Ex-officer presents primer on Islam

Retired foreign service officer speaks on Islam to Columbus crowd

Dave Grimland refers to himself, tongue in cheek, as a “retired propagandist.”

But recently, the former foreign service officer and current Columbus resident has been trying to cut through the misinformation and half-truths that shroud the role of Muslims — and their religion, Islam — in the world today.

“Islam, for most of us, didn’t register on our personal radars until Sept. 11, 2001,” he said. “And since then, we’ve been assaulted with pretty much negative images of the religion.”

Grimland, who spent most of his career in countries with sizable populations of Muslims, has looked to his Muslim friends as he further researched the religion over the past few years. A recent presentation of his packed the Stillwater County Library.

No excuse for terrorism

Grimland prefaces his talk with a disclaimer: There is no excuse for terrorism. But he thinks it would help Westerners to better understand the reasons why Muslims are angry, frustrated and embarrassed by the present situation.

He offers a historical primer.

Islam is one of the three monotheistic religions — along with Judaism and Christianity — that trace their roots to Abraham. The Prophet Mohammed, Muslims say, is a descendant of Abraham.

Like Christians and Jews, the majority of Muslims are moderates, he said.

“They don’t take their religion any more or less seriously than most of us,” Grimland said.

Believing in Islam

But roughly 8 percent of Muslims could be considered “Islamists,” a Western term given to those who believe the religion of Islam will eventually triumph via peaceful means.

Islam / Islamism

Islamism is a totalitarian ideology adhered to by Muslim extremists (e.g. the Taliban, Wahhabis, Hamas and Osama bin Laden). It is considered to be a distortion of Islam. Many Islamists engage in terrorism in pursuit of their goals.

Adherents of Islam are called “Muslims.” The term “Arab” describes an ethnic or cultural identity. Not all Arabs are Muslims, and not all Muslims are Arabs. The terms are not interchangeable.

The remaining 1 or 2 percent, those referred to by the media as jihadists, also aspire to that eventual triumph of Islam. But they’re willing kill to do so, he said.

Today, Grimland said, most Muslim jihadists are not driven by poverty or ignorance, “but by a lethal mix of nationalism, zealotry and humiliation. Many are young, middle-class and educated — they are neither crazy nor poor.”

History sheds light on the intensity of their fervor. Born in 570 A.D., Mohammed began having visions from the angel Gabriel in the year 610, according to Muslim belief. The collection of recitations gradually became the Quran, the Muslims’ holy book. In short order, Mohammed had gained a small group of followers in his native city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia. From the beginning, Mohammed was deeply concerned with the fair treatment of the poor, widows and orphans.

“That becomes a touchpoint that a lot of Muslims, even today, feel Islam has lost its touch with charity toward the less fortunate,” Grimland said.

Mohammed’s death in 632 caused a rift in Islam. One faction believed Mohammed’s closest relative, Ali, should assume leadership. That faction eventually led to today’s Shiite Muslims. The other faction, initially victorious, pushed to promote one of Mohammed’s most devote followers, Abu Bakr, as its new leader. That group evolved into today’s Sunni Muslims.

At times, the struggle between the two factions has rivaled the fierce clashes between the 16th century Catholics and Protestants, Grimland said.

Within 80 years of Mohammed’s death, Muslims enjoyed an incredible period of expansion — spreading from the western border of China to the Middle East, across northern Africa and into Spain and southern France, he said.

“This rapid expansion was not so much due to coercion — ‘convert to Islam or we’ll cut your head off,’ ” Grimland said. “They didn’t have to. Muslim conquerors were often welcomed as generally more tolerant than the rulers they replaced.”

But soon, some Muslims grew frustrated with what they considered a loss of the original sense of their religion. This desire of some to return to what they consider the “pure” roots of their spiritual tradition has been characteristic of all religions. Differing views of what those fundamentals are continue to plague and divide us all, he said.

In Islam, Grimland said, there are five pillars of belief: that there is no God but Allah and Mohammed is his Prophet; that Muslims pray five times a day; that Muslims give 2.5 percent of their worth to the poor; that they fast during the holy month of Ramadan; and that, at least once in their lives, they make the pilgrimage to Mecca.

Some Muslims claim there is a sixth pillar, Grimland said, the concept of jihad.

“Jihad started out in the Quran as a personal, interior struggle to overcome whatever comes between myself and God,” he said.

Quickly, however, the term also came to be used to describe defensive war and later as an offensive “holy war.”

So why do they hate Americans? Grimland believes it is not just who we are, nor what we do, but both. When Muslims see Michael Jackson or when they see an episode of “Desperate Housewives,” they look at Americans as a sexually obsessed, degenerate culture. And when they see the United States espousing democracy while supporting authoritarian or even despotic regimes, they question Western credibility.

Talk with religious scholars has given Grimland scant hope of a bright future. Perhaps moderate Muslims could sway the minority, but the simple fact is that they’re scared, he said.

“We need to take this seriously to the point where we understand why these fringe groups are so angry,” he said. “And we need a serious, open discussion in this country about how we fight terrorism without giving up those ideals that have made us who we are.”


(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
The Billings Gazette, USA
Mar. 7, 2006
Linda Halstead-Acharya
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Religion News Blog posted this on Tuesday March 7, 2006.
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