I was talking to her uncle Murray, at ninety, a very successful businessman, smart, educated, a man of the world. Like me, a New York Jew. Names changed here to protect the complicit.
He encouraged me to read the Wall Street Journal more often. I told him I admired its history of long form quality reporting, found its ownership by Murdoch’s News Corp a stain on its independence, and…
“I never read The New York Times,” he proclaimed. “It’s a rag.”
“Really?” I asked, surprised. I imagined every well-read Jewish New Yorker spent every Sunday morning surrounded by sections of the Times, ink-stained fingers grasping a fourth or fifth cup of coffee. I could understand someone differing with Times editorials, disliking a certain columnist, preferring someone else’s sports coverage, but…”Surely, there’s something in the paper worth reading?”
“Nothing. It’s all biased. I haven’t picked it up in years.”
“I’m quite impressed. None of the international coverage? The business reporting? The Sunday Times magazine? The coverage of fashion, theater, film?”
Murray was adamant. And Karen was not amused. Really, Brian, her demure stare seemed to suggest. Are you getting into a political argument with my sick, old uncle? Well, yes, I was.
“Five percent of Muslims are terrorists,” Murray proposed, with the air of a finance officer just completing a carefully managed audit.
“You’re joking. Really? Five percent, is it?”
“That’s right. They’re not all terrorists,” he offered in a magnanimous gesture of tolerance. “But five percent are.”
I stared at his face. He was aged, but well preserved for a ninety year old. He was lucid, thoughtful, a man whose mental sharpness drove a hugely successful business through years of struggle, depression and war. He was a man worthy of intellectual and moral deference.
I work out the math with him. “So, if there are say, one and a half billion Muslims in the world, I have no idea, just a guess, representing roughly a quarter of the world’s population, you’re saying that five percent or seventy-five million people are terrorists. Seventy-five MILLION people, none of whom you’ve met are accurately defined as violent, murderous activists out to destroy all you hold dear?”
Murray, a learned man, considered my question. We both looked away at the idyllic surroundings on this balmy New York evening.
He changed his mind. “No. No, I think the number is one percent. One percent of Muslim are terrorists.”
“Ah,” I said, “Thank you for that clarification.” I looked around for my censor, the beautiful and elegantly dressed Karen. “So, really, you’ve decided that the five percent number was something you just pulled out of your —, but ONE PERCENT, now that number has some empirical rigor to it. One percent, or (the cocktails were affecting my ability to execute third grade arithmetic), uhhhh….fifteen million people are on a mission to terrorize the world, wreaking havoc and slaughtering innocents?”
“Yes, that’s right.” Murray seemed relieved that his original calculation was revised. The honor of a business professional. Must get the numbers right. He seemed happy with the new number. Yes. One percent. That must be it.
“You do realize,” I suggested, “that people have used that precise logic to victimize and persecute Jews for centuries. Adolf Hitler calling Jews war profiteers. Americans saying we were unpatriotic for putting our religion first, that we were not real Americans, but swarthy, money-grubbing, second-class citizens. That we were the Other, non-Christians, grouped together into foul, simplistic stereotypes? Didn’t you live through those days, through the slurs, the anti-semitic jokes, barred from country clubs, through the Holocaust?”
And, then, Karen intervened. Blond hair, professionally coiffed that very morning, in a stunning blue dress, a glass in her hand, her moist lips curled in a smile, her eyes glowing. I calculated the value of continuing my debate with Murray and its potential effect on this romantic, starry night. I asked Karen, “May I get you a refill?”
In every conversation with the hundreds of Muslims I’ve met in the Arabian emirates and Afghanistan, I’ve asked variations of a few basic questions, the most frequent being: Is Islam a religion of peace? Does the Koran justify violence against non-believers? Is the growth of radical Islam simply a fundamentalism strain of the religion?
And, in one hundred percent of my encounters, I get the same answers. I even probed, pushed a bit harder, looked for cracks in the thinking, but, no, always, the same answer. Commonly, with a fierce sense of insistence or pride. They often took it personally. The London taxi driver from Somalia. The Sharjah mosque staffer. The Kabul businessman. The Afghan Army colonel. The esteemed Islamic scholar. The restauranteur, the teacher the mother, the teenager, the carpet salesman.
Javid, the week that he won the award as the nation’s premiere IT innovator, quoted me verse 5:32 ‘Al-Maidah’ from the holy Quran. There are different interpretations, and some even use it as a justification for killing, but it is the quote most often shared with me. It is usually shared quite emotionally, from a people who love their faith and their heritage. After all, the greeting you hear all day long in the Muslim world is, “As-Salaam Alaikum.” Peace be upon you. The gist of the quote is this: If you kill one human being, you kill all humanity.
There are exceptions for self-defense. Afghans I talked to despise the Taliban, al Qaeda, Boko Harama, ISIS and the various other vicious scumbags wandering Muslim lands raping and enslaving women and torturing anyone less-holy-than-they. “They are not Muslims. This is not Islam.”
I had a few tense moments when I might remind someone that the reason he was Muslim had less to do with successive generations struggling with theological questions and selecting Islam as the final prescription for mankind, and more to do with hordes of better-equipped, better-manned armies rampaging through the steppes of Asia, forcing people to convert or die.
When the United States was about to invade Iraq, illegally, for its oil, lying to its citizens, convincing eighty-five percent of a largely undereducated, video-game addled teenage Army that Saddam Hussein was responsible for 9/11, I went to the Auburn Parkside Church of the Nazarene with my (now ex-) wife Paula and daughter Andrea. If Andrea’s interest in evangelical Christianity was partly a subconscious act of rebellion to her liberal, rarely-practicing Jewish father, she soon lost interest as I dutifully accompanied her to church.
The music was bad. The religion was, well, fundamental. The people were polite. And the sermon was martial. We were told we had to be prayer warriors. To pray for our troops. Suggestions were made that we were sending our young soldiers off on a providential mission. And to bolster the biblical support for the entreaties to God to allow for maximally efficient destruction of the Muslim evil-doers, there was a reading from the book of Joshua.
Bored, and a little appalled at the war-mongering in a house of worship, I paged ahead. And here is what I found in Joshua, chapter six.
Lesson Number One: The Lord needs cash, and lots of it. Don’t forget the cash.
20 So the people shouted when the priests blew with the trumpets: and it came to pass, when the people heard the sound of the trumpet, and the people shouted with a great shout, that the wall fell down flat, so that the people went up into the city, every man straight before him, and they took the city.
Lesson number two: When you take over a town for the Lord, kill every man, woman and children. Oh, and kill the ox and the sheep and the ass. With the edge of the sword. The SHEEP? What the fuck did the sheep do wrong??
Yes, pilgrims, it’s the MUSLIMS that are violent. The American overthrow of the democratically elected Iranian president Mossadegh in 1953, our support of the overthrow of Gadaffi resulting in violent militias throwing Libya into chaos, our invasion of Iraq, support of brutal dictators in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, our drone attacks on Afghan weddings and villages, all that, pilgrims, is God’s providence.
You want to know what a vengeful desert God-king does when his Prophet is insulted? Consider this story of the Jewish prophet Elisha, from the book of Judges.
23 And he went up from thence unto Bethel: and as he was going up by the way, there came forth little children out of the city, and mocked him, and said unto him, Go up, thou bald head; go up, thou bald head.
Let’s recount. A bald dude gets mocked by a bunch of little kids. God, royally pissed, sends two she-bears out of the woods, who rip them to pieces. Forty-two murdered children. Then, Elisha goes on his merry way.
Want to look for Koran verses justifying stereotyping of Muslims? You can find them. But scratch the surface of violent Islamic warriors and you’ll find a lot less acolyte and a lot more undereducated, underemployed sociopath. And if you want to see how early we train our freshly scrubbed Christian soldiers, the celebration of violence is just a church bell away.