Critics, Include Some Policy Advisers, Call Stance Political
Washington Post, Nov. 30, 2002
By Dana Milbank, Washington Post Staff Writer
President Bush finds himself in a rare disagreement with conservatives in his party over his efforts to portray Islam as a peaceful religion that is not responsible for anti-American terrorism.
In a score of speeches since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the president has called for tolerance of Muslims, describing Islam as “a faith based upon peace and love and compassion” and a religion committed to “morality and learning and tolerance.”
But a large number of foreign policy hawks — some of them with advisory roles in the Bush administration — have joined religious conservatives in taking issue with Bush’s characterizations. While most of them understand the political rationale for Bush’s statements — there’s no benefit in antagonizing Muslim allies such as Pakistan and Indonesia — they say the claim is dishonest and destined to fail.
For Bush and for the country, the outcome of the argument is crucial. The administration, and moderate governments in Arab and Muslim nations, are struggling to prevent the war on terrorism from becoming what Osama bin Laden wants: a war of civilization between the Judeo-Christian West and a resentful and impoverished Muslim world.
Calling Islam a peaceful religion “is an increasingly hard argument to make,” said Kenneth Adelman, a former Reagan official who serves on the Bush Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board. “The more you examine the religion, the more militaristic it seems. After all, its founder, Mohammed, was a warrior, not a peace advocate like Jesus.”
Another member of the Pentagon advisory board, Eliot Cohen of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, wrote an article on the Wall Street Journal editorial page arguing that the enemy of the United States enemy is not terrorism “but militant Islam.” “The enemy has an ideology, and an hour spent surfing the Web will give the average citizen at least the kind of insights that he or she might have found during World Wars II and III by reading ‘Mein Kampf’ or the writings of Lenin, Stalin or Mao.”
Cohen acknowledges it is impolitic and “deeply uncomfortable” for the administration to say such things. “Nobody would like to think that a major world religion has a deeply aggressive and dangerous strain in it — a strain often excused or misrepresented in the name of good feelings. But uttering uncomfortable and unpleasant truths is one of the things that defines leadership,” he said.
At the same time, social conservatives are resisting Bush’s efforts to portray Islam in a favorable light. “Islam is at war against us,” Paul Weyrich, an activist who is influential in the White House, wrote last week. “I have had much good to say about President Bush in recent months. But one thing that concerned me before September 11th and concerns me even more now is his administration’s constant promotion of Islam as a religion of peace and tolerance just like Judaism or Christianity. It is neither.”
Earlier this month, Bush distanced himself from virulent anti-Islamic remarks made by a number of U.S. religious leaders. “Some of the comments that have been uttered about Islam do not reflect the sentiments of my government or the sentiments of most Americans,” the president said in the Oval Office before a meeting with U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan. “Islam, as practiced by the vast majority of people, is a peaceful religion, a religion that respects others. Ours is a country based upon tolerance, Mr. Secretary General, and we respect the faith and we welcome people of all faiths in America.”
Bush’s remarks came after religious broadcaster Pat Robertson was reported as saying that “Adolf Hitler was bad, but what the Muslims want to do to the Jews is worse.” Another religious conservative, the Rev. Jerry Falwell, referred to the prophet Mohammed as a “terrorist”; Falwell later apologized. The Rev. Franklin Graham, who spoke at Bush’s inauguration, has called Islam “evil.” Lesser-known religious leaders have been downright vulgar in their descriptions of Mohammed.
In an interview with the Washington Times published this week, an unapologetic Robertson complained that Bush “is not elected as chief theologian” and objected again to Bush’s description of Islam as peaceful.
Muslim Americans worry that the anti-Islam conservatives are winning the battle. “These right-wingers are trying to set up a civilizational conflict with all their might in the same way as Osama bin Laden,” said Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “We’re trying our darndest to prevent it but every day it’s looking more and more like it’s heading in that direction. . . . It really is getting a bit frightening. At some times I feel like a member of the Jewish community in Germany in the latter stages of the Weimar Republic.”
In fact, Americans see themselves as increasingly tolerant despite the harsh words from conservatives. In an Ipsos-Reid poll this month, 56 percent of Americans said they had become more likely over the past year to respect cultures that do not share their values, while only 27 percent said they found it harder to have such respect.
Bush was trying to encourage that sentiment when he hosted a White House dinner earlier this month for Muslim diplomats and Muslim American leaders for the Muslim holiday of Ramadan . “America treasures your friendship; America honors your faith,” he said at the Iftaar dinner.
Last month, at a White House event promoting U.S. efforts to rebuild Afghanistan, Bush celebrated Islam as “a vibrant faith.” “Millions of our fellow citizens are Muslim. We respect the faith. We honor its traditions. Our enemy does not. Our enemy doesn’t follow the great traditions of Islam. They’ve hijacked a great religion.”
Bush has delivered such speeches almost monthly since the terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center, beginning with an appearance at the Islamic Center of Washington on Sept. 17, 2001. “The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam,” he said. “That’s not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace.”
Conservatives say they understand the political and even moral reasons for such pronouncements. Jeffrey Bell, a Republican operative, said there is no denying that there is a “clash between Western values and the radical Islam we’ve seen” but said it need not be “a war of Christianity versus Islam.”
“Bush is doing his best to minimize it,” Bell said, and so far has avoided a clash of civilizations.
Adelman agreed that describing Islam as peaceful “is the right political argument, but it’s a harder intellectual argument to make.”
That likely won’t get any easier with the intellectual ferment among American conservatives, many of whom are coming to a conclusion reached earlier this year by Norman Podhoretz in Commentary magazine. “Certainly not all Muslims are terrorists,” he wrote. “But it would be dishonest to ignore the plain truth that Islam has become an especially fertile breeding-ground of terrorism in our time. This can only mean that there is something in the religion itself that legitimizes the likes of Osama bin Laden, and indeed there is: the obligation imposed by the Koran to wage holy war, or jihad, against the ‘infidels.’ ”
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