Profound Ignorance of Muslims

Category: Americas, World Affairs Topics: Barack Obama Views: 6266

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Long-time readers of my commentaries will know that I do not subscribe to the liberal notion that our main problems in the Middle East derive from our blundering in without really understanding the peoples and cultures of the region - any more than I believe that the situation in Iraq right now derives from our lack of understanding that "Shi'a and Sunni have been killing each other for 14 centuries in Iraq."

Instead, I believe that the significance of "our" failure to understand "them," enormous as that failure is, pales in comparison with that of "our" failure to understand "us." Instead of a deep analysis of the Shi'a-Sunni question in the Middle East, even a basic understanding of what we did in the Vietnam War, and why we did it, would have served us in much better stead in deciding whether or not to go to war.

Still, it is shocking, and not of minor importance, that over five years into the "war on terror," we understand so little about Islam and Islamic cultures.

The proximate cause of this commentary is the recent flap over right-wing attempts to smear Barack Obama through claims that, while living in Indonesia as a boy, he attended a "madrassa." In our current climate, this is much like claiming that the Pope was a member of the Hitler Youth.

The claim originated with a magazine linked to the insane megalomaniac, the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, fellow traveler with numerous right-wing terrorists beloved of an earlier era of U.S. foreign policy. John Gibson of Fox News immediately jumped on it, speculating over the effect of radical Islamic indoctrination on Obama. CNN, with at least a modicum of actual journalistic sensibility, sent a reporter to Indonesia, who found that it was a normal public school.

Liberals then jumped to defend Obama, saying the claim he attended a madrassa was a lie.

Throughout the whole thing, we were told by countless ponderous TV pundits that a madrassa is a Saudi-funded school for religious fanatics that teaches Wahhabism and terrorism. Never mind that there was precious little Wahhabism in Indonesia over 35 years ago, when Obama was in school there. The word "madrassa," after all, means what it means.

Except, of course, that it means no such thing. It is the most generic word for "school" in the Arab world, and in some other Islamic countries, where the language is full of Arabic loan words. It means a place of studying or learning. Considering everyone who has been to a madrassa as a terrorist in will then require that we take on the whole Muslim world.

This sort of ignorance is widespread. Jeff Stein, a reporter for Congressional Quarterly, found that numerous figures in the FBI and Congress did not know the difference between Sunni and Shi'a; more shocking, many did not know whether al-Qaeda and Hizbullah were Sunni or Shi'a - including the incoming Chair of the House Intelligence Committee.

To get slightly more sophisticated, Nicholas Kristof, one of the supposedly more intellectual regular columnists for the New York Times, developing the bubble-gum-wrapper historical theory that Islam needs to go through something like the Protestant Reformation, wrote a column several months ago called "Looking for Islam's Luthers."" If he understood anything about Wahhabism, he would know that its founder was Islam's Luther, and that more recent extremists like Sayyid Qutb were similar to founders of other Protestant sects. They are protesting the corruption of Arab leaders who are cozy with the West and getting paid hand over fist for it just like Luther and others criticized the medieval Catholic Church for its cozy relations with princes and potentates and its sale of offices and indulgences.

Examples can be multiplied infinitely, at every level of the public discourse. And they are more than just fodder for gotcha games. They have real consequences. The ignorance and lack of ability to reach even the most rudimentary understanding of another culture have certainly played a role in the fashioning of a "war on terror" that has been even more mindlessly destructive and damaging than it had to be; it is also helping to make sure that we don't learn the lessons of this latest disaster we have inflicted. And so, in the end, it further reinforces "our" lack of understanding of "us."

Rahul Mahajan teaches at New York University. He has been to Iraq twice and reported extensively from Fallujah during the siege in April.

Mahajan is a long-time activist and currently serves on the Steering Committee of United for Peace and Justice and the board of Austin's Third Coast Activist Resource Center.

  Category: Americas, World Affairs
  Topics: Barack Obama
Views: 6266

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Older Comments:
in the present day islam has merely become a behaviour based on the reactionary attitude just causing confrontation with the other religions including amongst own sects, which is resulting into confined state for own. do we have other options for spreading islam instead of becomimg defensive

I wrote to Los Angeles Times in 1991 about the ignorance the majority of the people have about Islam. This was almost ten years before the infamous Sept. 2001 event.
The topic was a book published on religions of the world in the US and discussed in L.A. Times.
The chapters had pictures of human being at the start of the chapter for each religion including Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism , etc. The chapter on Islam had a picture of a camel.

The partial text from my letter is given below:

"""In this regard, I would like to say that:
There are more schools in the United States than any other country in the world;
There are more libraries in the United than any other country in the world;
There are more books in the United States than nay other country in the world;
And yet there is more ignorance about Islam in the United than any other country in the world."""
Mohammad Yacoob
Los Angeles Times --- February 12, 1991

Listen to the truth from a Syrian intellectual. Absolutely shocking!

Can we meekly claim that the Muslims don't seem to be talking about it either? Well the Japanese, Koreans and the Vietnamese seems to have also forgotten about the massacre of their people only a generation ago, so naturally so should Muslims? Why do we hear the calculated shrill voices of pro-Israeli's the moment one dares to apply the word holocaust to other similar injustices and horrors? Has Israel patented and trademarked the word 'Holocaust' lest the application of this word to other similar grotesque events reduces the compassion mileage that seems to be, in their estimation, the sole right of Jews? Or is it because that the when used to describe injustice and human suffering, it will seem horribly ironical in light of Israel's own racist policies and actions? On a recent trip to the US, in reviewing their media, it was painfully clear that our media was blindly following the lead of avowed racist news media outlets like Fox News and others controlled by rabid Zionists such as Rupert Murdoch? Why must we follow hypocritical arse-holes like Glen Beck, Bill O'Rielly and Sean Hannity? The injustice of it all is so very plain to see, so sickening and so terribly distressing.

It is utterly disingenuous and indeed quite hypocritical to keep carping about the lack of condemnation from Muslims regarding the actions of a few misguided individuals, when our media prefers to selectively report only that news which portrays Muslims as murderous animals and ignores any voice of sense and reason by any Muslim leader. Even if Muslims were to scream "We condemn! We condemn!" from every corner of the globe, our media would still bleat, "Not enough! Not enough!" The fact is that this selective reporting betrays our bigotry and ignorance and our monopoly of the media does not help either. Whether its Newspapers, TV or radio (excepting the Independent and maybe, at times, the Guardian), any news emanating from these sources is first filtered by a editorial board which is no longer shy about expressing its anti-Muslim bias and even if certain news favourable of Muslims does make it through, it is immediately negated by a flood of jaundiced opinions of shamefully virulently anti-Muslim editors. Our schemes are so simple and yet so destructive and pervasively dishonest. The message to get across is, 'Muslims are violent and since there is no condemnation all Muslims, they are all evil and we must marginalise and eliminate them'. Glowingly vacant from our political leaders, our clergy and our media figures is the honesty, integrity and courage of the likes of Robin Cook. Where was similar condemnation of Israel when it devastated Lebanon with a plethora of US supplied bombs including cluster bombs which are still killing and maiming Lebanese children? Why are the massacres at Sabra and Shatila, by Christian Phalangists aided by Israel, all of a sudden relegated to the pages of forgotten history? Or their daily killing of innocent Palestinians in the concentration camp that is Palestine? Why is it that the media no longer talks about the holocaust of Bosnian and Kosovo Muslims at the hand of Christian Serbs and Croats? Can we meekly claim that the Muslims

The writer has many valid points & is very clear on his expressions opf Western ignorance of Islam & Islamic culture BUT he does not extend the same intellectual understanding to Islam & Arab ignorance of Western culture & beliefs. The problem is we don't understand or recognise each other. How do we go about acheiving this?

Dear sir...ASAK

It would have HELPED if Rahul , at the start , made it amply clear what he meant by WE.

It could mean Asians , Americans , Arabs ( since this war is being fought in the ME ).

American (whatever that means ; Hybrid Europeans is a technically & historically more accurate description!) passports do NOT change blood, CULTURE and parental ROOTS of a person just as a Chinese passport given to an american would make him a chinaman !!

Mr Rahul and his likes would take umbrage but its the TRUTH !

Regards & was'Salam


Prophet Mohammad (peace & blessings of Allah be upon him) was neither a sunny nor a shia.He was a Muslim & a slave of Allah.After Prophet Mohammad (pbuh)there were four caliphs Hazrat Abu-bakr, Hazrath Umar, Hazrath Usman & Hazrath Ali.Shias disagree with first three. In one of hadeeth Prophet said not to exagerrate me in praising me. Any exagerration in praising men created from dust ia a sin.Muslim fanatics both shia $ sunni have littered Islam with innovations. Their actions are far worse than satan.These are muslim polytheists & Allah Almighty has called them disbelievers.In another Hadith Prophet Mohammad(pbuh) has said that after me there will be 70 sects and all will enter Hell fire except one who follows Allah Almighty and his messenger.

Shri Paul, Seems like your either a troll or your so full of hate
that its overflowing, History and present proves your claims
wrong, did you know that muslims ruled the majority of earch
for over 1000 years. Do you also know that Jews and alike
prospered mostly during muslim rule, and Your india has some
of the most ancient temples and if muslim rulers wanted they
could have gotten rid of indian idols and temples. remember
muslims ruled india but there are still non muslims in india if
they were so evil then why did'nt they get rid of everything

History please, also few bad apples don't refelect the religion.
those who pass the religios limits are no longer muslims, as
simple as that. got it?

Learn and it will help you.

There is a great deal of truth in this author's writing about the ignorance of the rest of the world about Muslims.

But Don't forget that it is also true Muslims are equally ignorant of the Rest.

Let us wait and see. It may take some time but someday there will be less and less ignorance about each other. The process is already in motion and it is a good sign.


Salaamu alaikum Islamicity editor,

You comments are so correct about Shri Paul.

This guy can't even spell the word terrorist about total ignorance of Islam & Muslims...or should I say talk about terroring the English vocab! I really believe you misunderstood this article because your lack the skills & the tools to understand English!
Shame..English is my fourth language after Arabic, Berber & French...It's sad that most Americans speak and understand one language only...that's if the majority of them really do!

It is true that we as muslims must do more to educate ourselves about the cultures of our fellow muslims. With understanding comes appreciation and acceptance, for those who are willing to open their minds. The ignorance that prevails today among muslims and non-muslims alike, is exactly why we must strive to love our brother and sister in Islam, and embrace his ways as long as they are not in contradiction of the teachings of our prophet.(peace and blessings be upon him) Uniting under one faith and spreading the beautiful message of Islam is what our goal should be, when can achieve this reality by first loving each other.

The beginning of wisdom is to know yourself. There is a depth to any given person that extends through the angels to God. But there is also another path that goes into darkness. The average person doesn't go past their own face in knowing themselves. If a person makes it past the age of 45 and hasn't taken the first path there is a strong chance that they have little resistance to going down the other. Things like the radio spoof talking about making Muslims get identification tattoos is an illustration.

Looking at the folks driving the decisions in the US, it isn't difficult to notice that they are more than willing to do to others what they scream murder about even thinking about having occur to themselves.
Indeed, their ability to project their own deeds onto others and describe their deeds as good when the same deeds done by others would be classified as "terrorism" is a depth of hypocrisy suggesting a dark intelligence. They have no more intention of learning about Muslims than they have of learning about themselves. Either would be too painful for them.

As for learning from their results, we could best describe their actions as treating the symptoms of a disease with the very thing that causes the disease in the first place. This can't be expected to improve the situation. Particually if they "double down".

It is clear that muslims are terriorist and have no pity in their hearts. In future muslims have to change theirs minds for equality in the world.

I'm indifferent for the simple reason i couldn't figure out the meaning of the phrase "..'our' failure to understand 'us'.." as regards the content of the article! As far as can see the phrase should read "..their failure to understan us.."

We will be kidding ourselves if we have the believe that those waging war on us do not understand what Islam is, or that "madrassa" means school. No the fact of the matter is that they count on our (muslims) naiveness in understanding the evil machinations of those in denial of Allah's message to wage war agaisnt us at will. They feel they can say anything about our deen and us and get away with it since the "have" all the weapons of mass destruction they can ganer. But we have God. And Allah does not leave those who have confidence in Him in the lurch.

Just the other day there was a programme (yet to be aired i supposed) in CNN called "the crisis within". This programme authored by an unbeliever (Christiannne amampoor) seeks to determine the crisis within Islam; and muslims can you imagine? They have made us look like zombies anything they like they say or do, and we retaliate in anyway we are categorised as terrorists or anti-semite. Some justice!



Sorry Professor. We understand the other side very well. WE understand Islam very well; we understand Sunnis and Shiites very well.

But we wage wars because we have interest and reasons in waging war, and that we can 'win' the war.

We waged war against Vietnam, because we were fighting a cold war against "Soviet Communism"' Vietnam was merely a proxy. We thought that we could win against Vietnam, but it turned out not to be the case.

We waged war against Iraq for control of their oil. We thought that we could win eaily. It turned out not to be the case.

It is not a question of understanding; rather, it is a question of miscalculation and bad strategies. US is losing because of bad strategies. China's strategy is "we buy oil"; US strategy is "we steal oil". China's strategy is succeeding; US's strategy is failing. It has nothing to do with Muslims and Islam. We will be failing if we invaded Vezueula or Mexico (both of those countries have oil and both are Catholic).