James Carroll

The roots of anti-Muslim bigotry

By James Carroll
April 4, 2011

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LAST WEEK, Senator Dick Durbin convened a special Senate hearing to look into anti-Muslim prejudice in America, a move that some took to be a counter to Representative Peter King’s earlier congressional hearing about “the extent of radicalization’’ of American Muslims. There is evidence that Muslims in the United States are disproportionately discriminated against (according to Justice Department figures, 14 percent of religious discrimination cases involve Muslim institutions, while Muslims make up 1 percent of the US population). But pervasive negative attitudes toward Islam go far deeper into the American psyche even than these manifestations suggest, for contempt toward the religion of Mohammed is a foundational pillar of Western civilization. That it is unacknowledged only makes it more pernicious.

European Christian imagination jelled — as European, as Christian, and as imagination — around the mythic 732 triumph of Charles Martel over “infidel’’ Muslim forces in a battle near Poitiers, France. That may seem like an eternity ago and a world away, but still-powerful attitudes that show up in suspicions of widespread Muslim “radicalization’’ were generated then. In epoch-shaping chansons de geste celebrating Charles Martel, Islam was portrayed as nothing less than the anti-Christ. So resonant was its defeat, that Charles Martel was empowered as the effective founder of cohesive European social structures, with his lineage (through his grandson Charlemagne) extending even to present-day royalty.

Edward Gibbon famously shuddered at the thought that, but for Charles Martel, the Koran would be taught to the “circumcised’’ at Oxford instead of the New Testament. (It seems not to have occurred to Gibbon that, had the Poitiers battle gone the other way, Oxford, which dates to 1167, might have been founded years earlier — by, say, disciples of the great Muslim scholar Avicenna, who died in 1037.) From early on, Western civilization understood itself positively against the negative foil of Islam, a polarity that was institutionalized during the decisive centuries of the Crusades. That Christendom failed to liberate the Holy Land from infidel control only made permanent the fear and hatred of Islam.

Meanwhile, as is always true of bigotry, Europeans knew very little about actual Muslims. The Koran dates to the seventh century, but there was no Latin translation of the sacred text until the middle of the 12th century. The first “approximately objective account of Islam and the prophet,’’ in the phrase of the theologian Hans Kung, did not appear in Europe until the 18th century — a book that was promptly censored by the church. None of this stopped Christians from assuming they knew what Islam was, right from the start. Taking the movement’s impressively rapid spread into Asia, across Africa, to Iberia as the result only of violence (jihad, which in Arabic means spiritual effort, was misunderstood), Christians entirely missed the key factor that generated the religion’s astonishing appeal.

In the words of the American Muslim Reza Aslan, Mohammed “launched a revolution in Mecca to replace the archaic, rigid, and inequitable structures of tribal society with a radically new vision of divine morality and social egalitarianism.’’ Mohammed’s insistence on the immateriality of God, against prevailing tribal cults built around material representations of deities (idols), was the heart of that revolution. God’s immateriality is the precondition of a felt intimacy with God, universally available to every believer. The “oneness’’ of God that defined Mohammed’s revelation, also known as monotheism, enabled individual human participation in that oneness. Each one in communion with one God. This was a principle of transforming dignity to which even the humblest person had access, ritualizing it five times daily. That, not coercion, is why the faith spread like wildfire. (The power of such individual dignity can be seen in Arab streets today.)

Ignorant Western assumptions about Islam’s inherent slant toward violence still undergird the prejudice that defined preoccupations in Congress last month. But more than civil rights violations are at issue. After all, America’s war on terrorism was launched, protests to the contrary notwithstanding, with a generic Muslim all but explicitly identified as this nation’s enemy. Many Americans have since learned to be self-critical about the visceral Islamophobia that followed upon 9/11. But for every Senator Durbin there is a Representative King. That we must decry the bigotry means it lives. Acknowledging that this ancient current runs silent and deep below the ocean of our history is the start of getting free of it.

James Carroll’s column appears regularly in the Globe.