Viewpoint: Toward a Better Understanding

After every violent event involving extremists of Middle Eastern or North African origin, politicians repeatedly ask moderate Muslims to take responsibility and condemn the action. Don’t we non-Muslims also have some responsibility? Perhaps we could try to familiarize ourselves with Islam so our neighbors who attend mosques are less the other in our society.

Americans should take a few moments to understand the context of Arab history and the deep well of feeling that jihadist leaders are tapping in their attempts to recruit support for their warped goals.

If we were to acknowledge the history of Islamic relationships with the West, it could diminish the power of the radicals. For us to continually voice why do they hate us feeds the perception of Western obliviousness and indifference toward Muslims.

I am not a historian, but I do read newspapers and magazines. There has been both intelligent commentary about the Western reaction to Islamic terrorism and, of course, much fear-mongering. But I have not read any summary of what the Islamic State (commonly referred to as ISIS or ISIL) means by words like caliphate or what Osama bin Laden meant by the humiliation that Islam has suffered for more than eighty years. I decided to learn more of Islamic history using Wikipedia, an exercise I recommend for everyone.

Today we see intolerance of other religions and other sects in the Middle East, but for the past 14 centuries it was Christians who were intolerant. There was repression and expulsion of Jews and Muslims in Spain, wars of the Reformation PeriodCatholic vs. Protestantwere fought in Europe for years; any sects that deviated from approved dogma were treated inhospitably. The violence made separation of church and state a necessity for Christian nations, which realized that their religious institutions had to be deprived of coercive power.

In the Middle East and North Africa today, there are legitimate regional grievances that some tie to historic wrongs to claim they are part of a continuous war on Islam. They use religion as a tool. They pose as spiritual leaders, the religious cover allowing them to order murder and rationalize atrocities to their followers as God’s work.

Young suicide bombers, whether they are ISIS recruits, Palestinians, or Hezbollah members, are victims of manipulation by bad leaders. Down through history and all around the world, strong men have always been able to whip up the passions of ill-informed and undereducated publics.

The words of those in this country who posture and demagogue against Islam contradict the facts. Investigations regarding ISIS recruitment and radicalization show that half of ISIS recruits come from Christian families and that the majority are from the middle and upper classes. Those who claim that terrorists want to take over our world and impose Sharia law misconstrue the motives of that violent minority of Muslims.

Taking a longer view through the lens of history and learning more of the complexity of the situation will diminish the incorrect and simplistic theme of “Islam vs. the West.” Western nations had a hand in creating the climate in which some people are driven to desperation and violence. By understanding history and motivations, we will be better able to counter this threat.

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