When the electric blanket switched off in late-August and we had some days that were still warm, but clear and invigorating, my wife and I simultaneously had the same thought: This is like last September; in fact, like ….
The coming anniversary lurks behind our end-of-summer pleasures, tugging our attention, like an undertow, away from the hammocks and the tractor pulls. One call to reflection came, perhaps surprisingly, from the Reverend Franklin Graham, son of Billy. The younger Graham had gotten some bad press after 9/11 when he said that Islam was an “evil” religion. Muslim groups in America blasted him, and President Bush -at whose inauguration he’d spoken-distanced himself from him. Last month, Reverend Graham was at it again. On Fox TV, he said of the Koran, “The violence … is there,” whereat criticism ensued.
Such controversies must always be a possibility in a regime of religious liberty. When we learn to live with citizens of other major religions, we learn an etiquette that makes daily interaction possible. If we only hurled anathemas, we would have no time left over to buy bread. But freedom to worship, and to go about our business, also includes freedom to criticize and dispute. The standard history curriculum when I was in high school taught that Roger Williams, the founder of the colony of Rhode Island, was a good guy because, unlike the Puritans to his north, he tolerated Quakers, Catholics and even American Indians. So he did. But the reason he welcomed all comers was that he believed that all Protestants, except himself, were tools of the Pope, and hence of the Devil-so why balk at sectaries and pagans? Liberty can come from equality of contempt as well as equality of respect; if the contempt drained away completely, the respect hardens, and lardens.
But the Reverend Graham made another, quite different point. Like Bob Dole staggering through the 1996 campaign, he asked where the outrage was: “When people go up and blow themselves up, and the religious leaders of this religion say nothing, something’s wrong here.” The Muslim world, the Reverend Graham was saying, had not condemned 9/11 sufficiently. This point could be made by someone who thought Islam was a worthy and respectable faith; in theory, it could be made by a Muslim.
Who then should come to the beleaguered holy roller’s help but The New York Times ? The paper of record reported on a popular Muslim cleric in Indonesia, Abdullah Gymnastiar. Mr. Gymnastiar has his own TV show, and he was described in The Times as a moderate-not some dour old fire-breathing ayatollah, but a kind of Islamic Shmuley Boteach or Norman Vincent Peale, putting the happy face on his faith. Mr. Moderate isn’t quite ready for prime time yet, however-at least not in this country-because he said, of 9/11, that he had yet to see enough proof that Osama bin Laden was responsible. “There has to be a visible trial,” The Times quoted him as saying.
This is more scrupulous than Alan Dershowitz or Norm Siegel. Does Mr. Gymnastiar believe that the Nuremberg Tribunals established the guilt of Goering et al. but not of Hitler, because he was unable to take the stand? There have been no trials of Communists in the former Soviet Union. Does that mean The Gulag Archipelago is waste paper? We have not summoned a grand jury in Tora Bora. But there was a video of Osama bin Laden himself, broadcast worldwide, on which the long string of eel shit said that he expected the towers to collapse above the impact of the airplanes, but that he was surprised to see them flop down all the way to the ground; and his attendant gnome, the fat little crippled Saudi, gave him the compliments of the day anyway, since his heart was in the right place; and their politeness was exceeded only by their piety, unless both were exceeded by their pleasure, which exceeds everything. Did Mr. Gymnastiar see that video? This must be why the Muslim world, after a fast start, fell so far behind in the pursuit of science. There are some problems examining evidence.
Let us give the man some credit: He evidently believes that the cowardly mass murder of 3,000 people was wrong, else he would not be at such pains to brush the responsibility from a co-religionist’s shoulders. He was not dancing in the streets, or standing on the Brooklyn Heights esplanade, having himself photographed against a backdrop of the smoking gap. Part of his heart is truly in the right place. But there is also a failure of intellect, which is at bottom a failure of will and of courage. It is hard to admit that our fellows or our ancestors have been wrong. It is hard for an American who is not an anti-American to admit that slavery was wrong, or that the Indians were treated shabbily. Even when one has said that slavery existed throughout the world, and that the Indians were no beauties themselves, one still has to repeat the initial judgment of the wrongs. It is hard to know what restitution to make, or even if restitution is possible; affirmative action and casinos don’t seem to be the right answers. It is harder, perhaps, to know simultaneously that one is in history and its sins, and that one has an obligation to make now, which is tomorrow’s history, better. That’s all hard. The Islamic world, on the evidence of Mr. Gymnastiar-who is undoubtedly among the best of the lot-isn’t even trying. Most Muslims face societies of their own making, in which there are no rules, no rights, just thievery and despair. All they can do is vituperate Israel, and wait for Osama bin Laden’s trial.
It is not for non-Muslims to say what Muslims should think. A social mass as large and old as Islam has its own resources, its own internal compasses and its own needs. Muslims will do what they must, and what they can. But non-Muslims will observe what Muslims think. It’s a free country.