says to his pagan father, “I will pray for forgiveness for thee.” Hatred is held up as exemplary; forgiveness is explicitly ruled out as exemplary.
Bush and Hughes are thus reinforcing a worldview that takes for granted the legitimacy of everlasting enmity and hatred between Muslims and non-Muslims — and doing so precisely in the context of trying to build bridges between Muslims and non-Muslims. This demonstrates once again how vitally important it is for them, and for the rest of us, to have a detailed understanding of the theological and cultural frame of reference of jihadists and Muslims in general. But for lack of this, not only are statements issued that could have and should have been much more carefully worded, but policy errors keep multiplying — not least of which is the democracy project in Iraq, which I said would never work in early 2003, before it even started (at the link are two articles headed “Does President Bush Have a Realistic Plan for Bringing Democracy to the Middle East?” I wrote the “No” section). Was it a lucky guess? Was I endowed with prophetic powers? Neither. I just knew a bit about Islam and Sharia. It is unfortunate that there is so little evidence that anyone in the White House or the State Department is similarly informed.
Thanks again to the extraordinary speaker who set out this point last Tuesday.