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> Columns > Boston Globe > Demonization in the mirror

Demonization in the mirror

By Cathy Young | July 15, 2002

IN THE PAST year, as a result of the attacks on America, the war against terror, and the crisis in the Middle East, the American public has become much more aware of the disturbing prevalence of virulent anti-Semitism in many Islamic countries. There is widespread and well-founded concern that a steady diet of anti-Jewish (and often, anti-American and anti-Western) propaganda in the Arab media is fueling extremist violence and sowing hate in the hearts of millions of men, women, and even children.

But now, a New York Times columnist tells us that before we can criticize this intolerance, we should look in the mirror first.

According to Nicholas D. Kristof, ''it's a cheap shot for us to scold Arabs for acquiescing in religious hatred unless we try vigorously to uproot our own religious bigotry.'' He asserts that ''since 9/11, appalling hate speech about Islam has circulated in the US on talk radio, on the Internet, and ... among conservative Christian pastors,'' and that we are doing too little to combat this prejudice.

As examples, Kristof cites conservative columnist Ann Coulter's statement that ''we should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity,'' evangelist Franklin Graham's denunciation of Islam as an ''evil and wicked religion,'' and the recent remarks by the Rev. Jerry Vines, past president of the Southern Baptist Convention, calling Muhammad ''a demon-possessed pedophile.''

What he doesn't mention is that all three statements have been widely condemned. Coulter was fired from the National Review, America's premier conservative magazine, due to her inflammatory comments about Muslims and Arabs. Graham's anti-Islamic slur caused a huge outcry; he issued something of a retraction in the Wall Street Journal, claiming that he had been misunderstood, that he did not believe Muslims were ''evil people'' and merely deplored ''the evil ... done in the name of Islam.'' Likewise, Vines's rhetoric was quickly denounced by mainline Protestant and Jewish leaders.

''If we want Saudi princes to confront their society's hate-mongers, our own leaders should confront ours,'' writes Kristof, who accuses President Bush of ''condoning'' bigotry because he spoke to the Southern Baptist Convention meeting (by satellite) the day after Vines's speech. In fact, the White House has responded to the controversy by reiterating the president's respect for all faiths including Islam. Perhaps it wasn't a strong enough statement. But is there really a parallel here to Saudi Arabia, where a preacher in the Ministry of Islamic Affairs declared in February that Jews were ''the worms of the entire world''?

In much of the Arab world, such hate speech is a staple of the government-run media. In March, the editor of the Saudi government newspaper Al-Riyadh apologized for a column asserting that Jews use the blood of non-Jewish children in Purim pastries and Passover matzos. However, other equally vile claims appear, with no rebuttals, in the government press in Egypt and Saudi Arabia - including articles dismissing the Holocaust as a Jewish hoax and expressing regret that Hitler didn't destroy the Jews. Some publications have recycled Nazi-fabricated quotations attributed to George Washington and Benjamin Franklin urging Americans not to tolerate Jews.

There is no question that anti- Muslim bigotry exists in the United States. Nevertheless, after nearly 3,000 Americans were murdered by terrorists acting in the name of Islam, we bent over backwards to avoid demonizing Muslims and Islam itself. Leaders including President Bush vigorously condemned the harassment of Muslims and Arabs; the president visited a mosque, and an imam spoke at the memorial service for the victims at the National Cathedral. Today, numerous public schools have instituted programs promoting tolerance toward Islam.

Some critics say that in the effort to be politically correct, we are ignoring evidence that hatred and violence toward nonbelievers are deeply embedded in Islamic teachings. I'm not an expert on Islam; one could cite Biblical passages and history to make similar claims about Judaism or Christianity. But today, a fanatical brand of Islamic ideology is alarmingly prevalent in the Muslim world; often, it manifests itself in vicious anti-Semitism which we have every right to denounce.

During the Cold War, some liberals couldn't bring up Soviet human rights violations without adding that we must look at our human rights problems before we can criticize communist dictatorships. Today, some take the same attitude toward Islamic regimes.

Self-criticism is, of course, one of the strengths of democracy. But sometimes, moral equivalency between our enemies and ourselves is simply false.

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