Islamophobia: The Ministry of Jerry Vines

Last modified Sun., January 29, 2006 - 03:39 AM

Originally created Sunday, January 29, 2006

The announcement that Rev. Jerry Vines is stepping down from the helm of First Baptist Church has elicited mixed reactions within the American Muslim community.

While recognizing the positive contributions made by Rev. Vines in his stewardship of the congregation and as a former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, Muslims remain disappointed that a prominent religious leader used divisive rhetoric at a time when the world needed spiritual healers.

In 2002, Rev. Vines sparked a national controversy when he defamed the Prophet Muhammad by calling him a "demon-possessed pedophile."

Besides the fact that his comments were offensive to Muslims, Rev. Vines lacked basic understanding of Islam and Muslims.

Unfortunately, Vines is not alone. Evangelist Franklin Graham claimed that Islam is an "evil and wicked religion," while Rev. Jerry Falwell called Prophet Muhammad a "terrorist."
Such malediction reflects rather poorly on faith leaders who fail to distinguish between the atrocities of a few Muslims who misguidedly kill in the name of Islam versus the peaceful practices of mainstream Islam.

This failure to dissociate the evil of individuals from the faith of Islam points to an un-American double standard. No other faith group in America bears this burden of guilt by association.

The incessant defamatory portrayal of Islam as an evil and violent faith is not without consequences. Anti-Muslim incidents, including hate crimes against American Muslims, have reached record highs. That such Islamophobia hurts Muslims is obvious, but what is often overlooked is that Islamophobia also threatens the image and interests of America.
Islamophobia erodes our nation's image as a champion of liberty and freedom for all. As America's image takes a downward spiral, it emboldens extremists into unacceptable anti-Americanism abroad. This in turn fuels Islamophobia at home, thus precipitating a vicious cycle of misunderstanding, hatred and backlash.

It is about time that this vicious cycle is broken. Reaching out and being part of inter-faith dialogues would be a good starting point. Increasing economic, social and cultural interaction with the Muslim world could also go a long way toward overcoming fear.

Judaism, Christianity and Islam share common roots through the Prophet Abraham. Many Christians do not realize that Jesus is mentioned with great honor in the Quran, just as many Jews do not know that Muslims too grow up learning about Moses and his exodus. Muslims believe in the miraculous birth of Jesus and the many miracles of Moses. Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad, to Muslims, are all divinely inspired role models who came to guide human beings toward a life of righteousness and an eternity of salvation.

The misguided remarks by the Rev. Vines truly hurt many American Muslims. But there is always room for reconciliation. Muhammad is described in the Quran as a "mercy to all of God's creations" and Jesus as being "held in honor in this world and the Hereafter."

Mercy and compassion are integral to the great traditions of both Islam and Christianity. We must let these traditions guide us in establishing common ground to promote mutual understanding.

Parvez Ahmed, Jacksonville resident and chairman of board for the Council on American-Islamic Relations

Danish Cartoons: The drawings transgress all bounds of decency


10:07 PM PST on Tuesday, February 7, 2006

The worldwide flap over a series of cartoons published in a Danish newspaper was avoidable had all sides approached the issue wisely. A Danish newspaper published cartoons that depicted Islam's most revered personality, Prophet Muhammad, in a light that was inaccurate, derogatory and provocative.

Other than prove visceral hatred toward Islam, the cartoons achieved little. Protests have been mostly peaceful, but some, unfortunately, turned violent.

Media pundits' characterization of the controversy as a clash of values or upholding freedom of press misses the point of the debate. At the core of the violent reactions in the Muslim world are fears about Western motives, bolstered by lack of redress of ongoing grievances. On the other hand, lack of understanding about Islamic culture explains why many Americans and Europeans seem perplexed at how a mere cartoon could draw such an emotional response.

A tasteless caricature of a religious personality, whose life has informed and guided billions of people for more than 1,400 years, is neither funny nor satirical. On the other hand, burning flags, destroying embassies and threatening innocent people are hardly appropriate responses. Prophet Muhammad, who preached repealing evil with kindness, certainly would not approve of such barbarism. He would have responded by educating the ignorant.

What's the Point?

Free speech, like every other freedom, comes with responsibility. Newspapers ought to have the freedom to speak the truth. But a cartoon that defames does not further debate or the cause of freedom. Some media outlets, such as CNN, took the appropriate stance of not showing the cartoons "in respect for Islam."

Those media outlets that fail to exercise such prudent judgment undermine their credibility as ethical purveyors of their crafts.

Why does this cartoon deserve space? What point is being made? Muslims acknowledge that bad apples such as Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida are causing irreparable harm to humanity and Islam. Mainstream Muslims repeatedly have condemned terrorism.

Yet for anyone to insinuate connection between terrorism and a venerated religious figure such as Prophet Muhammad transgresses all bounds of decency. Is there no minimum ethical standard among editorial boards that would resist the urge to mock someone as exemplary as Prophet Muhammad?

Islamophobia in Europe is on the rise. This should be of concern to all people of conscience. Only two decades ago, Islamophobia led Bosnian Muslims to become targets of a brutal ethnic cleansing.

In America, talk-show hosts coast to coast regularly fill public airwaves with their anti-Islamic comments. Unfortunately, such hatred has not been repudiated.

Zero Tolerance

It is time for Europe and America to adopt the same zero tolerance for Islamophobia as they have pledged toward anti-Semitism. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe sponsored conferences in Vienna and Berlin that recognized anti-Semitism as a fundamental violation of human rights. The Global Anti-Semitism Awareness Act signed by President Bush in October 2004 asks governments to take note of and respond to instances of anti-Jewish propaganda.

These steps are indeed laudable. Why not broaden them to fight Islamophobia, too? Not undertaking similar efforts to curb Islamophobia undermines U.S. and European credibility in the Muslim world, fueling fear and mistrust, perhaps plunging the world into the abyss of a clash between civilizations.

Work harder to see the other side


WASHINGTON--The recent hyste ria surrounding the approval of a Dubai firm to manage parts of several American ports demonstrates how fear of Islam, or "Islamophobia," can overpower rational discourse and harm our nation's true interests.

What would normally have been a routine business deal with a stable ally turned into a political fiasco that sent a "no Arabs or Muslims need apply" message to our partners in the Middle East and beyond.

Indications of how politicians were able to exploit the Dubai ports deal appear in two new polls on attitudes toward Islam. These troubling poll results should serve as a wake-up call for all Americans who value our nation's tradition of religious tolerance and who seek to improve our sagging image in the Muslim world.

The polls, one by the Council on American-Islamic Relations and the other by The Washington Post and ABC News, indicate that almost half of Americans have a negative perception of Islam and that one in four of those surveyed consistently believe stereotypes such as: "Muslims value life less than other people" and "The Muslim religion teaches violence and hatred."

The Post-ABC poll found that one-fourth of Americans "admitted to harboring prejudice toward Muslims," which experts said is "fueled in part by political statements and media reports that focus almost solely on the actions of Muslim extremists."

CAIR's survey also showed that the majority of Americans have little or no knowledge about Islam.

A majority of the respondents in CAIR's survey said they would change their views about Islam and Muslims if they perceived that Muslims condemned terrorism more strongly, showed more concern for issues important to ordinary Americans, worked to improve the status of women, and worked to improve the image of America in the Muslim world.

The results of both polls suggest that education is the key to decreasing anti-Muslim prejudice and that Muslims must do a better job of letting fellow Americans know what is being done to address their concerns.

CAIR and other American Muslim groups have repeatedly condemned terrorism of any kind. The "Not in the Name of Islam" public service announcement campaign, a fatwa against terrorism, and an online petition drive rejecting violence in the name of Islam are but a few examples.

Efforts are under way to increase the participation of Muslim women in American mosques. CAIR helped distribute a brochure called "Women Friendly Mosques and Community Centers: Working Together to Reclaim Our Heritage" to mosques throughout the United States.
American Muslims also have worked to help build bridges of understanding between the United States and the Islamic world.

American Muslim leaders recently took part in diplomatic initiatives during recent controversies such as the rioting in suburbs of Paris and the worldwide reaction to publications of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. A CAIR initiative called "Explore the Life of Muhammad" offers free DVDs or books about Islam's prophet to Americans of all faiths.

In the past, educational and cultural exchanges were viewed as a kind of frill--a nice undertaking if the resources were available. Today, such efforts ought to be viewed as long-term investments vital to the national security interests of the United States.
Islamophobia, like anti-Semitism or other forms of bigotry, should be of concern to all Americans.

It was Islamophobia that prompted 44 percent of Americans surveyed in a 2004 Cornell University study to believe that some curtailment of American Muslim civil liberties might be necessary.

There is a silver lining to all this bad news. Those Americans who had a chance to meet or interact with Muslims often tended to have more enlightened attitudes.

Surveys repeatedly show that people who feel they do understand Islam are much more likely to view it positively.

Our nation's experiences since the Sept. 11 terror attacks, coupled with recent research, should spur American religious and political leaders to make fighting Islamophobia a top priority.

PARVEZ AHMED is board chairman of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

Utne Magazine - Interview Nov/Dec 2005

November / December 2005
By David Schimke, Utne magazine

In the wake of the terrorist attacks that shook London's transit system on July 7, a proclamation against all things extremist was drafted by a group of North American Muslim scholars and signed by some 250 Islamic organizations. It was not the first time mainstream Muslims had issued such a condemnation. In the aftermath of 9/11, a similarly worded statement barely registered a blip on the mass media's blood-soaked radar screen. The difference, it seems, was a matter of vocabulary. The authors of last summer's document emphasized that their decree was a fatwa, or religious edict. And while no body or person in Islam can issue a binding religious ruling, the Western media in particular glommed on to the terminology.

Besides revealing a newfound savvy among Muslims about how the news cycle spins in the English-speaking world, the fatwa did in fact signal a fundamental shift in the way many Muslims have begun to regard the spread of extremism. "Before [the London bombings], people thought, 'We have nothing to do with the terrorism, our religion is clear and it should be obvious to everyone else,' " Salam al-Marayati, executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, told The New York Times in early September. "Now, we can't afford to be bystanders anymore, we have to be involved in constructive intervention."

In this interview, we talk with commentator and writer Parvez Ahmed about Islam, how radicals have twisted its central message, and what can be done to prevent impressionable Muslims from turning to violence.

Parvez Ahmed is a board member for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which, according to the organization's Web site (, was set up to "enhance understanding of Islam, encourage dialogue, protect civil liberties, empower American Muslims, and build coalitions that promote justice and mutual understanding." His writing, published on the op-ed pages of American newspapers coast to coast, addresses common misconceptions about Islam and Muslims and, more recently, has focused on the fight against extremism. In 2002 the American Civil Liberties Union recognized Ahmed's work with a regional Civil Liberties award.

What are the most common misconceptions non-Muslims have concerning mainstream Islam?

Common misconceptions include the following: Muslims worship a different God. Muslims do not have respect for other religions. Muslims do not treat women properly. Muslims are violent. People also forget about the spiritual nature of Islam. Often, it seems that this religion is just a matter of following certain rules. But all things ritualistic have a spiritual meaning.

Like many religions, it's about fortifying the soul to help a person navigate the day to day.

Yes. And that guidance is, first and foremost, doing things that earn the pleasure of God, which in turn helps your fellow human beings. Because, on a very basic level, no one can live well if somebody else is not living well.

What about extremists who cloak themselves in the Islamic faith? What do they commonly misunderstand or misinterpret about the Muslim religion?

The central misinterpretation is the lack of understanding about how the Koran talks about living with others. There is also a tendency to take religious verses completely out of context or take them too literally. The Koran is not just a series of literalisms, and that's why people have to be guided by religious scholars. None of the people who are extremists or terrorists -- and who claim the Muslim faith or the Islamic faith -- are scholars of the religion.

Ultimately, the motivation is not spiritual but political.

That's absolutely correct. They use religion as a crutch, hoping that some people will identify with them. If they stood up and just said the things that they're saying and took the religious context out of it, I would contend that they would have no followers. The central aspect of the Prophet Muhammad's life is that his life was an open book. He talked about everything he did, sometimes in intimate detail. How do terrorists operate? They work in the dark recesses of society, hidden from people, not knowing who they are, who they're interacting with, what they are teaching, or what they really think.

What about the concept of jihad? That word is thrown around a lot in the Western media, and it's obviously a very powerful, loaded word.

The literal meaning of jihad is to struggle, to strive. There is a famous saying of the Prophet Muhammad, after he was returning from a battle: We return to the greater jihad from the lesser jihad. The Muslim understanding has always been that the greater jihad is the struggle of the thriving within one's soul. It's from the struggle to not succumb to base desires, like greed, material want, bodily pleasures. Muslims do understand that jihad can sometimes entail war. But what is often misunderstood is that war in Islam cannot be a war of aggression. War in Islam is defined only as a defensive war. And even in the context of a defensive war, there are elaborate rules of engagement.

Are those rules outlined in the Koran?

Some of them are outlined in the Koran; some of them are outlined in the practices of the Prophet Muhammad. And they have been codified in Islamic jurisprudence. I think there are 10 major rules. I may not be able to recollect all 10, but the major ones are these: You cannot kill old people, women, and children. You cannot kill someone who is not engaging directly with you in the battlefield. You cannot poison wells. You cannot destroy crops in the field. You cannot touch places where people worship. You have to treat prisoners of war with compassion; you have to give them the same level and the same style of living that you afford yourself. And on and on.

Given these very specific rules, how do extremists rationalize their behavior?

Well, I think they are so consumed by their outrage about a specific political situation that they're willing to strike out at anything and anyone. And in that anger and that rage, they are completely forgetting the code of conduct. The hallmark of Islam is to constrain people from their base desires. Some of those desires, as I mentioned, could be worldly desires, but sometimes, if you're in a political conflict, some of them could be desires of revenge. And those have to be constrained. When a group is oppressed, that's when they need spiritual guidance the most, that's when they need to be constrained the most, and that's precisely what the radicals and extremists either forget to do or ignore altogether.

You've written that young Muslims must be presented with an alternative ideological discourse to counterbalance radical influences. What are the first steps in this process?

There is a concept in Islam called itijihad. The root word of itijihad is jihad. Itijihad simply means a struggle or striving to reinterpret and re-understand the traditions in the context of contemporary times. I think Muslims are beginning to do that. We are beginning to see how religion can play essential roles in the life of a Muslim without sacrificing any of the modern context. In other words, Muslims do not have to live in isolation to be good Muslims.

What role can Western governments play in this shift?

A first step would be for Western governments, the United States especially, to embrace and amplify mainstream Muslim voices and give them credibility by engaging them -- inviting them to the United States to speak with policymakers, interfaith leaders, scholars, and the public. Once those voices find that they are being embraced by mainstream society, I think they will be amplified. One of the fundamental grievances that many Muslims have would be that we are not given importance. That is the feeling that really alienates the youth. We are not given respect. We do not have a situation of hope. Once that changes, the extremists will be increasingly demarginalized.

Does the Bush administration's foreign policy, specifically in Iraq, need to change for this kind of strategy to take root? Or is it just the way foreign policy is articulated that needs to change?

Both. The Bush administration and, to a certain extent, the Clinton administration, have not engaged American Muslims, not solicited the help of American Muslims in articulating their policies to Muslims around the world. If American Muslims champion U.S. policy, then those policies will resonate in the Muslim world. The chances of misperception would be far fewer. Of course, the policies themselves have to be based on justice and developing mutual understanding and enhancing the voice of the poor and the dispossessed.

There is a public relations campaign under way in the Muslim world encouraging young Muslims to pay closer attention to normative values. How far along is that campaign?

I do anticipate that it will get larger. Before the London bombings, the understanding was that terrorists are marginal people: We don't know who they are; they operate within the fringes; they're isolated and cut off from society. But when it was revealed that the perpetrators were homegrown boys, that they were operating within the society, and that they had a seemingly normal life, it jolted people. Yes, we have always condemned this; yes, we have always spoken out against this; yes, normative Islam has always denounced terrorism and extremism in all their forms. But we all need to do a better job. We are seeing a tremendous amount of activity at all levels: posters, public service announcements, ads, official condemnations, and conferences for religious leaders and youth. The message is, and has to be, that we live in an interconnected world where societies are not homogeneous. Even within one religious faith, there is great diversity of understanding. We have to evolve into a realm of understanding that there are shared destinies. It is not just that we are living on a shared planet; our destinies also are shared. Where we go is interlinked with what others do. I can't ignore that. I cannot live in isolation. I have to engage. I have to develop common values. Once we start talking in this language, this momentum of interfaith dialogue and understanding is going to assume a greater space in public life.

Radicals have a charismatic figure in Osama bin Laden. Does normative Islam need a charismatic voice of its own to emerge?

I don't think that is necessary, because Muslims rarely have had so-called charismatic leaders. What is more important is the development of systems that can sustain reform. Not just give people a short-term fad to hold on to these ideas, but a system that can ingrain these ideas.

What can average Americans do to assist in this effort?

They can start by refusing to accept the connection between religion and terrorism. When Timothy McVeigh [bombed the federal building in Oklahoma City], we did not describe that as Christian terrorism, and justifiably so. When a Jew assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in Israel, we did not describe that as Jewish terrorism, and justifiably so. Islam has nothing to do with terrorism. It's just terrorism. Second, I urge people to visit mosques and Islamic centers. There is no substitute for actually going out and meeting Muslims and spending some time with them and learning about their faith from them directly. Most mosques that I know of have an open-door policy, especially if you go there on a Friday afternoon, which is the day of congregation for Muslims. You will be able to meet a broad cross-section of Muslims; you will be able to interact with men, women, and children. That will be much more meaningful and fruitful than simply reading something on paper or on an Internet site. Third, invite a Muslim community leader or an Islamic scholar to speak at your church or at a community organization gathering or wherever you and your friends meet. That dialogue will make its way back to the Muslim community and reinforce our view that we are on the right path.