Speak Mr. President, before the World Bursts into Flame

Zayn al-`Âbidîn al-Rikâbî
Al-Sharq al-Awsat Newspaper
This is an open letter to the President of the United States, George W. Bush.

The relationship between the United States and the Islamic world has become extremely shaky and tattered in the past few years. This is the bitter truth that no rational person in America or the Muslim world can be happy with. You were well aware of this, Mr. President, during your presidential election campaign, when you said that hostility towards the United States has increased among Arab people.

You had tried to remedy this problem on the national level when you said during the same campaign: "Our nation is chosen by God and commissioned by history to be a model to the world of justice and inclusion and diversity without division. Jews and Christians and Muslims speak as one in their commitment to a kind, just, tolerant society."

You stressed this idea and entrenched it further when you said during your inaugural address: "Church and charity, synagogue and mosque lend our communities their humanity, and they will have an honored place in our plans and in our laws."

Your orientation had been wise and just, since Muslim Americans form part of the fabric of American society. The dictates of national unity require that they be given the same rights and opportunities as the Jews and Christians.

However, the criminal acts that took place on September 11, 2001 seem to have destroyed this policy on both fronts: domestically and globally. Ever since that time, the media has been attacking the Muslims, utilizing Americans of all walks of life to degrade them and spoil their image. This defamation quickly turned to the religion itself, attacking both the message of Islam and its Messenger. One federal official sneered at the God whom the Muslims worship, and though the Qurân says: "Your God and our God are One, he said: "The God of the Muslims instigates them to kill others by perpetrating suicide attacks. He is a God who sends people to death for his sake."

American religious leaders who are closely connected to the Bush administration are now in the habit of making clear and direct insults against the Qurân, Islam, and the Prophet Muhammad. One of them has said: "The Qurân is the source of violence." Another has said: "Islam is a great Satan." Still another has said: "Prophet Muhammad was a murderer, a terrorist, and an utter bigot." This is a transgression against the religion of Americas Muslims and the beliefs of Muslims worldwide.

When violence was perpetrated against you, the American people, in your own country, you mobilized everything you could, American and otherwise, to counteract that violence and preserve Americas dignity and prestige. Without diminishing anything from your sense of pride and enthusiasm for your civilization, we must mention that the Messenger of Islam has a place of honor in the hearts of Muslims that is only exceeded by their love and reverence for God. Just as you have the right to rush to defend your sanctity and your national integrity, the Muslims have the right to defend their Prophet with every legal means at their disposal.

We must all admit to the facts. We confess that there are extremists in our midst who are working to destroy the relationship between America and the Muslim world. We must also all admit that within America as well there are extremists trying to achieve the same thing. The major difference between the two factions is that the Muslim extremists are not operating in an official capacity, nor do they have close ties to people in power. In fact, religious and political officials have all condemned them. The extremists in America, however, are often either officials themselves or have close ties to those in power. None of the Muslim extremists would ever dare to speak ill of Christ (peace be upon him), whereas the extremists in America slander Muhammad (peace be upon him) incessantly. This is only by way of comparison. No one in his right mind can ever make light of the crimes perpetrated on September 11 by those Muslim extremists.

Rest assured, Mr. President, no matter how much and how horribly they slander our Prophet, we will never retaliate with the same, since retaliation means slandering Jesus Christ which is something we can never do. We cannot cast doubts about his character or about his prophetic status. If any Muslim ever does so, he will become an unbeliever in Muhammad as well.

When you were running for governor in Texas, you said that belief in Jesus was a precondition for entry into Heaven. You got an angry response from a well known group of people who do not believe in Jesus Christ. We, on the other hand, supported you in your belief, not as a political ploy, nor as a pragmatic stratagem, but because it is a pillar of our Islamic faith. Belief in Jesus, for Muslims, is on the path to Heaven. Our Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said: "Whoever bears witness that there is no God besides God, that Muhammad is His servant and Messenger, and that Jesus is His servant and Messenger and His Word that He bestowed upon Mary and a Spirit from Him, and that Heaven is real and that Hell is real, then God will admit him into Heaven on whatever deeds he has done."

Christ in Islam is depicted in a most beautiful and complete manner. According to Islam, his birth was miraculous as he was born of a virgin. His Message and his teachings were equally miraculous. He will always be honored in this world and the Hereafter. He was brought up to his Lord and will return again at the end of time with mercy and peace, giving glad tidings of the true faith, and working with the Muslims in righteousness and piety and the noblest of deeds.

This is how Islam depicts Jesus (peace be upon him). To Muslims, his call is to righteousness, honor, and respect among people. Insightful Christians see his call in the same light. He did not call to rancor and the slander of prophets.

Humanity has suffered enough from the evil that people inflict upon each other. Evil deeds have evil ideas behind them, ideas based on bigotry and fanaticism. The most dangerous of these evil ideas are those that are depicted as religion and interwoven with religious teachings.

There are religious awakenings going on all over the world today and it would be quite wrong to claim that these awakenings are limited to Muslim peoples. Such awakenings are taking place in all the major religions; they are taking place among Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, and others.
For a number of reasons, the world today is witnessing a lot of religious tensions with dangerous implications. There are three possible options for dealing with this religious tension. One option would be to abolish all religious awakenings, which is quite impossible. Another option is to allow the tensions to escalate until they lead to conflict and violence. The third option is for rational people of all faiths to agree that they have to work to reduce these tensions. The first step in doing this would be for everyone to cease slandering prophets and messengers.

History has been witness to horrible religious wars that gave official spiritual sanction to the murder of innocents. A man would slaughter his fellow man with the certainty that he was attaining nearness to God by doing so. The Crusades were a perfect example of such wars as were the internal religious wars that took place in Europe.
The earliest settlers in America came from Europe to establish a life for themselves that was free from the religious wars that were ravaging their homelands. In view of avoiding similar religious tensions and conflicts, the First Amendment of the American Constitution states: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof".

One of Americas founding fathers, the President Thomas Jefferson, explained that the clause was intended to erect "a wall of separation between church and State."

In 1899, the US Supreme Court interpreted the First Amendment in the following manner: "Neither a state nor the Federal Government can set up a church. Neither can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another."

There can be no doubt that the horrible religious wars experienced in Europe were present in the thoughts of those who drafted the First Amendment as well as those who interpreted it. Relief from religious bigotry was what set America apart as a country of tolerance and broad horizons, and it is these qualities that Americas extremists want to do away with. In the process, Americas image abroad is getting tarnished. Meanwhile, the State Department and a special congressional committee are still working hard to improve Americas image in the Muslim and Arab world. This is a sensible effort, since no right-minded individual or nation wants to be viewed by others in an ugly light. Image is very important.

At the same time, it is not sensible for America to work to better its image while doing nothing to address the extremists who are demolishing those efforts. America can not just ignore what these people are doing. How can America hope to improve its image among Muslims worldwide while prominent Americans are attacking the Prophet of Islam who is dearer to the hearts of Muslims than their own parents and children? 

We admit that it is wrong for us to make generalizations about America on account of these extremists, but their instigation has gone way overboard. Their media attack has taken defamation of Islam and its Prophet as its objective. By doing so, they allow people to interpret every American policy towards the Muslim world after September 11 as being religiously motivated. Worse than that, they help the terrorists in the Muslim world by confirming their claims that America is an open aggressor at war with Islam. 

You do not need to be reminded that the souring of relations between the United States and the expansive Muslim world is not in the interests of national security.

After September 11, the possibility of getting the media to restrain itself for the sake of national security was demonstrated. Therefore, the American government can help to deal with this aggression against what is sacred to Muslims. Freedom of speech comes with a responsibility to be sensitive to the beliefs of other people. It is the responsibility of rational people both in America and the Islamic world to hasten sincerely and diligently to prevent the events of September 11 from transforming into a religious conflict in which weapons of mass destruction might be involved.

With sincerity and honesty, we say: The hearts of the Muslims around the world are burning with anger because of this attack on Islam and its Messenger. If this anger were unjustified, we would have been the first to dismiss it. But it is justified. What believer in God does not get angry when God Himself is slandered and His Prophets defamed?

Speak, Mr. President. Say the historic words that will officially distance the American government from these far-reaching abuses against Islam. Speak for the sake of a stronger and more beneficial relationship between America and the Muslim world, a relationship that all of us need. Speak to help protect our world from burning in the flames of mindless religious bigotry. If you do so, it will be truly noble.
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