The Muslim Mystery

Fifteen years ago, one might easily have thought we were entering a new era of peace in the world. The Communist evil empire dissolved so quickly, without nukes or invasions, it seemed that swords might indeed be turned into plowshares. An apparently endless cold war ended. Peace dividends danced in our heads. How is it that now we are in such a fix? We face what is presently called an axis of evil, made up, primarily and most pressingly, of Muslim states. A few blasphemous cartoons published months ago in Scandinavia triggered riots and protests, after strategic prodding, in a score of countries. France faced its own internal demons in weeks of car burnings throughout its suburbs. An elected leader in Iran spurns the United Nations, aspires to atomic weaponry and calls for the extinction of Israel. Democracy bestows power on a Palestinian terrorist group. Iraq teeters on the edge of a civil war. Bloodletting continues in Africa, often along lines of religion (Christian and Muslim) and race (black and Arab). There is talk of civilizations clashing and European countries having Muslim majorities in three generations.

A choice of such great danger is at hand that the energies of our national discourse must not be wasted on blame. There is enough blame to go around. If one does not think the Muslim world has profound internal problems, one is not serious. If one does not think the West, in particular the United States, has not for over 50 years contributed to our present crisis, one is not being honest. Discussion on these matters of the past will go on. What is more pressing is the path we take for the future.


The two ways that will be presented to us are these: get tough, or get talking. The toughness scenario has been behind the invasion of Iraq. Our great show of power would teach the renegade states a lesson. Welcomed as liberators, we next might have moved on Iran. Well, it does not work that way. Terrorists play the get tough game as well as anyone, and not with the legal, political and international restraints to which nations generally yield. Since the fall of Communism, certain think tanks have imagined a world dominated by the United States, a world in which no country could challenge or check our power. What might other countries think of such a dream concocted by the most powerful and wealthiest nation on earth, the nation with the most weapons of mass destruction, the only nation to have used one?

I think it is better for us to get talking. Better yet, we might start with some imagination. It is the incapacity of Islamic and non-Islamic worlds alike to imagine the life and thoughts of the other that is the deepest root of our problem.

Imagine yourself a Palestinian Muslim. Your grandfather had a home and vineyard in what is now an occupied territory. It is also non-negotiable that you might ever live in that home again. How do you feel? How do you judge things? How do you look at Osama bin Laden? Is he a fanatic or an ascetic resistance fighter against George W. Bush, who looks to you like an arrogant and superficial apologist for a decadent empire supporting your oppressors? I am not saying our Palestinian is right. I’m just asking you to look at the world as he might look at it.

If you are a Catholic whose father was born in Ireland, you might, like me, have found your earliest allegiances to be with Irishmen and Catholics. My father, a decent and, but for one exception, an unprejudiced man, had one group of people he never trusted. They were the British. He thought the British were behind most conspiracies and catastrophes in the world. Do you think a Palestinian Muslim might have analogous thoughts?

Then imagine the Gunpowder Plot of four centuries ago. The entire Parliament, as well as the royal family, was targeted for destruction by Catholic subterfuge. Religion and nationalism, once again, were the issues. In our present times, however, Catholics and the Church of England seem to get along.

And that is the point. How did the change come about? For that matter, how did the fall of Communism come about? It was not arms. It was talk. It was information. It was the relationship between a guarded but genial President Reagan and a conscientious Mikhail Gorbachev.

The most common complaint against talk is that it shows weakness, but the truth is that it shows rationality. What is more, it reveals a presumption of rationality in the other party. I am not suggesting that we will find sweet reasonableness in hardened terrorists. Although it has occurred that some former terrorists would later be seen at negotiation tables and even in national leadership, it is quite probable that some Islamic extremists will accept nothing less than the extirpation of all their enemies.

Our relationship to Islam is no impenetrable mystery. The vast majority of Muslims, even those who blame the United States and Israel for all the world’s problems (as my father once blamed England) are neither irrational nor evil. They may have just grievances, and they may have distorted views of the West. These grievances and views must be spoken, heard and responded to. Without that alternative, the pull to extremism will only get stronger.

It would be well for us to recognize and publicize the considerable courage of Muslims who have raised their voices against terrorism. From Egypt to Pakistan and on to Indonesia, men and women, often at great risk, have accused the extremists of radical infidelity to Islam. Not to trust the humanity of our Muslim brothers and sisters is ultimately a failure of hope for humanity itself.

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11 years 11 months ago
I wish to comment on the Ethics Notebook column “The Muslim Mystery: Get Tough or Get Talking,” by John F. Kavanaugh, S.J. (3/20).

I agree that rational peace among nations and peoples must begin with open and honest dialogue. The United States has already atrociously demonstrated, by the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, that “getting tough” on terrorism and ousting political regimes hostile toward Western culture only unites Arabs and Muslims toward retaliation. Rationalizing liberation through the use of brute military strength will not eradicate underlying religious and national issues this area of the world has faced for thousands of years. In fact, this type of psychotic behavior will only breed more hatred from one oppressive regime to the next.

Tolerance and understanding are two important qualities where dominant power falls short. Palestinians have a right to grieve about the displacement and mistreatment of their people by Israel and the United States. Nevertheless, if roadside bombs are the only vehicle of communication, how can a resolution toward peace ever become fruitful?

In order for civility to prevail, both sides need not forget past clashes, but express their differences humanely.

It is in the best interest of all races and nations to stop placing “verbal bandages” on the wounds of indifference and start backing up positive discourse with comparable actions toward peace to protect future generations from ultimate social destruction.

11 years 11 months ago
At first read, “The Muslim Mystery” by John F. Kavanaugh, S.J. (3/20), sounds very well thought out and logical. Who could argue with the facts presented? The author says we need to concentrate on our future path when dealing with the conflict in the Muslim world situation, rather than place blame. His recommendation is to “get talking” rather than “get tough.” There are parallels to our present situation and the fall of Communism, and how the cold war ended because of negotiations between President Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. The author even confronts the question of why talk is seen as a weakness, and supports the idea of adversaries getting to know and understand each other’s viewpoint as a major factor in negotiation success.

The author acknowledges the difficulty of trying to negotiate with terrorists, knowing that they may or may not cooperate in discussions. It is altruistic to support the notion of respect for individual viewpoints, and to support sitting down and talking about those differences in an effort to end conflicts. However, is this idea just “talk,” or does it speak to the heart of the problem and represent a plausible solution? The author paints a utopian picture to strive for, with no specifics on how to get it accomplished.

I think the most interesting part of this article hides in the last paragraph. The author supports “publicizing” the outrage of Muslims who are against terrorism. Realizing that the media controls all of what we hear and know about what is going on in the world, I think the responsibility for beginning this new respect and dialogue rests in their hands. I think the next logical step in this attempt to have real compassion for different cultures is to persuade the media to represent the humanity of the two sides. This is the biggest challenge for our world today, as it would drastically change the focus of our news reporting away from sensationalism. Let us hope that the author’s message is heard, and that it is a catalyst for the development of concrete ways to put these ideas into practice.

11 years 11 months ago
“The Muslim Mystery,” by John F. Kavanaugh, S.J., (3/20) contains a rare consideration of the point of view of a Palestinian Muslim. After almost 60 years since the partitioning of Palestine, it is about time for us to identify some of the root problems at the heart of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Among issues that have always puzzled me are:

1. Why are there two partitions in Palestine? I can understand either one East-West partition or even one North-South partition, but not the two strange partitions that were created. Who conceived them? Were the people living there involved?

2. Much private property in Israel has changed hands. How were the exchanges handled?

3. How did such a formidable and well-equipped Israeli army suddenly appear out of nowhere in a country that did not even exist before the “partitions”? Was this army involved in the exodus of the Palestinians?

4. Why does our country support Israel unconditionally? And why is our aid to Israel never debated in Congress? The use by the Israelis of U.S. tanks and bulldozers against the Palestinians has not endeared us in the Arab world.

5. Israel has the right to exist. Do not the Palestinians have a similar right?

6. The Jewish people were mercilessly persecuted mainly in eastern Europe. Why wasn’t a part of it carved out for the Jewish state?

Our unconditional support of one side in this conflict has been a catastrophic failure, which already has had devastating consequences—not only in the Mideast, but around the globe. Civilization, at best only marginally stable, requires care if we want to preserve it. We need an independent referee in this conflict, one deeply committed to justice. Walls and continued settlement activity in the West Bank have not been helpful. If Israel, the entire Mideast and a large part of the rest of the world are ever to live in peace, something must change. Perhaps a fresh look at the origins of the conflict might help.


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