Jewish World Review May 13, 2002/ 11 Iyar, 5763

Wesley Pruden

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'Call us peaceful, or you die' | An old black spiritual tells it like it used to be: "Everybody talkin' 'bout heaven ain't goin' there."

This is still the bottom line in nearly everybody's catechism, but it's no longer polite to say so. The exception is militant Islam, which is more political movement than faith as faith is generally understood in the West, and is not bashful about consigning infidels to hell.

Militant Muslims, if not necessarily Islam, can be lethal. This is unfair to peaceful, moderate Muslims. So a group of evangelical Christians got together in Washington the other day to admonish some of the brothers about what they described as reckless talk about Islam.

They singled out the most prominent members of their evangelical ranks - the Revs. Franklin Graham, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson - for saying naughty things about certain brands of Islam. Mr. Graham, the son of the foremost Christian evangelist in the world and who offered the invocation at the inauguration of President Bush, has called Islam "evil" and "wicked." Jerry Falwell has described Muhammad, the founder of Islam, as "a terrorist," and Pat Robertson portrayed the Prophet as "an absolute wild-eyed fanatic."

Tough stuff, descriptions which the evangelical brothers and sisters did not argue with. "We're not compromising the truth here, we're not whitewashing another religion, but we need to learn to speak the truth in love and friendship," said Susan Michael, the American director of the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem.

Richard Cizak, vice president of the National Association of Evangelicals, said Americans must avoid "sweeping generalizations about Islam that are either fawning on one end, or hostile on the other."

Disrespectful though the remarks of Messrs. Graham, Falwell and Robertson may be, they're mild compared with the usual descriptions of Judaism and Christianity heard in almost any mosque on almost any Friday. The imams have an advantage, of course, because their sermons are usually spoken in Arabic, which nobody but Arabs and a few others understand. Christian sermons are preached in English, which everybody understands well enough.

Offering secular critiques of theology is business for fools, of course, and ordinarily only fools deliberately step between preachers going at each other. Some of the most thrilling spectacles of my childhood, in fact, were the monthly congregational business meetings at my church when the deacons raged in hot pursuit of the pastor, usually over something trivial. Nothing at the dozen Democratic National Conventions I've covered has ever come close to the savagery of country Baptists at each other's throats. But none of them ever commandeered an airliner and flew it into an office tower.

The radical Muslims, and the moderate Muslims who are either unwilling or afraid to confront the radicals, have thrust their religion into the public square, insisting that Islam is a political system as well as a faith, and this invites secular examination of their goals, aims and motivations, and their strategy for getting to those goals. Some of that strategy, as the world saw on September 11, is violence in the name of Allah. Muslim organizations in this country, so called, have subsequently quibbled with, criticized and vigorously condemned the war on terror and the U.S. liberation of Iraq.

President Bush, inadvertently or otherwise, has invited the harsh rhetoric of Franklin Graham and Jerry Falwell in reaction to his frequent fawning descriptions of Islam as "a religion of peace," and though most Americans understand that the president has to say it even if he doesn't really believe it, the constant refrain grates on the ears of Americans who read newspapers.

The car-bombing of a Western residential compound yesterday in Riyadh in the name of the faith is the latest demonstration of the kind of "peace" that is the norm east of Suez, where the best is, indeed, often indistinguishable from the worst. Americans want to believe that Islam can in fact as well as in rhetoric be a "religion of peace," and they can't understand why such violence is not condemned - with passion and conviction - by everyone who is anyone in the Islamic world. Such organizations as the Committee on American-Islamic Relations and the American Muslim Council make occasional half-hearted criticism of anti-American violence, but continue to support violent and lawless organizations that target the West and friends of the West (usually women and children).

For his part, Jerry Falwell thanked the National Association of Evangelicals for their criticism and promised to do better. "They're trying to do something noble," he told The Washington Post.

But the nobility, such as it may be, can sound driven more by fear than by compassion. Criticism at home has put Christian missionaries at risk in the few Muslim countries that allow freedom of belief. "Lives and livelihoods" have been put at risk, says Clive Calver, president of the humanitarian arm of the evangelical association.

Translation: "We've got to say how peaceful they are, or they'll kill us."

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JWR contributor Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Washington Times. Comment by clicking here.

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