TPM Cafe: Opinion

Avishai: Everything Donald Trump Fails To Understand About Islam

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AP Photo / Al Drago

For Muslims—so the argument goes—non-Muslims are infidels who must be either converted or killed. For Muslims, heaven beckons with sexuality (which is creepy back on earth), and the only law that counts is deadly, or maiming, and God-given. Terrorist acts, killing non-Muslims (or weak Muslims) at random, are, in this view, just Muslims at their most honest. The inference for action: strength, intimidation. We should carpet bomb ISIS, or send in the 101st Airborne, or leave Israeli settlers alone, or ban Muslim immigration “until we know what the hell is going on.” (Our side’s Bill Maher won’t go this far, but seems to suppose that, as long as mankind is ditching religion anyway, we should probably start with Islam.)

Now, the President has answered this claim about as well as it needs to be answered. The sociopaths want us to presume that they are cadres of the true Islam, much like Klan members in the sixties saw themselves as Christian crusaders, and, for that matter, the Red Brigades in the seventies saw themselves as “objectively” proletarian. Every religion has chilling texts, commandments, and supremacist claims that its adherents ordinarily ignore, suppress, or interpret into oblivion. The phrase “radical Islam” should offend us much like “Jewish extremist” applied to likes of, say, Yishai Schlissel, the maniac, a professed ultra-Orthodox, who stabbed six at a gay pride parade in Jerusalem last summer—and might have done much worse had he had access to an AR-15. Not every Jew has a little Schlissel struggling to come out. Omar Mateen was not a Muslim in the extreme.

But let’s assume that speaking of a religious culture is not just silly—you know, that we can extrapolate from the norms and practices of a religion to the expected political culture of a religious community. I have lived for much of my adult life in a city, Jerusalem, that is a one-third Muslim. I have spent months of days (going East to West) in Jordan, Egypt, Libya, and Morocco—let’s just say I have known a great many Arab Muslims. And when I hear Donald Trump, Marco Rubio, and others, insist on the phrase “radical Islam,” I wince, but also feel slightly bemused, sort of the way you’d feel around someone who speaks knowingly while getting things almost exactly backwards.

The Muslims I’ve have known, day-in, day-out, have a very abstract yet immanent sense of the divine, which leads them, not to any kind of fanaticism, but to an instinctive humility and acceptance of their fate. God is everywhere and nowhere, embedded in family love. Indeed, the family, and extended family, is an unrivaled preoccupation. Sexual mores mirror what Americans mean by “family values” (my oldest Arab friend in Jerusalem sent his daughter to a Mormon university in Utah); and the mosque takes over where fathers (and mothers) leave off. My Jerusalem Arab friends, reporting on some recent frustration, typically end their complaints with alḥamdulillāh, praise be to God, and an embrace. A hope, or just the plan for a meeting, is accompanied by in’shallah, God willing.

This is a sense of family loyalty that is not necessarily extended to national claims. (I am reminded of nothing so much as my immigrant Jewish Montreal home, when I would visit my grandmother. There were few adult sentences that weren’t also prayers of a kind. Surrounding me were uncles, aunts and cousins. Every happiness was reported with Gott tzedank, “Thank God,” every plan or prediction with im yirtze ha’shem, “God willing.”) If anything, the practice of prayer in Muslim families, the visits and feasts of yearly festivals—all of these—breed in the bone a sense of obedience, propriety. They make commitment to honor and order, even political quiescence, far more likely than violence. As long as the home is safe, and family property is respected, there isn’t much debate about the specific public policies political leaders pursue. There is more concern for whether or not leaders are corrupt.

“That’s why, ironically, Arab Muslims have been so patient with authoritarian regimes and long periods of colonial rule,” my friend Bruce Lawrence, the veteran Duke University historian of the Arab world told me. “They may be enraged by insecurity to their families, disorder, or anything that undermines their honor, but they are less animated by transformative political ideologies. Inequalities are tolerated, but not humiliations.”

Like Lawrence, I sometimes marvel at the rugged patience and generosity my Arab friends exhibit, not their volatility. They admire Israel’s social safety net, as if a work of charity. On a personal level, generosity is the norm, even from total strangers. Once I was driving in Beit Jalla and saw a weathered old man carrying a basket full of succulent apricots. I stopped my car and pointed at his basket, asking where he got them. He opened my back door and poured half the basket’s contents onto the back seat. In Tripoli, a colleague invited me to his home, and his six-year-old daughter, seeing me for the first time, greeted me with a kiss. A few months ago, I brought my car early to the garage and found it empty, but for an Arab watchman. I turned to him officiously and asked when the mechanics would show up. “Why do you not first say, ‘Good morning?’” he scolded me gently.

I lost a step-sister and cousin to the terror of Abu-Nidal. Please don’t lecture me about the things warped people do; Arabs are members of the human race, which is about the worst thing you can say about them. Last year, there was a knife attack ten-minutes from our home, in the German Colony. A block away is the former Café Hillel, which was bombed in September, 2003. The main street, Emeq Refaim (The Valley of the Ghosts), is another café, Caffit, where two suicide bombers were foiled on two separate occasions. At the summit of the gentle hill overlooking the valley, near Terra Sancta, in the Rehavia quarter, another café, Moment, was bombed in 2002. Walk another ten minutes, into the city center, and you come to a pizzeria that was bombed twice. The nearby Ben-Yehuda Street mall was bombed. When I draw an imaginary circle of a couple of miles around our neighborhood, it encompasses the sites of five bus bombings. None of these atrocities cancel the thousands of heartfelt encounters I’ve had with Muslim Arab neighbors, friends, and tradesmen. When I hear the phrase “radical Islam,” I remember to say “Good morning.”