I must say, I have sat on this one for a few days, hence the delay.
Anything to do with religion has the ability to provoke an outpouring of feelings - very often more negative than positive. Religion in general, and currently Islam in particular, rarely leave readers sitting on the fence. And the opinions range through the whole spectrum of emotions from the informed, the opinionated, the grossly uninformed, "the don't want to be informed because they've made their minds up already", to the minority of reflective and open-minded observers. Everyone has an opinion.
It is such an emotional issue that I was therefore a little perplexed by US President Obama's decision during an iftar breakfast last week to comment on a subject that was bound to be controversial. The subject? The building of a mosque and an Islamic Centre near to the scene of the September 11 attacks on the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York in 2001. The desire of the President? To allow this building to happen, and to demonstrate that America upholds its belief that it is a country of openness in terms of colour, race, religion and that, therefore, it is tolerant. The reaction? It seems that the majority in the USA are strongly opposed.
With upcoming mid-term elections, and looking at it all from a distance, it would seem that his expressed view is likely to work more against him than for him in those elections. After all, we are looking at a Muslim population in the USA that is probably less than 3% of the total population, so it is surely not designed as a vote catcher. And 9/11 certainly remains front of mind for the majority of the population, accompanied by the most negative of connotations. The view is that because terrorists who were of the Muslim faith carried out these acts, all of Islam is to be despised. Being a Muslim is, to many people, the same thing as being a terrorist. So his remarks were definitely not a vote-catcher and will lead many to reflect on the President's own origins, about which it seems many Americans are becoming suspicious.
Could it be that the US President is prepared to put the general interests of his party aside and express his own true feelings? Rational thoughts of his own? I haven't for example seen many of his party speaking up in support of his view, but then maybe I don't read enough US newspapers.
That entire preamble aside, is the President right? Should we be separating the Muslim and the terrorist, or are they inextricably linked? Well I, for once, am on the side of the President.
I have spent over 30% of my working life in Arabia and have many Muslim friends. Genuinely friendly people who would do as much for you as your own family would if you needed help. Real people who are as disgusted by terrorism - in whatever form - carried out by whoever - as would be you and I. People who would welcome the establishment of Christian churches or synagogues in their own countries and who see the benefits of general understanding and tolerance - and who practice it themselves whilst adhering to their own beliefs.
Most of the balance of my working life, (10% was spent in the UK), has been in Asia, but included 4 years in Malaysia. A strongly Muslim country. As a result, I have acquired strong friendships amongst members of all the other religious, and philosophical groups - depending on how you view such things as Buddhism. And they too have similar non-controversial characteristics.
So to tar everyone with the same brush is not only incorrect, it could be dangerous. Tell people often enough that they are terrorists, and they start to believe it. Tell Protestant or Catholic children in Northern Ireland that members of the other religion are bad, and they grow up believing it, although not understanding that time has moved on.
The Crusades of the 11th to 13th centuries were wars waged by the Christians against the newer religion of Islam, so that the Christians could once again dominate the trade routes that went through to Asia. In those days I imagine the Muslims thought of the Christians as terrorists. But again, time moves on.
I am very conscious in writing this that there are many facets to the whole argument, that would (as it has already) take decades to debate. Arguments for and against that would be much more lucid, academic and well reasoned than my simplistic style allows. But I am writing as someone who lives in today's world. A world where our opinions are fashioned by media reports. A world that has its terrorists, under many names, and the fact that there are many around who would like to join the dots so that Muslim = Terrorist, as if terrorism was a new phenomenon created out of Islam.
I am not an apologist for terrorism in any shape or form. I do not agree, as some would wish us to believe, that terrorists are fighting for justice. But terrorists come in all shapes and sizes. All beliefs, colours and religions, but the dots do not all lead to Islam. Some do, it is true, and some of the most devastating terrorist acts of modern times have been carried out by extremists of the Muslim faith, although the irony is that Islam is generally a passive religion. And therefore what the terrorists carry out in the name of Islam is not Islamic at all.
A penultimate point. I have not worked out the per capita income of the majority of Muslims. Set aside the riches of the Gulf rulers, but the Muslims of Indonesia, of Bangladesh and Pakistan and set it against the income of their Western and therefore – simplistically – predominantly Christian counterparts. There is a school of thought that suggests the gap would be very large indeed and that if we spent more money on educating, feeding and generally improving the lot of such people, there would be less fertile ground for the terrorists to further their cause.
Someone has to speak out. To decry terrorism. The Arab leaders by and large – with some very notable exceptions, need to speak up, or they will be the ones in the same boat as the words portrayed in Pastor Niemoller’s First They Came, and Islam will be the villain.At least one world leader has started down that path. I hope he is not alone.